London Underground’s hundred-year-old typeface is iconic. Designed by Edward Johnston in 1915, it almost singlehandedly revived the sans-serif. Yet after a century of evolution some of the things that originally made it special have gradually disappeared. We look at the typeface’s history and at TfL’s ambitious attempt to rediscover its soul.
There are few typefaces that are instantly recognisable the world over. Fewer still that can be singularly associated with a place or organisation. Johnston – or “the London Underground font” as most people would perhaps describe it – is without doubt one of them.
“Johnston is not just our typeface,” Says Mike Ashworth, London Underground’s Design and Heritage Manager, “It is the very typeface of London. You will find no Londoner who does not recognise it, nor the simplicity and authority Johnston brings to this city.”
About almost any other typeface the above statement would seem full of hyperbole (or at least a good dash of PR), with Johnston however it is simply a statement of fact. With its integrity and usage preciously guarded first by London Underground and then by TfL for over a hundred years, a permanent fixture on London’s buses and stations. Yet behind this image of permanence lies a history of revolutionary design, evolution and a close brush with destruction. And now, on its hundredth birthday, the culmination of a huge project aimed at taking it right back to its original form (but in a way fitted to the modern age).
A typeface for the Underground
Johnston may be named after its designer (on whom more shortly) but it owes its existence to one of the London Underground’s great visionaries – Frank Pick.1 Born in Lincolnshire in 1878, Pick was serving as assistant to Sir George Gibb at the North Eastern Railway when Gibb was invited to take over as Managing Director of the Underground Electric Railways Company of London in 1906. Gibb invited Pick to join him there and thus began the career of the man who over time, in partnership with the equally influential Lord Ashfield, would transform the Underground and London Transport from a disjointed collection of companies and transport modes into a coherent, well-regarded whole.
1. Interestingly, Frank Pick only received one state honour in his life and it wasn’t a British one. He was given the Soviet Order of Lenin in recognition of London Underground’s help designing the Moscow metro.
His time in charge would see the creation not just of the Johnston typeface, but also of the vast majority of Underground iconography that TfL still use today – the roundel, the Harry Beck Tube Map, the high-art posters and more.
Pick’s interest in design wasn’t due to a particular talent for it himself, but simply because he had come to recognise that good design plays an intrinsic role in the way people (and in Pick’s particular case passengers) move through spaces and absorb information. This is something that even today many large organisations struggle to recognise. Indeed TfL’s recently released Design Idiom goes so far as to make it explicit in order to ensure future station designers acknowledge this principle. Rarer still is it something perfectly understood by senior management within those organisations. During Pick’s leadership of the Underground, however, this was certainly true.
Pick would not lead the entire organisation until 1928, but by 1912 he was already its Publicity Manager and it was then that Pick began his quest for a unified typeface to use throughout the entirety of the London Underground. Pick considered a number of options, such as designing his own typeface or using the same one Eric Gill had designed for W.H. Smith2, before eventually admitting defeat. In 1913 he commissioned Edward Johnston to do the job.
2. Pick rejected the W.H. Smith typeface because he felt it would confuse passengers. He likely didn’t realise that he was already indirectly looking at Edward Johnston’s work. Gill was one of his students and the W.H. Smith typeface was heavily influenced by Johnston’s work on calligraphy (note the lowercase ‘q’ as you’ll see it again later). Image courtesy of Mike Ashworth.
Thirty-three years old in 1913, Johnston was one of typography’s rising stars. He had spent many years mastering and reviving the art of calligraphy to the point where today, alongside German typographer Rudolf Koch, he is considered one of the founders of the modern art. He was teaching this, and designing letterforms, when Pick was introduced to him by Westminster Press owner Gerald Meynell (Westminster Press were one of London Underground’s print contractors at the time).
Pick briefed Johnston that he wanted a typeface with “the bold simplicity of the authentic lettering of the finest periods” and which was “a strong and unmistakable symbol.” In 1915 Johnston came back with something genuinely revolutionary – the block-letter, sans-serif typeface that we know today.
