Gill Sans

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Gill Sans
Category Sans-serif
Classification Humanist
Designer(s) Eric Gill
Foundry Monotype
Date created 1926
Date released 1928 (Monotype)
Re-issuing foundries Monotype, Adobe Systems, ITC
Design based on Johnston

Gill Sans is a sans-serif typeface designed by Eric Gill.

The original design appeared in 1926 when Douglas Cleverdon opened a bookshop in his home town of Bristol, where Gill painted the fascia over the window in sans-serif capitals that would later be known as Gill Sans.[1] In addition, Gill had sketched a design for Cleverdon, intended as a guide for him to use for notices and announcements.[2]

Gill further developed it into a complete font family after Stanley Morison of Monotype commissioned the development of Gill Sans to compete with the sans-serif Erbar, Futura and Kabel families, which were being launched in Germany during the latter 1920s. Gill Sans was released in 1928 by Monotype.

Gill was a well established sculptor, graphic artist and type designer, and Gill Sans takes inspiration from Edward Johnston’s Johnston typeface for London Underground, which Gill had worked on while apprenticed to Johnston; this design had attracted considerable attention but as a corporate font was not available for licensing. Gill's aim was to blend the influences of Johnston, classic serif typefaces and Roman inscriptions to create a design that looked both cleanly modern and traditional at the same time. Marketed by Monotype as a design of 'classic simplicity and real beauty', it was intended as a display typeface that could be used for posters and advertisements, as well as a text face for documents such as book blurbs, timetables and price lists than need to be clearly legible at small sizes.[3] Its standard weight is slightly bolder than most normal body text faces.[4]

An immediate success, the year after its release the London and North Eastern Railway chose it for all its posters, timetables and publicity material, a use later extended across all British railways.[5] It also soon became used on the modernist, deliberately simple covers of Penguin books. The popularity of Gill Sans influenced many other typefaces, and helped to define the genre of the humanist sans-serif.

It is distributed with iOS and Mac OS X and bundled with some Microsoft software as Gill Sans MT.[6] More unusual weights, such as condensed, schoolbook and shadowed versions, can be licensed from Monotype.[7]


Distinctive features of Gill Sans, on a modern digitisation.

Gill Sans has less of a mechanical feel than geometric sans-serifs like Futura and realist sans-serif typefaces like Akzidenz Grotesk, because its proportions stemmed from Roman tradition (for its upper case) and Carolingian script and classic serif fonts (for the lower case).

The upper-case of Gill Sans is modelled on monumental Roman capitals like those found on the Column of Trajan: the capital M from Gill Sans is based on the proportions of a square with the middle strokes meeting at the centre of that square. The Carolingian influence is noticeable in the two-story lower-case a, and g. The lower-case t is similar to old-style serifs in its proportion and oblique terminus of the vertical stroke, while the lower-case a has a dramatic narrowing towards the top of its loop extremely rare in sans-serif fonts. Following the humanist model the lower-case italic a becomes single story and the lower-case p has a vestigial calligraphic tail reminiscent of the italics of Caslon and Baskerville. Like most serif fonts (but unlike most sans-serif fonts), Gill Sans uses ligatures to allow its expansive letter f to join up with letters around it.

The basic glyph shapes do not look consistent across font weights and widths, especially in Extra Bold and Ultra Bold weights, and Extra Condensed width. Indeed, even the lighter weights are somewhat inconsistent. For example, in letters p and q, the top strokes of counters do not touch the top of the stems in Light, Bold, Heavy fonts, but touch the top of the stems in Book, Medium fonts. Monotype executive Dan Rhatigan has commented that "Gill Sans grew organically...[it] takes a very ‘asystematic’ approach to type. Very characteristic of when it was designed and of when it was used."[8] (It should be noted that at this time the idea that sans-serif typefaces should form a consistent family, with glyph shapes consistent between weights, had not fully developed: it was quite normal for fonts to vary as seemed appropriate for their weight.)


The letter a was originally developed with straight tail, followed by diagonal tail (which can be seen on early specimen sheets), then the hooked tail. The diagonal tail eventually was found in Extra Bold, Bold Extra Condensed; a modified straight tail was later found in Ultra Bold.

The original Gill Sans lacked distinctions between numeral 1, upper-case i, and lower-case L, so alternate version of Gill Sans was made that included an alternate 1 that could be used for numerical setting, such as shop window prices and timetables.[9] This is included in the Monotype Pro release, but not in most other digitisations.

