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Happy birthday Johnston

15th January 2016 by Emily Malpass

typography Branding icons

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'.


  • There's a series of events planned to commemorate the centenary of this iconic font and brand. Check out this link...

    by Josh Beadon on 15th January 2016 | 16:05pm(reply)

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  • Great post Emily. Whilst an undergrad student at Exeter School of Art and Design, back in the early 90's I recall attending a lecture that was intriguingly entitled 'UNDERGROUND TYPOGRAPHY'. I thought, perhaps not unreasonably, that it would be a lecture about subversive, anti-establishment type and graphics. It wasn't. A then young designer from Banks & Miles called Garrett Reil (now Design Director at leading branding agency, Futurebrand) gave a fascinating talk about the digitisation of the New Johnston typeface. Not at all what we expected, but hugely interesting none-the-less.

    by Josh Beadon on 15th January 2016 | 15:18pm(reply)

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