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Work / Graphic Design

Edward Johnston: a case of unknown identity

Ahead of the centenary of the typeface Johnston sans, Paul Felton has redesigned Edward Johnston’s book Writing & Illuminating & Lettering which is published by D and B books. Here, we reproduce Paul’s foreword to the book that examines the influence of Johnston on London and the world of design.

Walk the streets of London, mention the name Edward Johnston and very few people will know who you mean. Yet these same Londoners not only see his work on a daily basis, but depend on it to navigate their way around the city.

Surprisingly, the same is true in the design industry. When telling my peers I was working on this book, conversations went a little like this: ‘I’m working on a new edition of Edward Johnston’s book: Writing & Illuminating & Lettering.’ A blank face would stare back at me. ‘You know… the guy who designed the London Underground typeface,’ I would say. ‘Ah yes!’

But curiously enough, if you were to ask these same designers to produce a list of this country’s most iconic pieces of design, I guarantee Johnston’s work would grace the majority of them.

So why doesn’t Edward Johnston’s name garner the same recognition as his contemporaries, such as Eric Gill and William Morris? Maybe it’s down to his quiet, reserved character. Or perhaps his lack of commercial work. Who knows, but whatever the reason, one thing is for sure: his name deserves to be held in equal regard as these other greats of design.

I must admit a certain level of naivety myself about Johnston before beginning this project. I’d heard of him of course, knew he was the name behind Johnston Sans and that he’d designed the iconic London Underground roundel as we know it today. However, it came as a surprise to learn that he was primarily a calligrapher by trade, and one who played a pivotal role in its revival. I was surprised the same person who created such incredibly ornate pieces also designed the clean, modern typeface we’re so used to seeing on our daily commute.

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Edward Johnston and Paul Felton: Writing & Illuminating & Lettering

Although these two areas of Johnston’s expertise initially seem poles apart, the parallels become clearer the more you learn about his techniques and the man himself. The origins of the unique diamond tittles I’ve always loved so much on Johnston Sans begin to make sense when you study his guidance on how to hold and angle a pen, producing oblique thick and thin strokes and those diamond tittles.

As a man who typically avoided commercial commissions, he was prone to procrastination, grumbled about client amendments and didn’t always finish the work he started. So why did he accept one of the biggest commercial typographic briefs the country had ever seen? It’s when you learn of Johnston’s trip to America in 1898 that the reason becomes apparent. Fascinated with America’s cutting edge electric transportation, the opportunity to add his stamp to London’s own transport revolution was a brief too good to refuse.

In 1913, the Commercial Director of the London Underground (or Underground Electric Railways Company of London as it was then known) Frank Pick wanted to redesign the company’s posters and signage to make them more distinctive and stop them being mistaken for adverts. Johnston was asked to create a typeface with ‘the bold simplicity of the authentic lettering of the finest periods’; modern yet rooted in tradition. Three years later in 1916 the Underground type was completed and circulated as a lettering guide for sign-painters and also made into wood and metal type for posters, signs, and other publicity materials across London’s transport network. The first outing for the new typeface was a series of posters advertising the extension of the Bakerloo line to Watford.

2016 sees the typeface mark its 100th birthday. It still stands proud all over the London Underground network, as well as on buses, boats, taxis, trams and cable cars across the city — and is arguably one of the most recognisable typefaces on the planet.

Designing something that’s still held in such high regard 100 years later is an incredible feat in itself. What makes this achievement more remarkable is that before the influences of Helvetica, Futura and Univers that we’re so accustomed to today, Edward Johnston penned his typeface in a time when sans-serif was still very much the new kid on the printer’s block. Although sans-serif, or ‘grotesque’ typefaces had been around for almost 100 years at the time, they only really became popular in the early 19th century. The clarity and legibility that the modern sans-serif fonts offered was precisely what Pick was looking to harness in his signage.

