Author of Just My Type, Simon Garfield reckons that you could land at a London airport and know you’re there, just because you can see Gill Sans everywhere.
Once typefaces defined a city, from the Art Nouveau of the Paris Metro to London’s Underground with its unique Johnston Sans with a diamond for the dot about a lower case i.
Now the ubiquitous
seems to predominate every school missive and
is the go-to face on signage.
A short trip around you can find there are a few bastions of individuality, but please note when describing a typeface I refer to it as, well, a typeface, not a font. A font is the weight be it bold, italic or regular of the typeface, so none of this quasi-American computer terminology thanks very much.
As individual as the Square Mile
The City of London, known as being fiercely independent of Greater London uses
on all its street signs.
After you have passed the heraldic griffins that watch over the border to the City of London, the typeface is different from the modern, clean sans-serif style of the other street signs — it is Albertus, designed by Berthold Wolpe in the 1930s and named after the German philosopher Albertus Magnus of the 13th century. It is reminiscent of the old black-letter script from hundreds of years before, the typeface was designed to imitate the style of engraved lettering, often featuring the same slight serifs, dating back to Roman times.
The typeface of choice for the Corporation of London, which is prevalent throughout much of the City; on plaques, road signs and buildings, not to mention its coat of arms has a rather superior quality, the stark and proud Albertus is excellently legible in capitals whilst still retaining enough identity to be recognised as an English regality, which is, of course, how the City of London views itself.
A typeface every Londoner recognises
To most a train that travels underground is known as the subway or metro, but to Londoners, it is referred to either the Underground or the Tube, which to me is a better descriptive word. One should note, however, that none of the four includes any mention of rails or trains.
Commissioned in 1913 by the current commercial manager of The Underground Group (now part of London Transport), Frank Pick, the eponymous typeface was designed by Edward Johnston and his student Eric Gill. Twenty years later, strongly influenced by the work he did with his teacher and mentor, Gill released Gill Sans, which was the typeface of choice in the 1950s.
Johnston was rolled out during the London Transport rebrand of the 1930s and many of the original enamel signs remain, such as the one below.
Many other signs now are displayed in a redesigned version made by Eiichi Kono in 1979 and at the time very young typographer of Japanese descent, fresh out of university. New Johnston was made with the intent of retaining the original look with an additional two fonts, bringing the total up to the modern-day minimum of eight, enabling the typeface’s use in print. Kono found a good way to signal his East Asian input on a much loved London landmark: when he came to present his work for the first time he displayed his various New Johnston fonts with just one word: Underglound.
The typeface of my youth
When I was an apprentice compositor in Clerkenwell, the typeface most requested was Clarendon. Originally also from Clerkenwell, Clarendon was first released in 1845, was designed by Robert Besley who would become the Lord Mayor of London two decades later.
Aside from its usage both above and below ground in London, Clarendon travelled across the Atlantic Ocean and appeared on the wanted posters iconic of the American Wild West, not that I have ever set one.
A lesser-known but more ironic usage is by the German Empire for declarations during the Great War, when they were essentially telling us Londoners to sod off using our bloody typeface. Mitigated, luckily, by how Nazi-Germany would some years later send out a document banning the use of the font Fraktur. Apparently, no one in the government noticed that the letterhead of that document was in the very same font they were banning. Sony uses it for their logo as does banking corporation Wells Fargo.
Right name, wrong face
It would be remiss to leave out the typeface given the name of our capital city. Looking more like Bodoni, it is available for free, I’ll leave you to decide whether it is worth anything more than free.