On Monday the 2nd January 1979, Eiichi Kono walked into the offices of Banks and Miles, one of London’s most renowned graphic design agencies. It was his first day at the firm as a typographer, and he was very excited. Admittedly Eiichi didn’t actually know what he’d be working on – they’d been slightly vague about that – but he was excited nonetheless. This would represent his first major typographical job, and that was something he’d been working towards for some time.
Eiichi had been working in the optical printing industry in his native Japan for some years when, in the mid-seventies, he had experienced what he would later describe as a “mid-career crisis.” Switching directions, he decided to explore a career in something that had fascinated him for some time – typography.
He chose to begin his journey into the world of typography at the London College of Printing – a choice partially motivated by memories of previous time spent in London. Visiting the city on holiday he had, like many tourists, found the transport network rather daunting. His initial apprehension though soon disappeared. The ever-present roundels, he discovered, made stations easy to locate and identify and the easy-to-read signage really impressed him.
“The symbol was accompanied with a simple, elegant, slightly old-fashioned alphabet.” He would later write, “At first, I thought it was Gill Sans; it wasn’t Futura, and definitely not my then favourite, Helvetica.”
The typeface was, of course, Johnston Sans and, although Eiichi didn’t know it at the time, it was a typeface created by Edward Johnston and unique to the London Underground. It was this typeface that helped motivate him into becoming a typographer and indirectly this that meant when Colin Banks (one of his course assessors and the “Banks” part of Banks & Miles) offered him a job as a typographer post-graduation, he leapt at the chance.
It was also this typeface, Colin Banks told him when he arrived, that Eiichi would be working on. He had been hired to redesign Johnston Sans.
“That morning,” says Eiichi, “was a bit of a shock.”
Going Back to the Beginning
Eiichi’s shock at being asked to redesign a simple typeface may seem a bit over the top. In part, this is because typography (and indeed professional writing in general) is no longer as dark an art as it used to be – the modern computer has put an end to that. In the main, however, this is because few people realise just how much of an important typographical – and indeed historical – landmark the humble “Underground Font” really was. Created almost 100 years ago, in design terms Johnston Sans literally helped create the modern world.
So perhaps before we continue our look at Eiichi’s role in Johnston’s history, we should take a trip back to the very beginning. A beginning that, slightly strangely, begins in 1908 not with the man who actually created Johnston, but with a man who just thought it was about time there was some bloody design consistency on the Underground – Frank Pick.
Pick had started working at the “Underground Electric Railways Company of London” (as it was then known) back in 1906, but it was after his appointment to the position of Publicity Manager in 1908 that he really began to leave his mark on the railway. In a career that would eventually span over 30 years, Pick would be directly or indirectly responsible for creating almost all the iconography we now associate with the Underground – the Roundel, the map, the moquette, the famous posters – all Pick’s work in some way. Pick wasn’t a designer himself, but he knew a good one when he saw one and – perhaps more importantly – he believed in a couple of simple design concepts that seem obvious now but which were almost revolutionary back then.
Corporate Design, Pick believed, should be consistent, it should be easy to grasp and (almost above all else) it should look good.
This belief grew, in part, from work Pick carried out on promotional poster campaigns for the Underground in 1908. Noting the success of a similar campaign carried out by the North Eastern Railway, Pick commissioned a series of posters depicting the various interesting landmarks and locations Londoners could get to by Tube. Pick tried to ensure that all the posters produced were of a very high visual quality, and the campaign was a success. It was even more successful, he noticed, when he took things further and made sure that the posters were well illuminated and positioned with an eye to where they would actually be noticed – a principle that over the next few years he extended to maps and signage.
By 1912, therefore, with a reputation high from his successes and a growing understanding of the power of good design and usability, Pick was finally able to turn his attention to something that had been bugging him since his very first poster campaign – the multitude of differing typefaces featured across the Underground.
Pick had first really noticed this when he had commissioned his original poster campaign – the designs that came back were all good (hardly surprising given his ability to spot talent), but they often featured differing text styles – something that he felt came across as a bit sloppy. Further years as the Underground’s growing design star had only reinforced this belief – not only did the inconsistency in typefaces everywhere look a bit haphazard, but it also served as a permanent and unwelcome reminder of the Underground’s origins as a number of smaller rivals. When the typefaces were bad, Pick also noted, they genuinely adversely affected passenger’s journeys and that was bad for both commuter and company. Pick decided that the Underground needed a consistent typeface and he was going to give it one. Making this happen, however, soon turned out to be harder than Pick had originally thought.
