Travels with my Father (Johnston typeface, Edward Johnston)

Welcome back.

It’s my New Year’s resolution to get round to writing all the entries that I meant to when I started this blog, so this week I’m looking at the granddaddy of all the famous transport fonts, whose descendants are still going strong today: Johnston.

Johnston. Image By Blythwood (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Johnston. Image by Blythwood (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

When I was young, my father would take me on all sorts of transport related trips at the weekend. He was good like that; although working long into the weekday evenings he would always find time to do something with his children at the weekend (he was/is a doctor, and I don’t suppose there’s ever been a time when the UK’s National Health Service has functioned without its employees working well beyond their contracted hours).

Many of our early trips were to London. We would arrive at St Pancras (gloomy, dirty and staggeringly atmospheric in those days, rather than the polished and glittering spectacle it is now). He took me right round the London Underground’s Circle Line. He took me on the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow Airport, where we stood on the viewing gallery above one of the terminals and watched the queue of planes coming in to land, a string of landing lights stretching far into the distant sky. Before terrorists started crashing planes into buildings, you could do that. It was a kinder, slightly less grumpy, transport world back then.

But above all, I can vividly remember being impressed by, of all things, London Underground’s typeface. At that age, I didn’t know what it was, and I had no grasp of what typefaces actually were. I’d only just mastered reading, let alone worrying about what typeface I was doing that reading in. But I was amazed by the shape and style of the numbers on London Underground ticket machines like these:

By James Petts from London, England (London Underground ticket machines) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
London Underground ticket machines. Photo by James Petts from London, England (London Underground ticket machines) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

There was just something wonderful about them. I fell in love with them and what I later learned was Modernism at that moment. And when I saw one of these on one of our trips:

London Underground roundel at Turnpike Lane station. Photo by Julian Osley [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
London Underground roundel at Turnpike Lane station. Photo by Julian Osley [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

…I was hooked forever. I doodled the UNDERGROUND sign, complete with dashes above and below the letters, and then I started copying out bits of Modernist graphic work and building details like windows and sunburst clocks; mostly, to be honest, in or on school exercise books to the likely bemusement of my teachers.

And what had been the cause of all this? Edward Johnston’s eponymous transport typeface.

Johnston (the man, not the typeface) is the third person in the triumvirate that defined the look of London’s Underground – and, by extension, London itself – in the early 20th Century. Frank Pick was the chief executive who understood that his transport empire in London not only needed to work well, but needed to look good. Charles Holden was his favourite architect, who would go on to design many of London Transport’s classic Modernist buildings. Edward Johnston made sure that London Transport’s visual identity was consistent throughout, thanks to the clarity and immense style of his Johnston typeface. It appeared on the sides of vehicles, on way-finding signs at stations, and on the many posters which advertised Pick’s transport network, which eventually became London Transport in 1933, where Johnston was retained as the corporate typeface.

Johnston is extraordinarily attractive, a razor-sharp geometric wonder with all the hard drama and seductiveness of a diamond. It is authoritative and very easy to read, a world away from what was the most (in)famous transport typeface until the introduction of Johnston, Guimard’s sinuously befuddling typeface for the Metro in Paris. Johnston is a sans-serif font, without the little ticks at the end of letter strokes that make text written on a page flow, but which can distract the eye on signage. It draws on Caslon for inspiration (Ovenden, 2013: p122), but has quirks and a character all its own.

The middle strokes on a Johnston “W” used to cross over in a little ‘x’ shape in an idiosyncratic and rather charming manner, although that was dropped as the typeface was standardised. The lower case ‘l’ has a lovely curve at the bottom, but perhaps most famously, the dots on the lower case ‘i’ and ‘j’ are diamonds. Much of the typeface is based on perfect squares (‘M’ and ‘E’ for instance) or circles (‘O’ and ‘Q’). The counters (open spaces within the circles) of letters like ‘o’ are twice the width of the line which forms the letter.

