This year marks the 100th anniversary of the London Underground typeface 'Johnston'. It's a well known and well loved font that we can all recognise, and which is so synonymous with the London Underground it is impossible to imagine any other.
Frank Pick was a transport administrator who started working for the London Underground in 1906. Once promoted to Publicity Manager in 1908, Pick set about making his mark. The multitude of various typefaces used across the railway bothered him, he (quite correctly) believed corporate design should be consistent, easy to understand and look good. In 1913 he commissioned Edward Johnston, a British calligrapher and lettering artist, to create a new font for the Underground, one with 'bold simplicity' to ensure the underground retained its reputation for modernity while heading into the future.
Pick needed the font to be easy to read from a moving train and in bad lighting, as well as stand alone amongst other shop signage and advertising, he told Johnston each letter should be 'a strong and unmistakeable symbol'. Quite the challenge really, and one to which Johnston magnificently rose to.
‘Underground’, later named ‘Johnston’, was a daring move, but a brilliant one. It completely transformed and revolutionised the way in which the railway presented itself. It is hard now to imagine how 'new and 'surprising' it was for the regular commuters on 1916.
Sadly, by the late 1970’s the original letterpress tools were proving impractical and the brand was being watered down as other fonts were used to counter-act this. So in 1979 it was updated by design agency Banks & Miles - a design company which understood the original ethos behind Pick’s and Johnston's ideas and were sympathic to it's 'restoration' and 'digitisation'. While some were keen to start afresh, (there were very few weights created originally and it was proving harder and harder to use) Banks & Miles knew the best thing to do would be to revive it rather than create something brand new, and so they did, meaning ‘Johnston' continued, now as 'New Johnston'.
I doubt Edward Johnston quite realised what he had created back in 1916, it is a fantastic piece of typographic work and one which brings that old saying to mind, "if it isn't broken, don't fix it". You can find out more about the history and development of the London Transport typeface by clicking here.
It has proved to be one of the most resiliant corporate designs of all time. Happy Birthday 'Johnston'.