In his quest for a typeface Pick turned his gaze onto the various options already available but soon he realised that nothing really matched up to what he wanted. The closest Pick found to a an already-existing typeface that felt right was the one recently created for WH Smith by the famous (and posthumously infamous) type designer Eric Gill. It wasn’t quite what he wanted though and because WH Smith was already becoming a feature of station forecourts anyway he rejected it, feeling that it would confuse passengers.
Pick even briefly tried to turn his hand to creating a typeface of his own, based entirely on circles and squares, but soon realised that his skills lay very definitely in concepts not actualities.
Finally, in 1913, Pick realised that (as always) the solution to the problem was to do what he always did – hire someone good and get something brand new made just for him. As usual, Pick soon found himself briefing the perfect candidate for the job – Edward Johnston.
Creating the Typeface
By 1913 Johnston was a man already making a name for himself in the world of type. Then 35, Johnston had only really discovered his talent for (and love of) typography in his mid-twenties. By 1906, however, he had already been recognised as a man who had almost single-handedly revived and rediscovered the art of calligraphical type and lettering, and was the much-loved teacher of many of print’s future greats – including Thomas Cobden-Sanderson and the aforementioned Eric Gill. Johnston’s book, Writing and Illuminating, and Lettering would be (and indeed still is) one of the “must read” texts for anyone in the typographical world.
Pick met Johnston via a mutual acquaintance – Gerald Meynell, who owned the Westminster Press. That meeting, combined with Pick’s assessment of Johnston’s abilities and recommendations from several of Johnston’s former pupils (including Gill), soon made Pick realise that he had found his man.
The typeface should have “the bold simplicity of the authentic lettering of the finest periods” Pick wrote to Johnston. It should also, he told him, be easy to read from a moving train and in bad lighting, be noticeably up-to-date with the times, and yet also be completely different from anything found on other shops and signage. Finally, in true Frank Pick style, Johnston was told that each letter should be “a strong and unmistakeable symbol.”
It was a brief that many a designer would have blanched at, but not Johnston.
It took three years (in fact all likelihood it probably didn’t – Johnston was notorious for leaving commissions until the very last minute), but in 1915 Johnston delivered to Pick a character-set that met every single one of those demands. Pick was, quite simply, delighted.
Little documentation remains covering the design process undertaken by Johnston whilst working on Pick’s new typeface. What is obvious, however, is that Johnston – a man, remember, who had form for reviving lost arts and styles – decided that he’d do exactly the same thing again. For what Johnston created for Pick was the very first modern “Sans-Serif” typeface.
Sans-Serif’s are “fonts without the little kicks.” Open up a word processing program and print out this article in Times New Roman. Then print it out in Arial (or Helvetica if you’re on a Mac) and look at the difference – you’ll see that the letters in the Times version are slightly more ornate around the edges. This is because Times is a “Serif” font and Arial is Sans-Serif. In the simplest, most generic terms, this is the difference between the two families.
Sans-Serif typefaces, therefore, are those “flourishless” families like Verdana, Arial, Helvetica and (one for Windows Vista users) Calibri. Faces that bless documents everywhere and virtually the entire internet. Sans-Serif faces are, in many ways, the living embodiment of text in the 21st Century and Johnston, with the typeface that he delivered to Pick, almost singlehandedly revived them as a valid and useful style.
Johnston would later admit to two influences on the design of his typeface – walking home one evening with Eric Gill in the early 1900s, he found himself focusing on the various tradesmen’s wagons that featured simply drawn signage in sans-serif style. “Here, on their covers,” Johnston would later say, “in one small backwater of the lettering trade, tradition had preserved an otherwise extinct species; a really good block letter.”
Having settled on producing a sans-serif face, Johnston’s other big influence was the lettering on Trajan’s Column. From there he took the principle of classical dimensions and extended it all the strokes on his new typeface would be the same width, and the circles (on the “o” and “p” for example) should be exactly that – perfect circles.