Looking back now, the importance of what Johnston had achieved is almost impossible to overstate. At the time block-letter sans-serifs were seen as the lowest form of lettering. Think of the way Comic Sans is considered today and apply that to the entire sans-serif genus and you will not be far from understanding the low regard in which they were held. Indeed as his letterforms took shape Johnston came under both public and private criticism for what many saw as both a betrayal of modern, well-designed lettering and his artistic background. To some, Johnston had ‘sold out.’
In Johnston I have lost confidence. Despite all he did for us…he has undone too much by forsaking his standard of the Roman alphabet, giving the world, without safeguard or explanation, his block letters which disfigure our modern life. His prestige has obscured their vulgarity and commercialism.
Johnston’s talent and laser-focused commitment to producing the best typeface he could, however, meant that the design of a sans-serif was, arguably for the first time, undertaken with the same level of skill and talent as was normally reserved for ‘better’ letterforms. With Johnston Sans (or rather “Underground Block Letter” as it was to Johnston himself) Edward Johnston singlehandedly invented the modern sans-serif and made it an acceptable (and well regarded) form of lettering again.
And, as we wrote in our more detailed look at the creation of the typeface, this started with a love of the lettering on Trajan’s Column in Rome (which gave the typeface its simple, rounded letters) and a chance encounter whilst out with Eric Gill:
Johnston would later admit to two influences on the design of his typeface. Walking home one evening with Eric Gill in the early 1900s, he found himself focusing on the various tradesmen’s wagons that featured simply drawn signage in sans-serif style. “Here, on their covers,” Johnston would later say, “in one small backwater of the lettering trade, tradition had preserved an otherwise extinct species; a really good block letter.”
Johnston took those principles and combined them with many of the lessons he had learned over the years from his studies of calligraphy (one of the reasons for the diamonds and triangles one sees in the final result, reminiscent of a pen nib). He delivered the first usable examples to Pick in 1915, who was delighted. The resulting typeface would be the undisputed typeface of London Underground for the next six decades.
That status, however, would not last. By the 1970s Johnston’s usage and supremacy was under serious threat.
A typeface on the brink
When Eiichi Kono walked into the offices of design and advertising agency Banks & Miles in July 1979, he had little idea of the task on which he was about to embark. A recent graduate of the London College of Printing, the young Japanese graduate had been, in part, inspired to leave Japan and study typography in London on a previous visit to the city when he had fallen in love with the design of its Underground stations – in particular the roundel and the typeface that was never far away from it.
The symbol was accompanied with a simple, elegant, slightly old-fashioned alphabet. At first, I thought it was Gill Sans; it wasn’t Futura, and definitely not my then favourite, Helvetica.
Kono’s typographic talent had not gone un-noticed during his studies by one of his course assessors, Colin Banks. The ‘Banks’ part of ‘Banks & Miles’, he had remembered Kono when a particularly challenging design job had landed on the agency’s doorstep which required a talented typographer. Miles offered Kono a job and Kono readily accepted, without even thinking to ask what it was he was being hired to do.
When he arrived at work for the first time that day Colin Miles told him: Kono had been hired to save Johnston Sans.
“That morning,” says Eiichi, “was a bit of a shock.”
That Johnston needed saving at all seems incredible today, but by the end of the seventies the typeface had begin to show its age. We have a habit of thinking of typefaces as static creations, but like (and indeed because of) languages, typefaces must evolve or die. They change because new characters appear – such as the Euro symbol – and old ones suddenly become important again. Indeed the latter is one of the big reasons that TfL commissioned Monotype to renew the typeface today – we now live in the era of hashtags, email and twitter handles, all things that have seen previously little-used characters brought back into play. Johnston never designed a hash symbol for his original typeface, nor did he design an at symbol, because neither were really in use at the time.3.
3. Indeed this was precisely why email pioneer Ray Tomlinson chose the at symbol for email in 1972 – he looked at his Model 33 Teletype keyboard and selected the character he felt was least used.
