Although sans-serif typefaces (letters without the little flicks at the end of their strokes) date back to the 18th century, Johnston’s Underground typeface can be credited with popularising the style. Indeed, it was so influential that it became the typeface from which every 20th-century sans-serif typeface would be measured. As Gill later wrote in admiration, Johnston “redeemed the whole business of sans-serif from its 19th-century corruption”.
His former student was perhaps driven by the guilt of seeing the success of his own typeface, Gill Sans, which he admitted had been heavily based on Johnston’s work. Promoted and licensed by Monotype, and preloaded into computers, it has become much more widespread than Johnston, which is owned by Transport for London.
“I hope you realise that I take every opportunity of proclaiming the fact that what the Monotype people call Gill Sans owes all its goodness to your Underground letter,” Gill wrote in a letter to Johnston later in life. “It is not altogether my fault that the exaggerated publicity value of my name makes the advertising world keen to call it by the name of Gill.”
Little did it bother Johnston, accidental creator of one of the world’s longest-lasting corporate identities, who was never one for the limelight. When asked to submit a biography for Who’s Who, he was characteristically to the point, listing only three achievements: “Studied pen shapes of letters in early MSS, British Museum, 1898-99. Teacher of the first classes in formal penmanship and lettering, LCC Central School, 1899-1912. Designed block letters based on classical Roman capital proportions (for London Electric Railways), 1916.” But what influential letters they would turn out to be.
The exhibition Underground: 100 Years of Edward Johnston’s Lettering for London opens at Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft in Sussex March 12 and runs until September 11.
- The Retiring Type: Intelligent Life on Edward Johnson, June 2, 2015
- Johnston100 for Transport for London, June 14, 2016
- Vintage Shorts Designed by Joan Wong, July 30, 2014