A most distinctive corporate typeface

Commissioned 100 years ago, Edward Johnston’s eponymous classic has become the longest serving and best-loved corporate typeface of all time. Gavin Lucas investigates the secrets of its enduring appeal

Since first appearing in 1917 on posters and signage for the Underground Electric Railways Company of London (UERL), Edward Johnston’s specially commissioned Underground typeface been interpreted by numerous type designers and foundries over the years (see our timeline). In 1979 Eiichi Kono, working for London agency Banks & Miles, redesigned and expanded the typeface to make it more versatile across a wider range of uses beyond signage and posters, and the resulting type family, New Johnston, is still in use  – not just by London Underground but by Transport for London (TfL) across all of its communications.

In fact, Johnston’s typeface, regarded by many graphic and type designers as an all time classic, is now so entrenched in the graphical make-up of London, that it has come to represent the city itself. It’s no coincidence that it is the typeface used to create the logotypes for the Mayor of London, the London Assembly and also for the Greater London Authority. It was also chosen as the wayfinding typeface of choice for signage to and around the various event sites at last year’s London 2012 Olympic Games. No other typeface, it seems, represents London so distinctively and authoritatively.

But what are the qualities of Johnston’s early 20th century sans serif face that have seen it become one of the most successful and enduring corporate typefaces ever designed?

“To me it’s a typeface that I don’t look at in any great detail,” says type designer and consultant Paul Barnes of Commercial Type, “it just seems to exist and for me, that’s nice. We could pick holes in it if we wanted, but it seems almost silly to do so – it works very well in what it does.”

Bruno Maag of Dalton Maag describes Johnston as an instantly recognisable classic. “Whenever you look at it it is always the brand font for London, and even without the presence of the roundel, it represents unmistakably the London Underground,” he says. “There’s something distinctive about it and obviously it’s a very calligraphic font too. Johnston was a calligrapher [rather than a type cutter] and it shows.”

The typefaces’s distinctive diamond shaped ‘tittles’ (the dots above the lowercase ‘i’s and ‘j’s), for example, strongly suggest the broad-nibbed pen of a calligrapher at work and Maag goes on to suggest it’s these hand-drawn, humanist qualities that make Johnston’s face so enduring.

“If you look at Univers or Helvetica or any grotesque face, they’ve all got neutrality in mind,” says Maag. “Johnston, however, is anything but neutral – there’s a clear expression and therefore recognisability. This, of course, makes perfect sense because when Frank Pick commissioned the typeface he wanted to unify all of London Underground’s communication under one brand. It had to be recognisable as representing London Transport – and it still very much is.”

“There are loads of identifying characteristics and this is what makes it [so recognisably] ‘London’,” agrees type designer Jason Smith of Fontsmith, “and it’s these odd bits that I absolutely love, Johnston is positively oozing with quirks,” he says, naming the lowercase ‘a’ and the lowercase ‘i’ as the face’s two most distinctive letters.

“As a typeface, it’s a bit all over the place,” Smith continues. “Some of the proportions are a bit strange – the width of the lowercase ‘s’ for example, the ear of the ‘n’ or the design of the lowercase ‘a’.  All these oddities would be thought of as distracting inconsistencies by today’s myriad boring type designers.”

Maag also picks up on the typeface’s idiosyncracies which he describes as “undoubtedly charming but which are perhaps a bit outdated these days”. He too mentions the lowercase ‘a’. “The end of the terminal is sheared at an angle, he says, “yet if you look at the lower case ‘s’, it’s more of a grotesque than a humanist form, and so technically, they don’t quite hang together. Then if you compare the lowercase ‘s’ and the uppercase ‘S’, you can see again they’re very different. Johnston used Trajan proportions for the caps and then did something very different with the lowercase letterforms. It’s interesting to investigate these idiosyncracies because if you were designing a typeface today, you just wouldn’t do it, you’d make sure the caps harmonised with the lowercase letters.”

Monotype Imaging’s UK type director, Dan Rhatigan also finds things “not quite to his taste” in the font’s details. “I don’t love the ‘l’ or the ‘Q’, for example,” he tells us, “and the original number 1 was perhaps a problem but that has been remedied in updates to the typeface,” he continues.

Despite receiving many an interpretation over the years, hardly any of Johnston’s irregularities have been tweaked or polished away. In 1979 designer Eiichi Kono, was taken on by London agency Banks & Miles to work on a new version of the typeface.

As well as designing a new Medium weight, Kono created fonts for a lowercase bold, and italic and condensed, and he increased the overall x-height by 6% throughout all the weights, for increased legibility. His New Johnston also boasted new punctuation marks. Kono had drawn commas and apostrophes which picked up on Johnston’s original diamond shaped dots. So rather than smoothing out quirks, Kono actually added some of his own in the spirit of Johnston’s original approach. “Edward Johnston is renowned as the Master of Calligraphy,” Kono comments. “He had a deep understanding of the proportion of the roman capital and the making of cursive letterforms and this is clearly evident in the integrity of his typeface. I completely respected and worked with this, and naturally the distinctive ‘diamond dot’ was part of it.”

In 1997, under exclusive license from the London Transport Museum, foundry P22 created a version of the typeface in keeping with Johnston’s original designs, reinstating the original and unusual number ‘1’ and also ‘4’ both of which had been made “more conventional” in Kono’s New Johnston.

Of course there’s a drawback to being quite so recognisable and ubiquitously used by TfL. “If Johnston has a flaw,” Rhatigan suggests, “it may be that it has become so closely connected to the Underground system that it is hard for it to suggest much else.”

There are, however, ways and means to reduce Johnston’ cultural baggage. P22’s hugely comprehensive Underground Pro family (2007), for example, contains several alternate shapes for selected letterforms and also optional round tittles “to tone down the distinctive diamond shape dots should a designer care to do so,” explains P22’s founder and creative director Richard Kegler, who also tells us that P22’s Underground types are one of the better and more consistent sellers in the foundry’s catalogue.

“At its heart, the London Transport type is a humanist sans seen as an exemplar of the form,” says Kegler, not of his foundry’s versions of Johnston but of the typeface in all its guises. “It does seem funny though,” he adds, “that Edward Johnston, who was an adherent to the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement and its anti-industrial stance, essentially created one of the first and longest lasting corporate identity branding systems when he developed the London Underground types and standardisation of the roundel.”

Irony aside, it’s not just for its corporate success that designers love to love Johnston, but rather for what Rhatigan cites as its greatest asset: its charm. “I think Johnston’s real claim to greatness,” he suggests, “may be that it has stood the test of time without losing that charm.”

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