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Edward Johnston, CBE (11 February 1872 – 26 November 1944) was a British craftsman who is regarded, with Rudolf Koch, as the father of modern calligraphy, in the particular form of the broad edged pen as a writing tool. He is most famous for designing the sans-serif Johnston typeface that was used throughout the London Underground system until it was re-designed in the 1980s. He also redesigned the famous Underground roundel symbol used throughout the transport system. After studying published copies of manuscripts by architect William Harrison Cowlishaw, and a handbook by Edward F. Strange, he was introduced to Cowlishaw in 1898 and then to William Lethaby, principal of the Central School of Arts and Crafts.

William Harrison Cowlishaw (1869–1957) was a British architect of the European Arts and Crafts school and a follower of William Morris. Lethaby advised him to study manuscripts at the British Museum, which encouraged Johnston to make his letters using a broad edged pen. Lethaby also engaged Johnston to teach lettering, and he started teaching at the Central School in Southampton Row, London, in September 1899. From 1901 he also taught a class at the Royal College of Art and many students were inspired by his teachings.

Hermann Zapf has said recently of Johnston,

Nobody had such a lasting effect on the revival of contemporary writing as Edward Johnston. He paved the way for all lettering artists of the twentieth century and ultimately they owe their success to him

Edward Johnston (1872-1944) by his teaching and practice almost single-handedly revived the art of formal penmanship which had lain moribund for four centuries. His major work Writing and Illuminating, and Lettering, first published in 1906 and in print continuously ever since, created a new interest in calligraphy and a new school of excellent scribes.

The life he breathed into this ancient craft and its continuing tradition even in today’s hi-tech world can be ascribed to his re-discovery of the influence of tools, materials and methods. His researches were carried out with the understanding of the artist-craftsman, the scientist and the philosopher and this three-fold approach resulted in a profound insight – he fully grasped the root of formal writing and saw how all the branches grew from that root.

Branding the London Underground

Frank Pick

As head of the London Underground in the 1910s and 1920s and of the newly merged London Transport in the 1930s, FRANK PICK (1878-1941) was instrumental in establishing the world’s most progressive public transport system and an exemplar of design management commissioning Johnston to design the branding of LU.

The epoch-making sans-serif alphabet he designed for the London Underground Railways changed the face of typography in the twentieth century.

We celebrated 150 years of the London Underground, but 2013 also marks the centennial of its iconic typeface, first commissioned in 1913. Edward Johnston, a British calligrapher and lettering artist, was asked to create a typeface with “bold simplicity” that was truly modern yet rooted in tradition. Johnston’s design, completed in 1916, combined classical Roman proportions with humanist warmth.

“Underground” — later known as “Johnston” — was circulated as a lettering guide for sign-painters and also made into wood and metal type for posters, signs, and other publicity materials used throughout London’s transport network.

Johnston himself only drew one weight of the typeface. He based its weight and proportions on seven diamond-shaped strokes of a pen stacked in a row. This gesture even shows up in the typeface itself, with the characteristic diamond used as the tittle of the “i” and “j”.

He felt so strongly about the weight of the design that when another student of his agreed to create an accompanying set of bold capitals, Johnston wouldn’t speak to him for decades afterward.

Change and loss

Johnston’s type became a distinctive feature of the Underground brand over the years, but by the late 70s it was less practical to use the old wood and metal fonts. Inevitably, the brand was getting watered down as other typefaces were chosen for different uses around the system. In 1979, London Transport asked design agency Banks & Miles to modernise “Johnston” and prepare it for the typesetting systems of the day, such as the Linotron 202.

According to the article in Creative Review


Whilst researching the Johnston feature in the current London Underground 150 special issue of CR magazine, we spoke to Richard Kegler at type foundry P22 about their 1997 digital revival of Johnston’s original Underground font designs, licensed in an exclusive agreement with the London Transport Museum…

“There are really two different P22 Underground font sets,” Kegler explained to us when we asked about the foundry’s relationship with Johnston’s eponymous typeface. “First there’s the original Johnston Underground set released in 1997 as a standard P22 packaged font set and sold via the museum gift shop market that we’ve cultivated since P22’s inception in 1994, and second, the newer P22 Underground Pro set which we released in 2007 as an expanded revision of the basic set.”

Eiichi Kono, a new designer at the agency, was asked to revise and revive the family (1979). Not only did he redraw the proportions for so called ‘better display’ and even out some of the inconsistent details of the original, but he also took on the challenge of adding two new weights and accompanying italics for the full set, attempting to give the family greater versatility.

Yet Johnston was never intended to be a family by its originator.

Some years later, this erroneous design was further mutilated by Monotype, with even greater support for different languages. Known now as “New Johnston”, the fonts are a sad departure from the original, and used exclusively by Transport for London today as its brand typeface.

On closer inspection some of the recent changes made to the original drafts by Kono and P22 have lost essential typographic characteristics which made the original so unique and pleasing to the eye.  It is the eccentric idiosynchronicity of the font that makes it work visually. By evening out these characteristics the magic is lost as is illustrated in the example of the lower case ‘g’. Virtually none of its original form has survived. What remains is a shoddy version with several glaring intersection errors.  Especially the bulky top oval lower right swing intersection.