A similar problem faced London Underground in 1979. Increasingly on print materials and posters both London Underground and their advertising agencies were abandoning it in favour of the more flexible Helvetica or Univers Bold, because the truth was that at the time Johnston Sans wasn’t really a complete typeface at all.
It certainly hadn’t been in 1915 when Johnston had first delivered it to Frank Pick, because at that time it was missing some rather critical characters. The author Douglas Adams would later describe himself as someone who loved deadlines because he loved “the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” It is a sentiment with which Edward Johnston would almost certainly have agreed – perfection was what mattered, not speed. Indeed this is the reason that 2016, rather than 2015, is really considered as the typeface’s 100th birthday – as it was only in 1916 that Johnston finally delivered something rather crucial – lowercase letters.
What would emerge to be a more critical problem over time though was that neither Pick nor Johnston had ever really expected it to be as successful, and ultimately as prevalent, as it gradually became. Pick had asked Johnston to design something primarily for signage and Johnston had done that to perfection, but this meant that there had been no thought given to how to use it at much smaller point sizes or other print-specific problems. It was also only available on wooden printing blocks which wore down over time and with copying.
Both Johnston himself and others had made minor modifications to the typeface over time to try and mitigate these issues, but by 1979 there were just too many for London Underground to ignore. When a major branding exercise was kicked off in 1979 London Underground put the question on the table: should Johnston simply be abandoned entirely?
Many of the agencies they approached suggested it should be. Again, Helvetica was touted as an alternative, as was Univers Bold. One agency however bucked the trend: Banks & Miles argued that Johnston should be retained and refined.
It is perfectly reasonable for designers to want to change things and make their mark. But not changing something is a perfectly legitimate design decision. It can sometimes be better to retain the existing core and make modifications and perhaps improvements around the edges.
Banks & Miles made the case that Johnston was core to the entire Underground experience. It was in its history and its soul. To get rid of it would be to lose a little bit of what the network was. Luckily, for the future, their argument won out. Banks & Miles got the contract and Eiichi got the chance to redesign one of the world’s greatest typefaces.
Eiichi studied what documentation and ideas Johnston had left, and drew and traced letters by hand before filling them in with pen and altering them through photography and photocopy, creating new weights and experimenting to find sizes and standards that worked.
He soon found, to his sadness, that in some cases he had to adapt or ignore some of Johnston’s original rules in order to make the typeface work well. At lower point sizes the x-height (the height of a lowercase ‘x’) having to be changed, for example.
Nonetheless at the end of the process Eiichi Kono and Banks & Miles were able to deliver “New Johnston” – a typeface that, until now, was able to to meet the needs of London Underground and then TfL, which took on Johnston as its organisation-wide official typeface after its creation in 1998.
“It was a big thing to consider.” Ashworth explained to us previously of the decision-making within TfL at that time. “If it was to be the house style everywhere, then there were genuine fears we’d be asking too much of it. It worked well on the Underground, but if we started putting it on the License Notices of black cabs, would we have been taking away some of its power?”
In the end TfL took the plunge, and similarly decided to digitise New Johnston, building on work again carried out with Banks & Miles in 1992 to create the first PostScript Type 1 digital version of the font for use in desktop publishing and beyond.
A typeface in search of its soul
It was last year that TfL realised they had reached the point where Johnston was struggling once again. Partly this was due to the aforementioned lack of proper versions of things such as a hash symbol. That’s not to say they were absent completely – minor modifications over the years had given it basic versions of characters such as this and more, but it would have been hard to claim that they were truly in the spirit of Johnston’s original work. Similarly, just as one of the drivers of the Banks & Miles redesign had been the fact that the typeface was at that time still heavily reliant on wooden blocks, the digital print typeface that Banks & Miles had created was now struggling to adapt to the post-print world of websites, apps and retina screens.
Finally, there was also the growing feeling within key sections of the organisation that after 100 years of evolution, the typeface was at risk suffering from the ‘Triggers broom’ effect: After thousands of tiny tweaks and changes, just how much of Johnston’s original ideals could be said to remain?
