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!

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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

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Glenn Fleishman

Technology journalist, editor, letterpress printer, and two-time Jeopardy! champion. I seem to know everyone #glenning