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.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.