There was certainly no escaping the fact that Johnston had changed. Even though that had been largely at the hands of careful craftsmen such as Eric Gill, Percy Delf-Smith and Eiichi Kono4, each step had taken the typeface a little bit further away from the source. To the general public this may not have been perceptible on a conscious level, but as Frank Pick himself had been critically aware, good design isn’t just about what the passenger sees, it’s about what they subconsciously absorb. This was something that Edward Johnston had sweated and laboured over, but not all of his successors had necessarily managed to keep. Take Johnston’s original design for the lowercase ‘g’, for example. This originally featured a subtle tear-drop shape, but at some point during its path to the current version of New Johnston this had been lost. Why? Who did it? What was the purpose? These were questions that were increasingly hard for the typeface’s most recent guardians to understand or answer.
The difference between today and the seventies, of course, is that TfL is now an organisation that isn’t just proud of its typeface as an object, but also one that is the midst of a sort of design renaissance. In part this was triggered by the Underground’s 150th birthday in 2013. In a year replete with celebrations of the network’s past, it was hard to miss that many of the things that people still saw as its best features were the product of the Pick era – its golden age of design pre-WW2. Although few Londoners would have been able to name him, to most people the Underground was still the house that Frank Pick built. Even where it wasn’t – as with the case of Leslie Green’s iconic red-fronted stations – it was the result of the same single-minded (and occasionally border-line fanatical) dedication to getting the design right, that the likes of Pick, Holden, Green and Johnston had brought to the table.5
5. Green’s own dedication to getting his stations right was so great that it would have fatal consequences. He died aged only 33 in 1908, his health shattered by the effort. You can read more about him here.
It was an acceptance of this problem that in part led to the development of TfL’s new Design Idiom, something it is beginning to implement and evolve across the network. Core to that Idiom naturally was the typeface – and an acknowledgement of its flaws. This time, however, there was simply no question as to whether those flaws should be addressed. It was not about asking ‘should we keep it?’, simply ‘who can help fix it?’
The answer to that question was Monotype. More specifically, Type Director Nadine Chahine, Senior Type Designer Malou Verlomme and their team.
As with Pick’s original brief to Johnston, TfL’s brief to Monotype was simple to say but deceptively difficult to achieve: Ignore New Johnston. See if it is possible to go back to Johnston’s original typeface and work from that. Take it as the base, fill in the gaps and add then add the extra weights now needed to use Johnston effectively online, on mobile and elsewhere.
For Chahine, Verlomme et al. that meant extensive time and research looking at Johnston’s original drawings and designs. It’s a process she has described as trying to go back to the original ‘soul’ of the typeface. That research left the Monotype team confident that it was indeed possible to work once again from original Johnston, just as Kono had done in 1979, and still have something that met all of TfL’s needs.
“The philosophy of the Johnston design is consistent throughout,” She explains, “the typeface was versatile enough that it could sustain all of these different fashions and usages that have come in the last 100 years.”
“It was very important to TfL that we add the extra thin weights, because of today’s digital trends. It’s a technical skill, and it’s also a testament to technology, in that it is able to render and print very delicate lines. We were able to capture the contemporary trend and the fashion of having something very light and very elegant, but because we are still using the original structures, we were able to maintain the soul of the typeface.”
The results of Monotype’s effort is the newly-christened Johnston100 seen in the images above. It adds two new weights (thin and extra thin) and has a number of other technical tweaks that set the typeface up properly for modern usage. Johnston100 features proportional figures rather than tabular ones, for example. This means that whereas the digits within it used to have fixed-width spacing (a perfectly appropriate thing for a typeface designed for displaying basic numerical lists and signage) they now behave the same as its letters.
Many of the other obvious changes over New Johnston, however, are actually not changes at all but a return of features lost over the years. Sometimes this loss was accidental or due to pressures at the time to simplify the typeface. In other cases it was the result of the explicit need to simplify it during the early days of digital printing and screen display. None of this is necessary now and thus with Johnston100 they are restored. The aforementioned tear-drop ‘g’, for example, is back as are a whole host of small flourishes. None of these were accidental. They were what Edward Johnston had used to prevented the original typeface from feeling cold and mechanical and thus overcome the public objections (and negative perceptions) associated with sans-serifs at the time.
