Tuesday, 12 March 2013



Exactly 150 years ago the intricate and iconic British underground system was established which was accompanied by the birth of an almost equally iconic typeface known as ‘Johnston’. 

Bull, J. A Typeface for the Underground

Commissioned in 1913, the British calligrapher and lettering artist Edward Johnston, was asked to create a typeface with "bold simplicity" that was truly modern yet rooted in tradition (Clark, L). The elegant and bold solution was completed in 1916, and was deemed a combination of classical Roman proportions with Humanist warmth- qualities that are known to be the source of inspiration for Eric Gill, when designing the infamous Gill Sans typeface family (Lucas, G)

Bull, J.

Johnston himself only drew one weight when designing the typeface. He based its weight and proportions on seven diamond-shaped strokes of a pen stacked in a row (Clark, L.). This was subtly imposed in the typeface itself, with the diamond used as the tittle of the "i" and "j".
Lucas, G.


As it was becoming less and less practical to use the old wood and metal type, the typeface was revised upon the commission of the design agency banks and miles in 1979, to prepare for the typesetting systems of the day. The result was a reinterpretation of the proportions as well as the creation of a family with two new weights and italics known as ‘New Johnston’ and still used by the transport system as official branding to this day. 


What makes the analysis of this typeface so interesting was its birth as a fully commissioned project with a seemingly singular purpose. The job was requested by the commercial manager of the Underground Group to fortify the company’s corporate identity and as such, had various parameters and objectives that normal typeface design did not necessarily have to comply with. One of the main objectives was that the use of the typeface was to prevent the official railway signage from being mistaken as general advertising (Ashworth, M). This meant that the typeface had the purpose of balancing it’s role as a corporate identity tool, yet make a statement about the modernist vision London held of itself at the time, while carrying "the bold simplicity of the authentic lettering of the finest periods".

In many ways the typeface achieved this. It’s heavy stroke weight and wide, symmetrical counters meant that the typeface was crisp and rounded from a distance. True to the humanist style, it was distinctly rounder than many other typefaces of the gothic style (Bull, J). This recall to roman ideals was an indication of the modernist direction that London began to identify with. It is consistently proportioned with straight stems had a certain sharpness around the angular corners and in particular, the uppercase which stark combination of a stout overall appearance, yet individually, incredibly geometric. 

The continual use of this typeface for its original purpose indicates its success in relation to its intention. What as asked from Edward Johnston was a typeface to identify the British underground system, yet the longevity of it’s relevance can be attributed to his ideals in drawing from the best qualities of various typeface periods- in true modernist tradition. Its unique and iconic identity is a case of one of the most successful typeface commissions and branding identities of the 21st century. 

Ashworth, M

Reference list:

1.     Clark, L. The iconic London Underground typeface turns 100 , http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2013-01/16/london-underground-typeface <accessed 10 March 2013>
2.     Burgoyne, P. London 2012: the look of the Games, http://www.creativereview.co.uk/cr-blog/2012/july/london-2012-the-look-of-the-games, <accessed 10 March 2013>
3.     Lucas, G. P22's Johnston Underground fonts http://www.creativereview.co.uk/cr-blog/2013/march/p22s-johnston-underground-fonts <accessed 11 March 2013>
4.     Ashworth, M. The history of the Johnston typeface http://www.signdesignsociety.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=199%3Atransforming-exhibition-road&Itemid=9 <accessed 11 March 2013>
5.     Bull, J. A Typeface for the Underground, http://www.londonreconnections.com/2009/a-typeface-for-the-underground/ <accessed 11 March 2013>

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