Drawings for New Johnston from 1979 at the London Transport Museum’s design exhibition room. Note the lowercase g.

That London Tube typeface? Look again

I can’t believe it’s not Johnston!

Glenn Fleishman
Feb 28, 2018 · 6 min read

It’s a point of embarrassment to me that I only learned a few days ago one of the oddities to do with Johnston, the typeface used by Transport for London (TfL) since it was designed in 1916. TfL has had many names over the years — it was then known as “the Underground Group” — but the face has remained constant. It’s what you associate with the Tube, with London buses, and all the maps and signage and other transit tied together in Greater London.

Created by Edward Johnston under the direction of transit visionary Frank Pick, the type was intended to be crisp, legible, and unpretentious, and work in a large variety of circumstances. It’s typically paired with the “bullseye” or “roundel” — the red circle with a slim rectangle bisecting it horizontally.

I wrote a little about Johnston, sometimes called Johnston Sans or even Johnston’s Railway Type, in London Kerning. But it’s only after having spent a couple hours at the London Transport Museum weeks ago, which devotes a room to the typeface and design, and having researched and written the chapter for my book that I discovered the bizarre truth to the face.

Not all Johnston is Johnston.

Now, I’m not talking about Gill Sans. Eric Gill did work as an assistant to Johnston on the early development of the face, and Gill Sans was in some ways Gill’s perfection of ideas that weren’t expressed in Johnston Sans. The two faces are confused by people who don’t interact with type much.

Eric Gill’s early drawings of Gill Sans (St Bride Printing Library)

I’m talking about Granby. Never heard of it? Me neither! Until I was reading through Paul McNeil’s absolutely extraordinary book, The Visual History of Type. The book is huge. I don’t mean it’s got a lot of pages. I mean, it does run to over 600 pages. But it’s also big: It’s 11 7/8 by 9 7/8 inches and weighs 8.2 pounds. You could easily knock somebody’s font off with it.

The Visual History of Type

The book has two-page spreads for each of 320 typefaces, from one of Gutenberg’s first to nearly the very latest thing. Each spread reproduces a specimen sheet or pages from a significant book set in the typeface. Plus a roughly 300-word historical essay, that’s dense with facts but very readable. Plus annotation of every salient feature of the face. It’s unbelievable. (My full review of the book is forthcoming.)

A large number of the specimens were shot from the St Bride Printing Library’s collection. Library Manager Bob Richardson told me when I visited in late November 2017 that the publisher had to Photoshop his thumbs out of a number of pictures, as he was helping hold the pages down for the photographer!

But back to Granby. I’m reading the entry on Johnston, and it mentions, just in passing, that while Johnston the man designed Johnston the face, they turned to Stephenson Blake, a legendary typefounding company in England, to execute the type in 1916. However, Johnston was only cut in large sizes in wood and metal. Below 48 points, the Underground Group didn’t have a face to use alongside it for decades. You can see that even in a map I spotted at the London Transport Museum — it’s a combination of type and hand lettering. I think the Johnston was done by hand!

Which brings us to Granby, which was cut by — surprise — Stephenson Blake in 1930, which McNeil says was an attempt to cash in on the success of Gill Sans, Kabel, Futura, and other geometric sans serif faces. It’s unclear from the historical record why the Underground Group didn’t take action, but the utility may be a reason: most of the printed material for transit in text sizes, like maps, relied on Granby from the 1930s to the 1970s, when phototype became an option. (At some point around the 1970s, my fave designer, Berthold Wolpe, apparently worked on an italic version of Johnston, which was never released, and I can’t even find drawings of it.)

McNeil has contempt for the first digital rendition, New Johnston, that TfL had created in the 1980s. He cites P22’s Underground, a licensed version via the London Transport Museum released in 2007, as a much more authentic version. It was later expanded to add Underground Pro.

New Johnston fonts

Meanwhile, TfL commissioned Monotype to update Johnston for its internal purposes, and the font foundry created Johnston100 in 2016.

Also meanwhile, English type designer Jeremy Tankard created Wayfarer with inspiration from Granby. The city of Sheffield, where Stephenson Blake had its operations, commissioned Tankard to create this face for wayfinding — signage in the city. Tankard wrote up a very nice account of the design process. (I met Jeremy on my London trip, and he’s featured in London Kerning. And I used his typeface, Enigma, to set the book, as it reads very well at small sizes.)

Angles illustrated in the Wayfarer typeface by Jeremy Tankard

Stephenson Blake at some point turned to DeLittle, which was the preeminent wood-type maker, to produce additional Johnston in wood. The Stephenson Blake and DeLittle collections of punches, type, and patterns are all at the Type Archive, a remarkable institution that I cover in my book as well.

Finally, a commenter on a Flickr photo that shows a specimen of Granby points out something interesting that I can’t substantiate elsewhere. Because Stephenson Blake hadn’t cut Granby in very small sizes, the 6-point Granby is actually…Gill Sans.

Drawings of Johnston and a letterpress chase lock-up of Johnston. I’m pretty sure that’s Johnston. Definitely.

Update: In an email correspondence with Paul McNeil, he reminded me that Curwen Sans, given a spread in his book, is yet another member of this loose family. Harold Curwen studied lettering with Eric Gill and Edward Johnston, and drew an alphabet in 1912 that used geometric principles. It wasn’t cut in capitals and numerals until 1928, and was printed exclusively by the Curwen Press. And, yes, it was sometimes used for London Transport materials! K-Type just restored, refreshed, and released Curwen Sans, and published an essay about the face’s history last month! It’s been effectively unavailable until now.

Some examples of Curwen Sans

Glenn Fleishman writes about typography and satellites from his home in Seattle, which is increasingly filled with books on printing and typefaces.

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