Our brief to Monotype was to go back to the original principles of Johnston, to reflect on the way the font is now, and see what we might have lost in its 100-year-journey. We didn’t want to redesign it, but we did know that certain things, for various reasons, had changed.
Interestingly the biggest way in which the typeface had changed over the years, however, was in its width. The Monotype team discovered that, over the years, Johnston had gradually become narrower. The changes were always marginal and thus it wasn’t obvious from revision to revision. Comparing the current iteration of New Johnston with Edward Johnston’s original work though it was surprisingly clear that over the course of its hundred year history the difference was substantial. Johnston100 restores much of the original width, and the overlayed text below shows just how noticable the difference is.
Overlaying Johnston100 over New Johnston highlights the differences in character width. Notice the far wider ‘h’.
Finally, Monotype added the characters the typeface was missing, using Johnston’s original designs to try and ensure that this was done in a way that, to quote Chahine again, felt consistent with his intentions and the typeface’s ‘soul.’ New Johnston’s hash symbol, for example, is a simple sans-serif form that would look at home in Helvetica. Johnston100’s carries the slanted, pen-nib-reminiscent corners it is easy to suspect that Edward Johnston himself would have given it.
As TfL’s presence expands beyond in stations to digital mediums including apps and social media, the updated typeface known as Johnston100 contains subtle changes to make it fit for purpose in the 21st century. This includes never-before designed symbols, such as # and @, which are now widely used in an environment where digital communications are as important as print.
The importance of the work on this expanded character-set should not be ignored. It would be easy to sniff at the need for a decent hash or at-symbol for ‘the modern world,’ but it was not just those characters that needed adding. Edward Johnston likely never realised that one day his typeface would need to work in far more languages than English, and Frank Pick likely never asked. In multicultural London today, however, that is vital and Johnston100 adds more accented characters and the diacritics necessary to be able to do that.
(Type)facing the future
Ultimately, only time will tell how well Johnston100 will stand up to use. The important thing right now though is that the typeface’s story is set to continue. Edward Johnston’s genius birthed it, and got the typeface through to the seventies (with a little bit of first aid from the likes of Gill and Delf-Smith along the way). In 1979 Kono performed the life-saving procedure that has kept it stable until now. TfL will be hoping that Monotype’s full reconstructive surgery will now set up for the future.
That future officially begins in July when it will start to appear on posters and Tube maps. TfL have yet to reveal when and where the typeface will make its official debut on signage or station assets, but given its closer similarity to the original typeface than New Johnston (and the noticeable difference in widths visible above), the betting money here at LR Towers is on it being somewhere where sympathetic station improvement work is already being planned or underway. Holland Park would be a prime candidate under this thinking, where perhaps the opportunity to pair Johnston100 on the platforms with whatever assets there London Underground decide to preserve might be too tempting an opportunity for the organisation to miss. It also seems likely that Crossrail – or rather the Elizabeth Line – will be the first member of the TfL family able to boast its presence across the entirety of its length.
Wherever it makes its debut though one thing seems certain. The future of Johnston is secure. And, returning to how this article began, it is London’s typeface. Of that there can be no doubt. Through his genius and inspiration, Edward Johnston created a silent but reassuring voice through which a city has spoken to four generations of its citizens. Not just to get them to and from work, but also when they needed it most, in bad times and in good:- in the shelters in which they endured the Blitz and on the signage for the 2012 Olympics, to our knowledge the only two previous occasions on which its official use has been approved.
With Johnston100, that voice will be London’s for many more generations to come.
This article is set in New Johnston with the explicit permission of, and under license from, TfL. You can visit the Designology exhibition and find a range of Edward Johnston inspired products and gifts to celebrate 100 years of the Edward Johnston typeface at the London Transport Museum, as well as take part in Johnston Journeys at the Depot.