Johnston Goes Overground

ODI’s origins go back to 1968. Back then, despite the typeface being over 50 years old, ‘Johnston’ could not have been chosen as the company font. It was under license to London Transport. More familiar to Londoners than any other typeface, and famous amongst graphic designers, but otherwise it was not seen outside the London Underground for which it was commissioned.

Last year I was fortunate enough to meet Eiichi Kono, the Japanese type designer, the man who can be said to have saved a unique part of London’s heritage for the nation. Working for the Banks & Miles design company in 1979, it was more by chance than design that he had the opportunity. The company had been given the job by London Transport of updating Edward Johnston’s original 1916 alphabet and the task was presented to Kono on his first day at work. A lucky break for him, and for us.

A stroke of unexpected fortune too, for Edward Johnston, when in 1913 he was asked by Frank Pick to create a new typeface for the Underground Electric Railways of London which would “belong unmistakably to the times in which we live”. Pick, in charge of publicity and commercial matters, saw the need to unify the growing Underground’s lettering styles and separate it from the plethora of advertising. Pick wanted a sans serif typeface of “bold simplicity”. Originally called the Standard Alphabet – it was the first new block letter of modern times.

Johnston was a calligrapher but had no experience in type design. Picking up the mantle from William Morris’s efforts to revive the craft, Johnston had shown his early calligraphy to William Lethaby hoping he would agree to taking him on as a student on a new course of lettering and illuminating at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. Lethaby said ‘no’ to accepting him as a student – instead he offered him the job of teacher, which he began in 1899.

Johnston, and his student Eric Gill, moved to Hammersmith in 1905. Through its association with Morris, Emery walker and the Doves Press, the area was recognized as the centre of the Arts and Crafts movement. They were steeped in the philosophy of creating hand-crafted work in preference to the slavery of mass production. In 1906 Johnston’s manual ‘Writing & illuminating & Lettering’ confirmed him as the greatest calligrapher of his time.

By 1913, he and Gill had moved again, to Ditchling in Sussex, where Gill formed a community of craftspeople. Their insistence was on seeing the ‘artist as workman’. Johnston taught and worked among craftsmen, not as a designer of mass-produced typefaces for the printing industry.

So when he (and Gill, who soon dropped out) began working on the design, for what became Johnston Sans, Johnston had to learn quickly. But those arts and crafts ideals of ‘fitness for purpose’ and the scribes aim – ‘the making of useful things legibly beautiful’, seemed equally relevant to the task and very ‘modern’. His writing style eschewed unnecessary ornamentation. His emphasis was on plain lettering, proportions and legibility. Letterforms should result directly from the tools used, be it the pen, the quill or the chisel. His Foundation Hand letters appeared to form naturally from being written with a broad edged pen.

The tools used now for the Underground letter were a compass and straight edge, but they produced letters that were far from purely mechanical (as the later German typefaces were), drawing as they were on the knowledge of Roman capitals.

In the days of hot metal, other sans serif typefaces, most noticeably Gill Sans, Granby and Franklin had already supplemented Johnston, either because the numerous printers didn’t all hold the face or the material required different sizes or weights. By 1979, the use of Johnston Sans in the Underground system was far from consistent. One idea put forward was to abandon Johnston altogether. Fortunately, not before Eiichi Kono offered his alternative, a thorough revising of the original.

He proposed a new weight, ‘Medium’ to sit between the Regular and the Bold. And a redrawing of every letter, sometimes with subtle, sometimes with more obvious changes such as to the lower case ‘g’ and to the number ‘1’ which added a flick.

What didn’t change, thank goodness, were the diamond tittles on the ‘i’ and ‘j’ and in the punctuation. If anything makes Johnston different to other sans faces at a glance it is these. Why diamonds? Johnston was famous for promoting the broad edged pen stroke. Holding the nib at a 45 degree angle naturally produces that shape dot. Here is Johnston reminding us, in a clever way, of his calligraphic background.

New Johnston, as it was now called, ended up as nine fonts in three weights, plus a later ‘Book’ version for setting body text.

It wasn’t till the late 1990s that Johnston’s Underground alphabet was finally authorized for use outside London Transport. Blinking into the sunlight it finally went Overground. And now it’s the ODI company font.

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