London’s first fonts.

On 10th May, Sally and I (Lydia) attended a talk at the London Transport Museum all about London’s First Fonts, or more specifically, London Underground lettering before 1933. The talk was lead by Catherine Dixon and Phil Baines, who are both graphic designers, Central Saint Martin’s academics and, I’m sure they won’t mind me saying, big typography nerds. Although we felt pretty nerdy at times as well, catching ourselves laughing along with lettering puns, the talk was both fun and educational for everyone who attended.


10 things we learnt about London’s first fonts:


1. Johnston Sans is 100 this year.

If you’re a Londoner, you’ve got to know, and kind of love, Johnston Sans. Commissioned in 1913 by Frank Pick, the commercial manager for London Underground Railway, Edward Johnston spent three years drawing up a typeface that had to bring both clarity and consistency to the underground signage systems. Three years may sound like a long time but, hey, they did have a World War keeping them pretty busy too…

Initially named “Underground”, then “Johnston’s Railway Type” then, finally, “Johnston”, the typeface only had two weights, but a range of condensed versions were also produced for use on bus signs, which required more text in less space. Johnston did exactly what was asked of him, producing a font that had “the bold simplicity of the authentic lettering of the finest periods” whilst still belonging “unmistakably to the twentieth century”. We particularly love the diamonds used for the stop of the exclamation and question marks, and the tittle of the i and j, which were caused due to the angle at which he drew out the stops, using his traditional calligraphic techniques.


Source: Central Saint Martins

Johnston Sans Source: Central Saint Martins


2. There’s a new Johnston font coming out soon.

To mark the centenary year, a new typeface, Johnston 100, is to be released, possibly in June. We also know that there will possibly be a big celebration, in the form of a street party. Possibly. As you can tell, those at the London Transport Museum left us guessing.

This isn’t the first time that Johnston Sans has been redesigned; in 1979, due to the increasing demand for new uses and expanding technological advances, Eiichi Kono was asked to develop a new Johnston (until the redesign, TfL were having to use Gill Sans for times when Johnston Sans wouldn’t work). Although he was originally commissioned simply to convert the font for phototypesetting, he eventually wound up making more amendments. Speaking to Creative Review in 2013, Kono said:

“I designed the ‘new standard’ Medium, as well as lowercase bold, and italic and condensed, and increased the overall x-height by 6% throughout all the weights, for increased legibility. In those days, first decisions had to be right, as our tools were basic drafting tools and cameras, and the whole job took me about 18 months.”

Kono also introduced more diamond stops, making the full stop, colon and semi colon match the exclamation and question marks. It was rather exciting to have the man himself sitting with us in the audience at the talk.


Source: Wikipedia

Johnston Sans vs New Johnston Source: Wikipedia


3. People get really geeky about glyphs.

During the Q&A section, a man raised his hand and announced, in an authoritative voice, “Which version of the pound sign will the new Johnston typeface be adopting? The original or the 1979 version?”. There was a pause as Dixon and Baines looked at each other. The man then continued to say, “I ask because I work for the International Banknote Designers Association, and Edward Johnston’s pound sign is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.” This caused nods and grunts of agreement to fly across the room (thankfully, as we’d been worried for a second that a typeface scuffle was about to break out). An official from the Museum confirmed that everything regarding the Johnston 100 font was strictly under lock and key until the launch date, and not even the Museum themselves could answer. Before moving on, Baines asked Eiichi Kono about what the 1979 Johnston pound sign looked like, but he simply shrugged and said, “Can’t remember”. I think we know a man who we could’ve asked…


4. Ampersands are even more awesome than we thought.

The ampersand can be dated as far back as the 1st century, and has transitioned through many different shapes and form; even today we have multiple in common use. In some alphabets of the 19th century, you can even see the ampersand written in as the 27th character. I do love a good ampersand, but can now officially say I’ve found my favourite, which lives on the platform at Russell Square station. You can see this treble-clef style on the tiled sign at Gloucester Road as well. There are also wonderful examples at Holloway Road and Baker Street of ampersands that are formed using a ribbon-style stroke.



