A brief history of London Underground's iconic Johnston font

The font in action at Knightsbridge. Image: Getty.

It’s been 100 years since the London Underground’s distinctive typeface made its first appearance. Alongside the unmistakable roundel, Johnston has helped to create some of the most recognisable signage in the world: a design which screams “London!”, no matter which language you speak. It has guided Londoners and visitors alike through the city’s complex and changing transport system for a century: it’s hard to imagine where we’d all be without it.

On the centenary of London’s most famous lettering, now is a good moment to reflect on how Johnston has shaped the city, and why words – and the way they’re written – form such an essential part of urban infrastructure.

The development of modern cities and transport systems called for new tools to help people negotiate urban life: new technologies for finding our way, new systems for naming, new rules to preserve order and avoid accidents – and, of course, new visual forms to communicate all of these things. Every city has tackled these tasks in a slightly different way, and London made progress thanks to the efforts of many different people.

For instance, in 1854, physician John Snow mapped the cholera epidemic in London. Not only did he manage to locate the source of the outbreak (a water pump in Soho), his designs also helped those in power to understand the needs of the people. His maps were consulted during the development of crucial sanitary and plumbing works, which transformed London into a 20th-century city.

Later, during the 1930s, Phyllis Pearsall also helped to forge the path, by creating an alphabetical index of London. Pearsall’s Geographer’s A-Z Map became a milestone of design and transformed the way place can be understood, by recasting the city’s then 23,000 streets into an easily navigable list.

Designing London

Johnston, by Johnston. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

While the likes of Pearsall and Snow responded to the city’s surface, others turned their attention underground. In 1908, three events transformed London’s nascent underground railway: both the roundel symbol and the word “Underground” appeared for the first time in stations, and the network’s first machine-made tickets were issued.

These innovations were part of managing director Albert Stanley and then-publicity officer Frank Pick’s plan to rescue the ailing Underground Electric Railway Company of London. From this, a brand was born, and calligrapher Edward Johnston was commissioned to create a typeface as visually striking as the roundel mark. In 1916, it was rolled out right across the city.

Trajan column: an inspiration. Image: UR Alumni Travel & Learn/Flickr/creative commons.

For Johnston, the alphabet’s most important letter was “O”. Along with the “I”, its purity and character drives the form of all others. For inspiration, he turned to one of the Roman alphabet’s most critical touchstones: the Trajan column. Located in Rome and constructed in around 117AD, the column celebrates Emperor Trajan’s military victory in the Dacian wars with an inscription of six lines of letters.


It was the unadorned, uncorrupted form of the column’s square capitals that defined the character of Johnston’s typeface, which strove to represent a humanist essence among the chaotic visual landscape which was emerging above and below ground in London in the 1930s. Advertising and branding were colonising the everyday visual space, and competing for the attention of passengers and pedestrians through a veritable typographic storm.

But Johnston had a more radical intention: to create a typeface that was understated, quotidian, ordinary – a part of the consistent background, rather than a changing foreground. It’s this quality which perhaps explains the design’s longevity; the way it has become a feature of the city’s landscape, seeped into its infrastructures of government and, of course, transport.

Changing face

The typeface’s 1979 redesign by Colin Banks and John Miles placed Johnston at the centre of a strategic rebranding for London Transport. They reined in some of Johnston’s typographic idiosyncrasies, by reducing the ratio between a stroke’s height and thickness, and breaking the rule that the stroke of a letter must be a constant width.

These interventions helped to shape the typeface that so powerfully embodies the character of the city; steeped in history and tradition, while striving towards an ideal of modernity; resolute and resourceful, unique and efficient.

From old to new. Image: Futureshape/Flickr/creative commons.

In the 21st century, we’ve seen Johnston’s lettering extend beyond the functional and into the political, after it was adopted by London’s mayor and assembly. Now, 40 years after Banks and Miles' redesign, global type agency Monotype have retooled Johnston for new platforms, trends and media. Notably, they have introduced thinner weights for digital use and, for the first time, the hash (#) and at (@) signs.

Like London, the typeface is subject to the push-and-pull of its own sense of self and history: one feature of Monotype’s Johnston100 redesign was the return of those quirks and idiosyncrasies that fell by the wayside in previous reworkings. The versatility of Johnston’s remarkable letters show how such superficially simple characters can powerfully influence the way people experience the city. It is the “voice” which helps people to get around – a comforting familiar presence amid the chaos of the morning commute.The Conversation

Paul Wilson is a lecturer in communication design at the University of Leeds.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

There isn’t a war on the motorist. We should start one

These bloody people. Image: Getty.

When should you use the horn on a car? It’s not, and anyone who has been on a road in the UK in living memory will be surprised to hear this, when you are inconvenienced by traffic flow. Nor is it when you are annoyed that you have been very slightly inconvenienced by another driver refusing to break the law in a manner that is objectively dangerous, but which you perceive to be to your advantage.

According to the Highway Code:

“A horn should only be used when warning someone of any danger due to another vehicle or any other kind of danger.”

Let’s be frank: neither you nor I nor anyone we have ever met has ever heard a horn used in such a manner. Even those of us who live in or near places where horns perpetually ring out due to the entitled sociopathy of most drivers. Especially those of us who live in or near such places.

Several roads I frequently find myself pushing a pram up and down in north London are two way traffic, but allow parking on both sides. This being London that means that, in practice, they’re single track road which cars can enter from both ends.

And this being London that means, in practice, that on multiple occasions every day, men – it is literally always men – glower at each other from behind the steering wheels of needlessly big cars, banging their horns in fury that circumstances have, usually through the fault of neither of them, meant they are facing each other on a de facto single track road and now one of them is going to have to reverse for a metre or so.

This, of course, is an unacceptable surrender as far as the drivers’ ego is concerned, and a stalemate seemingly as protracted as the cold war and certainly nosier usually emerges. Occasionally someone will climb out of their beloved vehicle and shout and their opponent in person, which at least has the advantages of being quieter.

I mentioned all this to a friend recently, who suggested that maybe use of car horns should be formally restricted in certain circumstances.

Ha ha ha. Hah.

The Highway Code goes on to say -

“It is illegal to use a horn on a moving vehicle on a restricted road, a road that has street lights and a 30 mph limit, between the times of 11:30 p.m. and 07:00 a.m.”

Is there any UK legal provision more absolutely and comprehensively ignored by those to whom it applies? It might as well not be there. And you can bet that every single person who flouts it considers themselves law abiding. Rather than the perpetual criminal that they in point of fact are.


In the 25 years since I learned to drive I have used a car horn exactly no times, despite having lived in London for more than 20 of them. This is because I have never had occasion to use it appropriately. Neither has anyone else, of course, they’ve just used it inappropriately. Repeatedly.

So here’s my proposal for massively improving all UK  suburban and urban environments at a stroke: ban horns in all new cars and introduce massive, punitive, crippling, life-destroying fines for people caught using them on their old one.

There has never been a war on motorists, despite the persecution fantasies of the kind of middle aged man who thinks owning a book by Jeremy Clarkson is a substitute for a personality. There should be. Let’s start one. Now.

Phase 2 will be mandatory life sentences for people who don’t understand that a green traffic light doesn’t automatically mean you have right of way just because you’re in a car.

Do write in with your suggestions for Phase 3.