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Edward Johnston and Paul Felton: Writing & Illuminating & Lettering

The influence of Johnston’s typeface was substantial. One of his students at the Central School, Eric Gill, took inspiration from it to create the now equally recognisable Gill Sans. While Johnston Sans was unavailable for commercial purpose, Gill’s face was released by Monotype in 1928 and has been hugely successful ever since.

The two typefaces are an integral part of other British design classics: Penguin’s iconic covers use Gill and the lettering on the hugely popular ‘Keep Calm and Carry on Posters’ by the UK Ministry of Information undoubtedly has its roots in these typeface stalwarts.

Johnston Sans and the roundel still form the cornerstone of TFL’s brand identity. They’ve both undergone some tweaks and additions — most notably Eiichi Kono’s revised version of the typeface. Certain proportions were redrawn, some of the inconsistencies were ironed out and two new weights with accompanying italics were added, giving the family a greater versatility. Yet the design remains incredibly true to Johnston’s original, making it one of the world’s longest-lasting examples of corporate branding — one that is now synonymous with London’s identity.

The notion of a city having its own visual identity was unheard of in 1916: indeed, the idea of brands and company trademarks had only just taken off in general. But today branding cities is a big business, with governments around the world investing large sums in creating distinctive identities for their major cities — Melbourne, Amsterdam and New York are among some of the success stories. Good or bad, they always divide opinion and spark debate — it’s become one of the toughest design briefs out there.

Even London’s identity hasn’t been without discussion and competition over the years. In 2009 a tender was launched by the Greater London Authority (GLA) to clean up the plethora of logos and identities all jostling for position under the London umbrella. The GLA wanted to create a unified brand for the capital and the brief was entered by have-a-go designers and top branding agencies alike. At the time it caused quite a storm and even made the national press — but whatever happened in the end is a mystery.

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Edward Johnston and Paul Felton: Writing & Illuminating & Lettering

While ideas like ‘Cool Britannia’, ‘Totally LondON’ and ‘London Unlimited’ have come and gone, two things have remained the same: the now inherently London Johnston Sans and roundel. Our capital’s identity may not come packaged in a fancy book or have comprehensive guidelines for use — it may not even be recognised officially as London’s brand — but Johnston’s designs form an identity stronger than anything that’s come before or since.

Taking heed of the success of Johnston Sans, modern brands can’t help but learn lessons from the design — many now investing in their own bespoke brand typefaces. Love it or loathe it, the distinctive typeface created for the London Olympics was instantly recognisable — a trait the designers can attribute to Johnston’s revolutionary work.

Like Edward Johnston and like London, calligraphy has suffered from identity issues itself in recent years. Modernism became the driving force in the design of the noughties, with bold simplicity favoured over the intricate, ornate appearance of calligraphy and as the digital era undoubtedly began to shape the output of design, traditional crafts began to fade from the screens of iMacs.

But recent years have seen a return to sketchpads, with the pen once again the tool of edgy designers daring to push the boundaries. We’ve seen a rebellion against the clean perfection of computer-rendered, vector curves as brands seek out the imperfection of the letterpress, engraving — and calligraphy. Just as Johnston did over a century ago, a new breed of pioneers like Seb Lester, Alison Carmichael and Peter Horridge have breathed new life into the craft. Seb has over 800,000 followers on Instagram who watch clips of him plying his trade with all manners of weird and wonderful pens. It’s safe to say calligraphy and hand lettering is firmly back in fashion.

I hope that as the centenary of Johnston Sans comes round the name Edward Johnston gains the recognition it deserves — not just for his timeless work for the London Underground, but as an innovator in the field of calligraphy, and as a visionary tutor who continues to inspire us today.

With this re-edition of Writing & Illuminating & Lettering — much like Eiichi Kono’s refinement to Johnston Sans in the 1980’s — we hope to iron out some of the imperfections of the original, that were enforced by the production methods of the time, and create a vibrant re-edition to inspire a new generation of scribes.

All text © Paul Felton

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Edward Johnston and Paul Felton: Writing & Illuminating & Lettering

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Edward Johnston and Paul Felton: Writing & Illuminating & Lettering