Work / Graphic Design

London Underground’s typeface: uncovering the designs that form “London’s handwriting”

Few pieces of design remain virtually unchanged for the best part of a century, but a certain typeface by Edward Johnston has achieved just that. Familiar to most Londoners, his Johnston Sans typeface has been used on the London Underground since 1916, and has only been moderated once, in 1979.

The typeface was commissioned in 1913 by Frank Pick, commercial manager for the London Underground Railway, who wanted a new font with “the bold simplicity of the authentic lettering of the finest periods and yet belonging unmistakably to the 20th Century,” says Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft, soon to display a show devoted to Johnston’s typeface. It’s a fitting site for such a show: Johnston created the letter system when living in the Sussex village working as a calligrapher.

When the First World War broke out, the rollout of the typeface was delayed. Though the designs were finished in 1916 and the wood-letter printing blocks created the following year, it was only in 1929 that Johnston’s type became visible across the capital. To this day, the forms are used as the foundations of all TfL signage and logo designs.

“The typeface has since become influential upon the visual identity of London as a whole and has been described as ‘London’s handwriting’,” says the museum. The exhibition will look at Johnston’s life and his role in the arts and crafts movement, and present two of Johnston’s original 1916 hand drawn designs of the alphabet from 1916 and proofs of the designs for the London Underground roundel.

Underground: 100 years of Edward Johnston’s Lettering for London runs from 12 March – 11 September 2016 at Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft


Edward Johnston: Bulls Eye


Edward Johnston at his desk


Edward Johnston: Design for an alphabet, 1916
Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Edward Johnston: Defacing Posters
Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London