The resulting typeface that Johnston delivered to Pick (uppercase in 1915, lowercase a year later), is the fruit of those influences, but also has its own unique touches. Next time you look at the tube map look at the letters i and j in lowercase – you’ll notice that the dots are actually diagonal squares – a touch that hints at the broad-nibs of Johnston’s calligraphical past. Other little touches like the hooked base to the lower-case “l” give the face personality, whilst also helping to meet Pick’s goal that each letter be subtly distinguishable at speed (although Johnston admitted he did this partially to stop bad typesetters putting his ‘l’s too close to other letters, one of his pet peeves). Overall, Johnston delivered a magnificent typeface, and Pick quickly set about ensuring that it manifested across the entire network, furthering its fame and helping kick off a worldwide sans-serif revolution.
As if accomplishing the above was not enough, Johnston then finished it all off by creating the Roundel.
All of which brings us, nicely, back to Eiichi Kono.
Reinventing a Classic
Eiichi’s shock is now hopefully more understandable – he was not simply being asked to rework an old typeface, he was being asked to touch up an acknowledged “Old Master.”
If Johnston’s creation was so good though, why was Eiichi being told to work on it?
Partly this was due to changing technology. The typeface still only existed in the form of wooden and metal printing blocks for each letter, whilst the world had moved on to photographic printing methods.
It was also, however, because the typeface was increasingly being called upon to appear in places and positions for which it had never been designed. The documents, signage and advertising campaigns that London Underground were now producing increasingly pushed the limits of the typeface. It wasn’t good in very small print, for example, and it lacked variable weights (such as a bold version) and italics.
None of this was really Johnston’s fault – he’d been asked to design something that would work on signage and in headlines and that was precisely what he’d delivered. Indeed he’d actually called it “Underground Railway Block Letter” – almost expressly indicating that he didn’t regard it as a complete typeface.
Other typographers had stepped in over the years (including Percy Delf Smith, one of Johnston’s pupils) to extend it at different times. By the 70s though, London Underground’s advertising agencies were getting increasingly frustrated at its inflexibility and (in a move that would have had Frank Pick spinning in his grave) abandoning it all together. Its internal use was also becoming increasingly half-hearted.
It was clear that a decision needed to be made on the future of Johnston Sans and London Underground approached various graphic design agencies and consulted on the subject. Many recommended dropping it completely in favour of other faces (Helvetica was considered, as was Univers Bold) but ultimately one agency – Banks and Miles – stepped forward and suggested an alternative:- Rework Johnston into a proper, fully extended, typeface.
Johnston wasn’t just a typeface, they insisted, it was now part of the London Underground. Get rid of Johnston they claimed and you’d diminish slightly everyone’s very impression of what constitutes the Tube.
“It is perfectly reasonable for designers to want to change things and make their mark,” John Miles would later say, “but not changing something is a perfectly legitimate design decision. It can sometimes be better to retain the existing core and make modifications – and perhaps improvements around the edges.”
Banks and Miles’ arguments ultimately won out, and London Underground gave them an almost Pick-like broad brief to rework Johnston. Luckily, in Banks & Miles, they had found a company who understood the overall ethos that Pick had been after, and which was still – with modification – relevant today.
In the person of Eiichi Kono, Banks & Miles themselves had also been lucky. They had found someone up to the mammoth task with which he had been presented – although he wasn’t entirely confident that he was up to the job at the time.
“The prospect was daunting,” he would later write, “because I had no experience in type design and very little English language. There had been no serious typeface design project in my design school days, and I expected that in the office there would be at least a kind of preliminary training or what drawing tools to be used, what guidance for a novice designer ‒ size the original artwork should be, how to typeset with newly drawn letters. I remembered one college day in 1975 when our tutor took us to the drawing office of the Monotype Corporation in Salfords. They had impressive purpose-built drawing equipment, precision machines and many skilled draughtsmen and women. In contrast, my tools were very basic: pencils, felt tip pens, a Rotring pen with 0.1 mm nib, Winsor & Newton’s fine brushes and some photographic equipment in the darkroom.”
Over the next 18 months, however, (and after overcoming his initial shock), Eiichi effectively rebuilt Johnston from the ground up.
He studied what documentation and ideas Johnston had left, and drew and traced letters by hand before filling them in with pen and altering them through photography and photocopy, creating new weights and experimenting to find sizes and standards that worked.