Roundel at Aldwych station with crossed W. Photo by Clare Griffiths [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
Roundel at Aldwych station with crossed W. Photo by Clare Griffiths [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

As befits a masterpiece, Johnston took his time designing his new typeface. Initial discussions between Pick and Johnston on the new Underground typeface took place in 1913, but it was 1915 before Johnston completed his first set of letters. The rest came in 1916, at which point it was possible for the Underground’s printers to run up a set of proper wooden printing blocks of the new typeface, Johnston.

Johnston was a traditionalist, wont to use a quill when designing, and many regard him as the last of the great calligraphist-designers rather than a typeface designer in the modern sense. Johnston, on the other hand, has been described as the first great modern font. That’s how important it is, and it was brought to the world courtesy of public transport in general, and Pick’s forward-looking vision of it in particular. You’re welcome, world.

According to author Simon Garfield (2010: p124), one of the reasons that Johnston is so distinctive is that, as befits the product of a calligraphist, it steadfastly ignores many of the ‘rules’ of typeface design codified by Lucien Alphonese Legros and John Cameron Grant in 1916. For instance, ‘t’s are supposed to lean a little to the left to make them appear to the eye to be vertical, while dots on ‘i’s and ‘j’s are supposed to be a little to the left of the main lettershape below. Johnston does precisely neither of these things; which is why you are always well advised to ignore convention in the search for excellence.

Johnston is an absolutely key component of the streamlined, authoritative, and fabulously stylish London Underground posters of the inter-war era, and also of London Underground stations themselves. Once Johnston had delivered his typeface, Pick set him to work on the London Underground roundel, where he developed the definitive version. You’ll never forget one once you’ve seen an example. Johnston shortened the length of the bar across the circle and made the whole perfectly proportioned. He added key lines in black to enhance the red ring, and on station walls the blue bar was given a wooden frame.

Roundel at Kennington station. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BYNC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album
Johnston on a roundel at Kennington station. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

After the Underground was subsumed into London Transport in 1933, Johnston was retained as the corporate typeface, which saw it spread across even more of the capital’s transport, becoming the unofficial typeface of London itself, so ubiquitous was it. Variations of the typeface were designed for special uses; a condensed (narrow) version for bus destination blinds where space was limited, and a version with tiny serifs for use on signage at 55 Broadway. This ultra-refined version of Johnston was designed by Percy Delft Smith, and was also used, without any particular justification that anyone has yet put forward, on the Piccadilly Line’s 1932/33 northern extension (see it here).

Johnston is the grand-daddy of all the transport fonts. It showed the transport world the way forward in terms of clear, crisp, comprehensible typefaces for signage and display use, a job subsequently undertaken by Gill Sans, Rail Alphabet and Brunel. The links between Johnston and Gill Sans are strong. Eric Gill was a student of Johnston and freely admitted the influence of Johnston on his own eponymous typeface. You can see it in the square-based ‘M’s and circular ‘O’s, for instance. And it set the trend for the ubiquitous range of sans-serif typefaces across a wide range of public signage outside the transport industry.

Pick left London Transport in 1940 and although it was years before it became really obvious, the organisation’s design excellence declined from then on, reaching a nadir on the Victoria Line of 1968-71. Johnston was caught up in that decline. By the 1970s, many posters were using typefaces other than Johnston. The typeface had only a limited range of weights and styles, and wasn’t compatible with the phototypesetting machines then becoming common.

London Transport was faced with a choice: abandon Johnston altogether or rebuild it for the modern world. It chose the latter, and the job fell to Eiichi Kono of graphic design agency Banks and Miles. He took about a year and a half to take Johnston apart and put it back together with a much wider range of styles and weights, suitable for a wide variety of different jobs, from signage to small print. London Transport was to reassert its commitment to the new typeface which was to be used wherever and whenever possible, and not modified in any way. The new typeface was called, simply, New Johnston. It is this version of the typeface, rather than the original, which features diamond-shaped full-stops and commas to match the dots over the i and j.

But although I admire Kono’s work enormously, and there’s no doubt it saved Johnston, I’ve never truly warmed to New Johnston. I can get on board with the mixed case version, but when words are printed in all-upper case I find they look as though they’re frowning. It’s particularly noticeable on station names, where New Johnston also ushered in a simplified version of the roundel. They don’t seem to take up as much space within the blue bar, and they give off a slightly grumpy vibe. Maybe it’s just me.

