2016 Marks the 100th year of Edward Johnston’s London underground typeface, one of the capital city’s strongest and most recognisable piece of branding. Its birthday will be celebrated at a number of events and exhibitions during the year.
It was 1913, when Frank Pick, the London Underground Railway’s commercial manager, first commissioned the design of new lettering for the rail network. The typeface first appeared in 1916 – having been delayed due to the outbreak of World War One – on signage that was painted by hand. The letterforms were adapted into wood-letter printing blocks in 1917 which made it easier and quicker to reproduce the typeface on signs across the growing network.
The typeface has been adapted only once during its long life: in 1979 when Eiichi Kono, a designer working at London agency Banks & Miles, re-designed and expanded it, creating New Johnston, which is used on all communications to this day.
Speaking about the font for an article in the March 2013 issue of Creative Review, Bruno Maag, a Swiss typ designer and founder of the type design company Dalton Maag commented that “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.”
“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.”
Johnston was living in Ditchling, East Sussex when he designed what would become the Johnson typeface. He and his family moved to the village in 1912 to join the community of artists set up by Eric Gill, a former pupil of Johnston’s. Gill was initially commissioned alongside Johnston to create the London Underground font, but in the same year began work on another project, leaving Johnson to complete most of the design on this own.