[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.