Clockwise from top left: Russell Square; Gloucester Road; Holloway Road; Baker Street Credit: Phil Baines & Catherine Dixon


But there’s one ampersand that has a particular air of mystery behind it; at Hammersmith station, there stands a lone ampersand in the middle of the ornate metalwork entrance and no expert can work out why it’s there. Answers on a postcard to the studio, please.



Credit: Phil Baines & Catherine Dixon


5. An introduction to “Just Gs” and falling over Rs.

As creatives, we love seeing designs that are experimental and push boundaries. But when it comes to lettering, there are some rules you have to follow. For example, each letter kind of has to look like the letter it’s supposed to be. The designers of the signage at Edgware Road obviously didn’t have a copy of the rulebook. Enter the “Only Just Gs”, the letters that, without knowing the word already, you might mistake for a C or a worn-away O. As for the Rs (as seen at Maida Vale)… some of them simply don’t have much of a leg to stand on.



Credit: Phil Baines & Catherine Dixon


6. Letter weight was once a matter of preference…

Although the lettering itself would have been designed by professionals, the end result was very much left in the hands of whoever was in charge of installing it on the building walls. This is probably the reason that so many discrepancies exist, the font’s weight being one area that was hugely affected. As Dixon and Baines explained, if the lettering was an early ceramic version, the letter’s outer edge would either be painted to match the colour of the type, or the background. This may be the case with the “Entrance” and “Exit” Signs at the now closed down Strand station, and also means that Maida Vale created an entirely new outlined version of Johnston Sans.



Credit: Phil Baines & Catherine Dixon


7. …And good spacing seemed to be optional.

Keep looking at the Strand station lettering. Do we appear to have an issue with width and spacing as well? As was also pointed out at the talk, if the installers had no issue with squeezing the word “Entrance” into to small a space, you’d have thought they would have taken the time to spell out “Railway” in full above it. There are also spacing issues in the signage at Arsenal station, once known as Gillespie Road. Although the designer has included lovely colons breaking up the words, the letter widths and gaps between have a mind of their own.


Credit: Phil Baines & Catherine Dixon

Credit: Phil Baines & Catherine Dixon


8. You can get a roundel wrong.

The underground roundel is arguably one of London’s most iconic pieces of graphic design. The first roundels were introduced in 1908 and were made with a solid red disc, and in 1912 a version was build with “UndergrounD” written instead of the station name. The disc became a ring in 1915 after Pick thought the original was too cumbersome. As you’ll see from Johnston’s original development sketches of 1917, he had strict instructions for the design of the roundels. These were, however, ignored by the person who made the one for Arsenal station (yes, them again). Can you stop the mistake? Look carefully at the images below, and the original diamonds on the ribbons above and below the letters (top left). See how they’re spaced to keep in line with the letter widths? Now look at Arsenal’s (top right). Yep, now you see it.


But then again, you can also get a roundel very, very right as well. Next time you’re near Maida Vale station, pop in and have a look at the mosaic roundel above the stairs. Beautiful.


Clockwise from top left: Trafalgar Square; Arsenal; Covent Garden; Maida Vale Credit: Shutterstock, Phil Baines & Catherine Dixon

Clockwise from top left: Trafalgar Square; Arsenal; Covent Garden; Maida Vale Credit: Shutterstock, Phil Baines & Catherine Dixon


9. We could have had a whole talk dedicated to arrows.

Or at least Catherine Dixon thinks so. It’s true, there is a wonderful array of arrows on the train and underground system. Here are a selection:


Credit: Phil Baines & Catherine Dixon

Credit: Phil Baines & Catherine Dixon


10. We have to be nice to train people…

… because they’re in charge of keeping these wonderful signs and names preserved. Usually as designers concerned with type, we are championing the consistent, effortless legibility but for the lettering of the pre-Johnston underground, we are prepared to make an exception. As Londoners, underground users, graphic designers or in fact, living and breathing people, it’s our responsibility to encourage transport companies to look after this lettering, and therefore, the city’s heritage too.