Typography in Focus: Johnston Sans, a Typeface for London

Choosing a typeface for a project is a key part of a designer’s process at the best of times. But when it comes to choosing one to help commuters navigate a complex and evolving transport system, then it’s of fundamental importance.

In this blog, we’ll look at Johnston Sans, the typeface that first gave London its unique and individual identity. And how it has stood the test of time in the process.

A design for commuters and visitors

For the past 100 years, there have been wide-scale developments across the London Underground. New routes, new stations, new trains. But one thing that’s remained is the font used to navigate Londoners and visitors around the city.

The font, Johnston Sans, has therefore become one of the world’s most iconic typefaces. Its origins begin in 1916, when London Underground asked calligrapher Edward Johnston to create a new typeface for its posters and signage. Johnston was commissioned to replicate “the bold simplicity of the authentic lettering of the finest periods” whilst ensuring it “belongs unmistakably to the 20th century”. The typeface was commissioned to be distinctly different from the lettering used in advertisements of the era.

A London Underground entry sign over the entrance stairs.

The London Underground Roundel

As well as on information display signage, Johnston Sans is used on the London Underground’s iconic roundel logo. The logo has gone beyond its function as transport signage, and in many ways has become a symbol for London itself.

Like the principles of the typeface itself, the roundel design is simple. Using the distinctive red circle cut with a blue bar, the design has gone on to have many imitators around the world. Throughout the years, the symbol has experienced a number of subtle changes but in the main, it has stayed true to Johnston’s iconic, and much loved, design.

An early sketch by Johnston of the London Underground roundel logo.

Traveling in a new direction

Before the introduction of Johnston Sans, the Underground used various typefaces This resulted in a really confusing and complex mismatch of styles. All of the advertising, signage, and map systems used different typefaces, a consistent and coherent design system was desperately needed. Johnston Sans changed everything.

The serif typefaces used in previous years mimicked the calligraphic styles of Victorian handwriting with decorative flourishes. Johnston Sans was created with functionality at the forefront. The type combines beauty and simplicity with readability to aid commuters on their journeys.

In a city of nearly 9 million residents, and around 30 million visitors annually, Transport for London caters to people from all over the world. Information needs to be presented in a way that’s helpful, efficient, and legible enough for quick absorption by fast moving passengers.

Graphic representation of a set of closing london underground doors using the Johnston Sans font.

 

An icon of the city and beyond

London is a city rich in icons. Buckingham Palace, the London Eye, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament are all established tourist attractions. And from a design perspective, the Johnston typeface and London Underground identity sit firmly alongside these.

The typeface is used, not just across the cities transport networks of buses, trains, trams, boats, cycle paths, but also on the Mayor of London’s branding. It really does work to sell the city to the rest of the world.

Examples of london underground and transport signs that use Johnston Sans.

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