By Mike Knell from Zürich, Switzerland (StockwellUploaded by Oxyman) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
New Johnston on an Underground roundel at Stockwell station. Photo by Mike Knell from Zürich, Switzerland (StockwellUploaded by Oxyman) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, the simplified roundel, while no doubt much more in tune with the graphic style of the second half of the 2oth Century, lacks the panache of its predecessor. It’s a simple blue bar on a red ring, looking flat without the key lines or framing that added such finesse to earlier examples. The presentation of “Underground” on roundels with larger first and last letters, and those in-between having dashes above and below, had faded away years earlier.

Nevertheless, New Johnston saved London Transport’s distinctive typeface and saw off its potential rivals. It was firmly established as the typeface to be used in all circumstances except when absolutely impossible, ensuring that London’s transport network has preserved its unique identity.

However, the close association between Johnston/New Johnston and London Underground and its successors, has meant that it has been deployed in a very limited manner beyond that. In contrast, Gill Sans, adopted by British Railways and strongly linked with it in the minds of font-watchers, was a commercially available typeface and so can be found lending its stark glamour to many other organisations and publications. Rail Alphabet, designed for British Rail in the 1960s, also spread far beyond its original niche, into airports and hospitals, both at home and abroad.

It wasn’t until 1997 that a version of Johnston was made available for use beyond London Transport, when London’s Transport Museum released the original Johnston typeface. Since then, Johnston has begun to spread outwards from London, although it often ends up used in transport environments.

Train operator Southeastern has used it for some of the bodyside lettering on its trains, though alongside a mixed bag of other typefaces, giving its trains a very disorganised appearance.

This is a very interesting use of New Johnston, because most trains on London Transport never had any First Class sections. You'll also see that Southeastern is managing to use four fonts in this one photo: New Johnston, plus different fonts for the train numbers, the station signage, and its own logo. Ghastly. By mattbuck (category) (Own work by mattbuck.) [CC BY-SA 2.0 or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
This “first class” lettering is an interesting use of New Johnston, because most trains on London Transport never had any First Class sections. You’ll also see that Southeastern is managing to use four fonts in this one photo: New Johnston, plus different fonts for the train numbers, the station signage, and its own logo (in shadow on the right). Ghastly. Photo by mattbuck (category) (Own work by mattbuck.) [CC BY-SA 2.0 or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I was very surprised a few weeks ago to see it on this side of a Stagecoach bus in Surrey, not least because it was advertising Stagecoach’s north-east England operation (I assume the bus was a recent transfer from there):

Johnston on the side of a Stagecoach bus in Surrey. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
Johnston on the side of a Stagecoach bus in Surrey. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Perhaps most gratifyingly, it’s broken out of the transport milieu and become the typeface of choice for BBC TV’s drama series Sherlock, which uses it to illustrate the thought processes of Sherlock Holmes, including infamously the scene in which he gets drunk on a stag night and his mental processes fail under the intoxication (“egg? chair? sitty thing? ?????”).

So there you are: Johnston, a vastly important transport typeface that has changed the world. But most importantly for me, it reminds me of days out with my Dad. And for that, I will be forever in its debt.

Bibliography and further reading

You could probably write a book about Johnston and its derivatives, and chart its impact on the world. You could certainly fill more words with it than there is space for here. Interested readers are strongly recommended to start with the following, which go into many of the topics skated over above, often in much more detail:

Garfield, S. (2010). Just My Type. London, Profile Books.

Ovenden, M. (2013). London Underground by Design. London, Penguin Books.

Bull, John, A Typeface for the Underground, 2009. Available from the peerless London Reconnections website at http://www.londonreconnections.com/2009/a-typeface-for-the-underground/ [accessed 22 December 2015]

Transport for London, Design Standards, 2015. Available at https://tfl.gov.uk/info-for/suppliers-and-contractors/design-standards?intcmp=5837 [accessed 31 December 2015]

London Transport Museum, Biography: Edward Johnston, 2010. Available at http://www.ltmcollection.org/museum/object/link.html?IXinv=&IXcollection=posters%20or%20artwork&_IXFIRST_=289 [accessed 31 December 2015]

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