It’s a rare person who actively enjoys using the London Underground: the clichés you read about standing uncomfortably with your head nestled into a tall man’s sweaty armpit exist for a reason. But in its early days, Transport for London’s marketing billed the trains as a joyful thing, capable of transporting you to idyllic destinations like Richmond, or Morden (maybe not Morden).
The sumptuous 1920s poster designs are a testament to this utopian vision of TfL’s systems, and this sense of freedom, space and joy formed the crux of Monotype’s new designs for the organisation’s iconic Johnston typeface.
Named Johnston100, the face marks the centenary of the type design created by Edward Johnston in 1916. Monotype has worked with TfL over the years on a number of different projects, and was brought in to modify Johnston back in January. The brief was to make the face more relevant to today, creating new characters such as a hashtag and an updated ampersand. “As TfL’s presence expanded beyond physical locations/uses like train stations and uniforms to digital mediums like apps, signage and social media, the need for a modern spin on the classic typeface became apparent,” says Monotype.
This meant adding new weights in order to give “a more nuanced palette and wider versatility in the design,” says the foundry. Jon Hunter, head of design at TfL says: “We didn’t want a redesign, but we did know that certain things had changed. Some of the lower case letters, for example, had lost their uniqueness. As social media has become more important, hashtags and @ signs are important – Johnston never designed those because they were never needed. Mainly we wanted to make Johnston relevant and fit for today’s purpose.”
Johnston (the man) was first commissioned in 1913, briefed to create a face with “bold simplicity” that looked both modern but with a statesmanlike foundation in traditions. The result was a typeface that launched in 1916 with a humanist feel married with classical Roman proportions.
In its first few decades, Johnston was applied to its various touchpoints – signage, maps and the like – in traditional methods such as wood and metal pressing. By the 1970s, these were usurped by more modern production processes. “Inevitably, the brand was getting watered down as other typefaces were chosen for different uses around the system,” Monotype explains. “In 1979, London Transport asked design agency Banks & Miles to modernise Johnston and prepare it for the typesetting systems of the day.”
It’s that updated typeface, New Johnston, that we see today: the agency had redrawn the proportions of the characters, added two new weights and italics and in doing so created an enormously more versatile design. So with the move from New Johnston to its even newer protegé Johnston100, what can we expect?
“As well as things like creating new weights, a new ampersand and a hashtag, we felt this was a good opportunity to bring back the soul of the typeface,” says Nadine Chahine, director of type at Monotype. “We were looking at this amazing specimen book showing the signs Johnston created in his lifetime and saw things we wanted to bring back. We wanted to do some tweaking to bring back that original soul.”
Monotype designer Malou Verlomme adds: “The original brief was focusing on a few key characters, including the lower case ‘g’, so we started with those minor changes. We kept looking at the original drawings and the typeface we were working on, and noticed quite a few things we wanted to modify. So basically everything has changed, but very subtly. It’s now wider and on the whole has a more utilitarian, geometric feel.
“The original was a lot more relaxed, it was a typeface that felt very much of its time. We felt something had been lost over time, and we wanted to find that original charm.”
Johnston100 will be rolled out by TfL from July 2016, initially for printed materials, such as Tube maps and posters. Over time, the typeface will be used within TfL’s trains and station signage including for London’s new Crossrail Elizabeth line – scheduled to open in 2018. Monotype has also designed a limited-edition poster using the typeface to celebrate the Johnston centennial.