The Font of All Knowledge (Gill Sans and British Railways signage)

Can there be a more seductive font in the realm of public transport than Gill Sans? While the response of most people when asked to think about a font used in transport will be to mention “the Underground signs” (Johnston, and latterly New Johnston on London’s Underground and other transport modes), it is Gill Sans which has had far wider use by transport operators. It possesses a chilly haughtiness and inspires fascination and devotion. It is the ice maiden of transport fonts, beautiful but hard to work with. Despite the difficulties of using it, transport operators are compelled to return it again and again.

Gill Sans was invented by Eric Gill in 1926, and released commercially two years after that. Gill was a bit of an odd chap and some of his personal predilections aren’t suitable for a blog like this (so much so that there is occasional discussion of boycotting Gill Sans)¹…so let’s gloss over Gill himself and instead mention that the font’s first transport use was its adoption by the London & North Eastern Railway in 1929 as its official typeface for publicity and posters, later appearing on trains themselves. Then Gill Sans really spread its wings, because at nationalisation in 1948  it was adopted by the British Railways Board for its station signage, rolling stock lettering, timetables and publicity.

Gill Sans. By GearedBull at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-2.5, GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], from Wikimedia Commons
Gill Sans. By GearedBull at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-2.5, GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], from Wikimedia Commons
Its use on British Railways signage, particularly the famous station “totems” (or “hot dog sausage signs” as they are unkindly referred to by philistines) arguably remains its best ever deployment, the typeface and the sign design working perfectly together (though the version on the signs is apparently fractionally different than standard Gill Sans, but not so much that anyone but a font enthusiast would notice; I certainly can’t spot the difference). This perfect marriage of font and sign design is why there’s a massive market in expensive bespoke replica station totems, and virtually no market in replica 1965-and-later station signs. It’s also why there’s such a thriving auction business for the original totems and other station signage.

The British Railways station signs worked so well because Gill Sans is a very dictatorial font, ordering you about in a no-nonsense way. As such, the signs were perfectly suited to the post-war period in Britain, the last time that men in bowler hats were in charge of everything, before the 1960s came along and the whole structure of society was blown apart.  How reassuring it must have been for a train traveller of the 1950s to know that when arriving at Barnstaple, or looking for the Way Out, they could be in no doubt at all that they were indisputably at Barnstaple, or the Way Out would be precisely where indicated. And this was despite the fact (here comes one of the main reasons that I say Gill Sans is hard to work with) that the lower case ‘l’, upper case ‘I’ and numeral ‘1’ all looked identical. In fact it was probably because of it. The men in bowler hats expected you to bring a certain degree of intellectual application to the task at hand and certainly weren’t in the business of spoon-feeding you their instructions.

'Totem' sign at Barnstaple station by Dr Neil Clifton"  rel="cc:attributionURL dct:creator">Dr Neil Clifton and  licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
‘Totem’ sign at Barnstaple station, via here. © Copyright Dr Neil Clifton and
licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The station totems and other signage came in a variety of colours. The Great Western Region got brown (of course), the Midland Region got maroon (just like its pre-nationalisation locomotives), the North Eastern got orange (go figure – does anyone else know why?), Scotland got light (Caledonian) blue, the Southern Region retained its traditional dark green, but my personal favourite was the Eastern Region, which got dark blue, based again on a local traditional locomotive livery. A clean Eastern Region sign, glistening in the sun, was a mesmerising combination of white, take-no-prisoners, Gill Sans seriousness overlaid on the sultry ultramarine of shimmering Bristol blue glass.

And those arrows! They’re not strictly part of the font, designed instead by British Railways to accompany Gill Sans on the signs, but those arrows are just wonderful. Used on the wayfinding station signs, there’s no messing about with them. They mean what they say. I am an arrow, the design tells observers, that will do you serious damage if you dare disobey me. I’m sure that the modern directional arrows on station signage are clearer and easier to follow for a wider range of passengers, but they have nothing on the icy poise of the arrows on British Railways station signage. They even have flights! Go where I tell you, they say. Or else.

British Railways "Gentlemen" directional sign. Now in a private collection. Am I jealous? Just a bit...

The design guide for the signage and the arrows has been posted on flickr for those who want to revel in the full beauty and discover the ratios of the various elements of the arrow. I can recommend it.

The end came for the Gill Sans/British Railways signage combination in 1965 when BR’s new corporate identity (the one with the double arrow) was rolled out, with black “Rail Alphabet” font on white background for station signage. Rail Alphabet was subsequently also adopted by the National Health Service in England and Wales for use in hospitals, creating for many a quite discomfiting emotional response to the font when subsequently encountered on a railway journey.

But although it was supposed to have been swept away by Rail Alphabet, transport operators can’t keep away from Gill Sans. It calls to them like a siren. When British Rail was privatised in 1994, the infrastructure owner/operator Railtrack adopted the font as its corporate typeface. Press releases and Annual Reports (in the style of classic railway posters, perhaps an entry for another time) would be published in Gill Sans, and of course being in Gill Sans they appeared utterly authoritative, even if Railtrack’s legacy is now seen as being far from that. I can remember Railtrack press releases rattling off the fax machine at the transport magazine where I worked at the time, and always loving the font, even though it had been mangled in transmission down a phone line. Railfreight operator EWS used Gill Sans on its rolling stock, and passenger train operator East Coast used it on a specially branded “Flying Scotsman” train in 2011.

It won’t be long before some other transport company uses Gill Sans again. They just can’t help themselves. We all want to impress an ice maiden.


¹This entry, and the bit about Gill in particular, couldn’t have been written without “Just my Type” by Simon Garfield (published 2010 by Profile Books), an excellent book about fonts and their histories.

20 thoughts on “The Font of All Knowledge (Gill Sans and British Railways signage)

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment – it’s much appreciated. I’m no signage expert, nor architecture expert, nor literary critic, nor ergonomic expert, but as you can read in the ‘about this blog’ section, if I don’t do it for transport I don’t think anyone else will. So I’m always in interested in suggestions for future topics from people who actually do know what they’re talking about – are there any other really good transport signage schemes I could cover?

    1. Thank you! It really is one of the classic transport fonts that just seems to fit its role perfectly. It’s up there with the London Underground Johnston font (which it closely resembles), the Paris Metro fonts, and those heavily seriffed “Old West” style fonts on American steam engines of the late nineteenth century. Oh, and the 1950s/60s BOAC corporate identity.

  1. On the North Eastern Region’s colour scheme, I read that a contrasting colour was chosen between the blues of the Eastern and Scottish regions. Pink had been considered and discounted!

    The region had a distinct paint scheme of light blue and cream plus tangerine signs, and it does look rather special here:

  2. There is a mystery here. Gill Sans medium was used for cabside locomotive numbers. Hornby has just brought out a model of Stroudley Terrier 32636. This definitely looks wrong but the locomotive is shown in Observer’s book of railways with the numbers in the same typeface as the model, so at some point it was used as an alternative to the Gill Sans.

  3. Just read this and am a fan of Gill Sans, despite its shortcomings.

    As a correction I believe the Eastern Region dark blue was inherited from LNER practice, rather than honouring GER locomotive livery. The LNER also used dark blue for its road vehicle fleet.

    The LNER lozenge logo was a wonderful use of Gill Sans.

    I have a vague idea that NE region orange came from former NER practice but I’m not at all sure.

    Gill Sans was also, of course, used by other BTC operations.

    London Transport sometimes used it instead of Johnston, but not sure why.

    Was your reference to the “Great Western Region” deliberate or an error?

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