Tag Archives: London icons

The Right Type

Johnson Sans

[Y]ou probably haven’t heard his name before and after reading this will probably never again, but Edward Johnston has given us a symbol for London every bit as iconic as a red bus or my black taxi, and we hardly ever notice it.

A font designed nearly a century ago was adopted as the Underground’s corporate typeface and almost subliminally its usage has given an identity to London Transport and is now used for all of Transport for London’s media. With its distinctive sans-serif font for years known as ‘Underground’ it has capitals based on roman square capitals and a lower case said to be taken from 15th century Italian handwriting. A perfectly round ‘O’ the unusual use of a diamond dot above the ‘i’ and ‘j’ and with a capital M its diagonal stroke meeting at its centre, its design quite simply would change the way we read today.

By 1913 Johnston was a man already making a name for himself in the world of type. Then 35, Johnston had only really discovered his talent for (and love of) typography in his mid-twenties. By 1906, however, he had already been recognised as a man who had almost single-handedly revived and rediscovered the art of calligraphical type and lettering, and was the much-loved teacher of many of print’s future greats, his book, Writing & Illuminating & Lettering would be (and indeed still is, I should know, having once been a typesetter) one of the ‘must read’ texts for anyone in the typographical world.

His brief was that the typeface should have ‘the bold simplicity of the authentic lettering of the finest periods  it should also be easy to read from a moving train and in bad lighting, be noticeably up-to-date with the times, and yet also be completely different from anything found on other shops and signage’ and finally, Johnston was told that each letter should be ‘a strong and unmistakeable symbol.’ It took him three years (in fact all likelihood it probably didn’t – Johnston was notorious for leaving commissions until the very last minute), but in 1915 Johnston delivered a character-set that met every single one of those demands.

What Johnston created was, in effect, the very first modern ‘Sans-Serif’ typeface which are ‘fonts without the little kicks’. Open up a word processing program and print out this article (CabbieBlog is set in 9/11pt Arial if you’re interested), first in Times New Roman, then print it out in Arial (or Helvetica if you’re on a Mac) and look at the difference – you’ll see that the letters in the ‘Times’ version are slightly more ornate around the edges. This is because Times is a ‘Serif’ font and Arial is Sans-Serif. In the simplest, most generic terms, this is the difference between the two families.

Sans-Serif typefaces, therefore, are those ‘flourishless’ families like Verdana, Arial, Helvetica and the ubiquitous Comic Sans, faces that bless documents everywhere and virtually the entire internet. Sans-Serif faces are, in many ways, the living embodiment of text in the 20th Century and Johnston, with the typeface that he delivered, almost singlehandedly revived them as a valid and useful style. The typeface now renamed as Johnson Sans, has been subtly updated by Eiichi Kono in the late seventies.

The London Transport Roundel again designed by Johnston who took an existing design of the YMCA logo and turned the basic bulls-eye into the clear and strikingly handsome symbol we see today, and like his typeface was tweaked over many years by Johnston, a process which continues today even now.

The London Transport signs are made of vitreous enamel requiring a process of silk-screen printing and five separate firings in a furnace. Incredibly all are made by a third generation family A. J. Wells & Sons of Newport, Isle of Wight.

End of the line for K2

K2 As iconic as my black cab, the K2 telephone boxes have since 1936, been an intrinsic part of London’s urban landscape.

But who actually uses telephone boxes these days?

With almost universal mobile phone ownership their original function has been overtaken by a number of uses its designer couldn’t have imagined possible.

Their use as a rather well designed notice booth for call-girls is now falling by the wayside as they find more effective ways of advertising their services and using it as a public urinal has its limitations, not least that its cramped compartment renders the user in danger of watering their shoes.

[W]ith brilliant originality they named it K2 for Kiosk No. 2, it was of course preceded by K1 which was constructed in concrete. The design this time in cast iron, by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott had won a Post Office competition three years earlier, and started a whole series of similar looking telephone boxes.

Its distinctive domed roof and all-over red make it the prototype of the classic K6, which was introduced nearly ten years later. Ventilation was provided via the crown in the roof section – it was made up from small, round holes!

Legend has it that the dome was Scott’s homage to the 18th Century architect Sir John Soane, R.A. (1753-1837) whose family tomb is surmounted by a very similar feature. Unlike the tops of modern British phone booths, Scott’s Soanian dome is a proper roof, dealing effectively with rain and litter while also being aesthetically pleasing.

But what makes K2 special is that it was mostly restricted to the London area and considerably bigger than its successors.

In London, kiosks positioned by tourist locations have survived BTs desire to replace them with utility “shower cabinets” and stand as an iconic feature of the city, their purpose now would seem only to be as a photo opportunity for visitors.

Without ever suggesting their removal, could we not find some new use for these beautiful structures? For a start the London Tourist Board should come to an arrangement with BT to pay for their maintenance and cleaning, covered in grime they’re a disgrace.

Perhaps we could use them as one man internet cafes, or greenhouses with orchids.

I am indebted to wallyg at flickr for permission to use his photo of K2; his pages contain a wealth of images and background information about London.