I wrote a short little thing for Wired UK about the history of the Johnston Underground typeface. I was worried that I could only barely scratch the surface in 500 or so words, but people seem to enjoy it anyway:
Last week we celebrated 150 years of the London Underground,
but 2013 also marks the centennial of its iconic typeface, first
commissioned in 1913. Edward
Johnston, a British calligrapher and lettering artist, was
asked to create a typeface with “bold simplicity” that was truly
modern yet rooted in tradition. Johnston’s design, completed in
1916, combined classical Roman proportions with humanist warmth.
This mix of qualities, driven by Johnston’s approach to the written
letterform, also influenced his student Eric Gill, who
assisted with the design of the Underground typeface and developed
some of its ideas in his own Gill Sans in the following decade.
“Underground” — later known as “Johnston” — was circulated as
a lettering guide for sign-painters and also made into wood and
metal type for posters, signs, and other publicity materials used
throughout London’s transport network.
Johnston himself only drew one weight of the typeface. He based
its weight and proportions on seven diamond-shaped strokes of a pen
stacked in a row. This gesture even shows up in the typeface
itself, with the characteristic diamond used as the tittle of the
“i” and “j”. He felt so strongly about the weight of the design
that when another student of his agreed to create an accompanying
set of bold capitals, Johnston wouldn’t speak to him for decades
Johnston’s type became a distinctive feature of the Underground
brand over the years, but by the late ’70s it was less practical to
use the old wood and metal fonts. Inevitably, the brand was getting
watered down as other typefaces were chosen for different uses
around the system. In 1979, London Transport asked design agency
Banks & Miles to modernise “Johnston” and prepare it for
the typesetting systems of the day, such as the Linotron 202.
Eiichi Kono, a new designer at the agency, was asked to revise
and revive the family. Not only did he redraw the proportions for
better display and even out some of the inconsistent details of the
original, but he also took on the challenge of adding two new
weights and accompanying italics for the full set, giving the
family much greater versatility. Some years later, this design was
further refined and expanded by Monotype, with even greater support
for different languages. Known now as “New Johnston”, the fonts are
used exclusively by Transport for London today as its brand
Other versions are commercially available to the rest of us,
each taking a different approach to adapting Johnston’s design.
P22 Type Foundry released its
faithful, officially licensed version of Johnston’s original in
1997, also offering a number of lively graphic
elements such as ornaments and borders that draw on TfL’s rich
visual history. P22 London Underground was later updated as P22
Underground Pro with many more weights and typographic
While P22 revived “Johnston” as a display typeface, designer Dave Farey was
interested in refining the concept to work better for text in his
1999 design of “ITC
Johnston”. His first iteration included three Roman weights
that were redrawn and respaced with a freer hand, using the
original as a starting point and a model. When adding italics
later, Farey looked back to Edward Johnston’s legacy as an
influential teacher of calligraphy and writing, and he devised a
more cursive set of forms that drew on a very English tradition of
So happy birthday to the Underground and its namesake typeface,
in all its flavours.
2 thoughts on “The iconic London Underground typeface turns 100”
Who’s the Johnston-student who created the accompanying set of bold capitals that Johnston wouldn’t speak to for decades? And where can I see pictures of those caps?
Dave Farey lent me a beautiful book that reprints the wood type at full size. I’ll photograph those caps for you. And I’ll have to ask him to remind me of that other guy’s name. I loved that anecdote.
Comments are closed.