The slightly heavier new weight has clogged the graceful flow of the original.  The agility of spacing between angled and curved characters has been replaced by the misguided attempt for more solidity and stability.

”When I look at the new version used by TFL today it saddens me because I don’t feel the designer Kono had a clue about what Johnston was doing with this font and how it was conceived.  It is a calligraphic sans serif requiring a great deal more design consideration than has been shown.

The glyphs are now made clumsy, aggressive and gawdy looking … especially the S which has always been Johnston’s masterpiece in my opinion. 

In the original form the lower tail curved directly into the line of the diagonal leg of the K, R and created a beautiful link across many ranges of spacings.  Now the S hooks too aggressively and fails to create that delicate yet open dynamic link.  A crucial loss to the font and it fails as a result.

Other characteristics such as the 3 forms of W have been lost which is again unforgivable. Every glyph has been stripped of it’s spring and beauty”

Nick Garrett of NGS Signwriting London.

Even more extraordinary was the chopping off of some corners as an attempt to emulate wear and tear found in wood and metal foundry block prints.

Kegler continues:

“For both the regular and bold digitizations, there was some thought about how to handle the real-life experience of a work-horse typeface that would, over time, show signs of wear via presswork and careless handling of the type,” explains Kegler of the attention to minute detail. “Some specimens showed perfect points on the corners while others were clearly dinged. These dings and dents give a certain character (as often is the case with old wood type) but can be conspicuous with digital repetition.

“An approach that used perfect clean shapes would be almost as conspicuous as a hard and sharp, ‘perfect’ digital face. The decision was made to make the corners softened by digitally ‘dinging’ the corners. The dings vary slightly to give a very subtle softening to the face. Other than that, the proportions and details were kept true to the source material.”

The font therefore suffered another layer of design interpretation that removed it from its original form.

By clipping off some corners and not others, P22 attempet a sterile digital distress, far removed from any worthy remedy for such a no brainer conundrum.

Judge for yourself if the result evokes ”real-life experience of a work-horse typeface that would, over time, show signs of wear”.  Plainly it does not.

A letter designed specifically for signwriting 

Other versions are commercially available to the rest of us, each taking a different approach to adapting Johnston’s design.

P22 Type Foundry released, officially licensed version of Johnston’s original in 1997, also offering a number of extra graphic elements such as ornaments and borders that draw on TfL’s rich visual history. P22 London Underground was later updated as P22 Underground Pro with many more weights and typographic features.

While P22 revived “Johnston” as a display typeface, designer Dave Farey was interested in refining the concept to work better for text in his 1999 design of “ITC Johnston“. His first iteration included three Roman weights that were redrawn and respaced with a freer hand, using the original as a starting point and a model.

“I’m a craftsman and not an innovator,” claims David Farey. “I need a vehicle to be able to express my interpretation of a typeface.” While no one would dispute Farey’s ability as a type designer, it’s true that some of his best and most successful typefaces are based on the work of others. Perhaps Farey’s reason for feeling this way is because he gained his training in typeface design much as a craftsperson would – as an apprentice to an accomplished artisan.

Born in the Streatham district of London in 1943, Farey took a job in his teens that was supposed to train him in sign writing (for which Johnston also intended a major part of the font use, during the heyday of the Underground overall design and build).

Farey’s mother worked as a cook in Soho pubs and restaurants. Her livelihood led the budding craftsman to try his hand at lettering pub signs and menus in 1960. Around that time, Letraset, the manufacturer of dry transfer lettering sheets, advertised for staff positions. Farey took a job at the company in 1961, although he continued sign writing and also painted house signs and numbers. The wood he painted on was “very rustic, sawn straight from the tree,”  Farey recalls. “I enjoyed treating the wood and varnishing as much as the lettering, nearly always in a crude blackletter.”

When adding italics later, Farey looked back to Edward’s Johnston legacy as an influential teacher of calligraphy and writing, and he devised a more cursive set of forms that drew on a very English tradition of lettering.

A Sign Revival Today

Today a number of signwriters are returning to the original Johnston font.

”I know fellow sign writers Mike Meyer from the States and  Peter Hardwicke are firm fans of Johnston and we at NGS signwriting are determined to use the original 1917 styling as much as possible.  It has all the hallmarks of not only this Scottish poetic genius, but of his adopted great London signwriting tradition: just as it was designed and intended in the first place”. Continues London sign writer Nick Garrett. ”There is no other sans serif font that exhibits such narrative beauty and classic calligraphic variation.  It’s intelligent too in many ways and whereas Gill fails to achieve such depth and richness and Helvetica can never go much further than pactical media graphics.  I am discouraging the use of Gill for ethical reasons apart from the fact that we can now see how Johnston penned what we have thought of as Gill Sans in his original Johnston drawings”.

So happy birthday to the Underground and its namesake typeface, in all its flavours.

Let’s hope the quest for its original beauty brings us back to its central theme as Edward Johnston himself would have approved.




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