He soon found, to his sadness, that in some cases Johnston’s original rules had to be adapted or ignored – some of the Trajanic proportions had to be lost in order to make the typeface work well at lower point sizes with the x-height (the height of the “sticks” on letters such as “h”) having to be changed as well.
In the end though Eiichi was able to produce the first truly complete Johnston Typeface, which Banks & Miles christened “New Johnston.”
London Underground were delighted. Johnston would endure.
The Evolving Typeface
Some purists argue that because it contains changes to elements such as the x-height, New Johnston is a corruption of Edward Johnston’s original work, and in the strictest of terms they may well be correct – something Eiichi himself would freely admit to.
As Mike Ashworth, London Underground’s Head of Design and Heritage (and one of New Johnston’s current guardians) points out though, Johnston himself would probably disagree with that assessment.
“As a typeface,” Ashworth says, “Johnston underwent plenty of changes throughout the twenties and thirties and Edward Johnston himself was nearly always complicit in the process – I’ve been lucky enough to read some of the letters.”
“Johnston is an evolved and evolving typeface,” he continues, “and always was.”
The “evolving” part of the statement above is obviously still pertinent. Whilst Eiichi leaves our story now having successfully reinvigorated Johnston for the modern technical revolution, Johnston itself has not remained unchanged.
“Frankly,” Ashworth continues, “the Johnston typeface has seen more change in the last eight years than in the previous eighty. It’s to the credit of Johnston – both typeface and creator – that it’s kept its honesty and recognition throughout.”
Those changes aren’t simply typographical. The transition to modern, computerised digital format was largely a painless one, thanks to a continuing relationship with Banks & Miles and the quality, documentation and methods used by Eiichi Kono when creating New Johnston. A more complex change arose, however, with the creation of Transport For London in the late nineties.
Whilst Johnston (or variations of it) had been used on non-Underground transport before (Johnston himself designed a condensed version for bus-blinds in the twenties), suddenly a serious question arose – should Johnston be confined to London Underground, or should it become the official typeface of this entirely new consolidated organisation?
“It was a big thing to consider,” Ashworth explains, “if it was to be the house style everywhere, then there were genuine fears we’d be asking too much of it. It worked well on the Underground, but if we started putting it on the License Notices of black cabs, would we have been taking away some of its power?”
Eventually though the decision was taken to do exactly that – a new version of Johnston went organisation-wide as “TfL New Johnston,” and few can argue that it hasn’t stood up to the challenge admirably.
Into The Future
Today, Johnston remains a fundamental part of the London scene, a situation that TfL are keen to ensure continues, although not at the expense of the enduring fidelity of the typeface itself.
“We continue to make subtle changes” Ashworth admits, “but we’re very wary about doing too much and are always happy to roll back changes if they end up not feeling ‘right.’
“The most recent major change was to the numbers 1 and 4 earlier this year. Not a lot of people noticed until a poster appeared advertising engineering work on Valentines Day – then I got a lot of emails!”
Going forward, Johnston and its role will undoubtedly undergo changes again – we would wager that, as website handling of embedded fonts changes, the TfL website itself may begin to show more of its true typographical colours.
As with many things on the underground, however, the important thing is finding the balance between heritage and functionality.
The heritage and importance of the Johnston typeface cannot be denied – the result of the vision of Frank Pick and the brilliance of Edward Johnston. Indeed Johnston’s creative skills are perhaps best memorialised by the blue heritage plaque that graces his former residence in Hammersmith – the only blue plaque to feature text in a custom typeface (you can probably guess which one).
The functionality comes from the impressive work of Eiichi Kono and others in ensuring that the typeface has maintained its usability in the modern world.
It is TfL and London Underground, of course, that need to ensure that this balance is found going forward – a role that, for now at least – they appear to take very seriously indeed.
“I believe that the ultimate test as to whether we are doing our job properly,” Mike Ashworth concludes, “is whether a sign containing a new variant of Johnston can be placed on a platform wall and not look incongruous with the signage that has been on that platform for twenty years or more. If it does, then we need to think again.”
“In fact,” he admits, “I can think of a couple of places where Metronet accidentally used the public version of the typeface licensed by the London Transport Museum, and even they don’t look out of place.
“And no,” he adds after a brief pause, “before you ask, I’m not going to tell you where they are!”
If you spot them commentors, do let us know.
This article first appeared on London Reconnections, a site dedicated to news and long-form writing about London Transport