Eric Gill removed terminus endings of the vertical stroke in b, d, p and q, but Monotype drawing office revised the forms so that they were preserved in the medium weight, which can be seen on early samples of the series 262. In Gill Sans Pro, the restored endings can be found in Gill Sans Light (in d, p, q only), Bold, Heavy, Extra Bold (p only), Ultra Bold (p only), Condensed, Bold Condensed, Ultra Bold Condensed (p only), Display Bold, Display Extra Bold (p only), Display Bold Condensed, Bold Extra Condensed (d, p only), Shadowed Light (d, q only).

Weights and styles[edit]

Gill Sans weights from Light to Bold.

Bundled releases of Gill Sans with Microsoft Office, iOS and OS X include the most common versions: regular, light and bold, with matching italics, and sometimes also condensed, semi-bold and ultra-bold designs. However, Gill Sans has been released in a wide range of other styles.

Versions of Gill Sans exist in display, condensed, outlined (Monotype ser. 290[10]), ultra bold (ser. 442), among others, and also Greek and Cyrillic letters.

Monotype released in August 2005 a collection of 21 fonts including Book, Book Italic, Heavy, Heavy Italic, Display Bold, Display Bold Condensed fonts of Gill Sans. It adds support of Eastern European characters but not Greek and Cyrillic.[11]

A schoolbook or infant edition, available as a font, has the single-story letters a and g, giving a simpler design. It therefore looks somewhat more like Futura.[12]

Two types of shadowed designs are currently available: a capitals-only regular shadowed design and a light-shadowed version with deep relief shadows. In the metal type era, a 'shadow line' version, with the letterforms outlined with a thinner line, and a 'cameo ruled' design that placed white letters against a stippled black background were both available.[13][14]

Gill Kayo[edit]

Gill Kayo compared to Gill Sans Bold (above). Note the differences in style, clearest in the K, e and r.

In 1936, Gill and Monotype released an extremely bold font named Kayo (from knockout, implying its strength). This design, a purely display font, has often been branded as Gill Sans Ultra Bold, though in practice many letters do not particularly resemble any other weights of Gill Sans. It is available in regular and condensed widths.[15][16][17]


Gill was commissioned to develop a typeface with the number of allographs limited to what could be used on Monotype or Linotype machines.

The typeface was loosely based on the Arabic Naskh style but lacked even the most basic understanding of Arabic script. It was rejected and never cut into type.[18][19]

Similar fonts[edit]

A sign similar to Gill Sans on a heritage railway: the letterforms are subtly different.

An immediate competitor to Gill Sans was Granby from Stephenson Blake; it was based on Gill Sans and also Johnston. Jeremy Tankard's Bliss and Volker Küster's Today Sans are modern variations, while Arthur Vanson's Chesham Sans, a display font for signs, takes inspiration from its history in this role.[20]

The category of humanist sans-serif typefaces, which Gill Sans helped to define, saw great attention during the 1980s and 1990s, especially as a reaction against the overwhelming popularity of Helvetica and Univers in the 1960s and 1970s.[21][22][23][24] It can be identified by a tendency to use single-story as and gs in the italic, like serif fonts. Examples of this trend include Erik Spiekermann's FF Meta and Fira Sans. Frutiger, Avenir and Syntax are all similar in some ways, but use an oblique rather than Gill Sans's true italic.

A logical extension of the humanist sans-serif concept is the font superfamily: a serif font and a matching humanist sans-serif design with similar letterforms. Martin Majoor's FF Scala Sans is a popular example of this influenced by Gill's work, as are Charlotte Sans and Mr and Mrs Eaves, two designs based on Baskerville.


Gill Sans on the nameplate of the LNER locomotive Mallard. Fascinated by railway engines since childhood, Gill was immensely proud of the LNER's decision to standardise on his font.

First unveiled in a single uppercase weight in 1928, Gill Sans achieved national prominence almost immediately, when it was chosen the following year to become the standard typeface for the LNER railway system, soon appearing on every facet of the company's identity, from locomotive nameplates and station signage to restaurant car menus, printed timetables and advertising posters.

When British Railways was created by nationalisation in 1948, Gill Sans was used in much of its printed output, including timetables. Specially drawn variations were developed by the British Transport Commission for signs, but these characters are not authentic Gill. The corporate rebranding of BR as British Rail in 1965 introduced Rail Alphabet for signage, and Helvetica and/or Univers for printed matter. Other users included Penguin Books' iconic paperback jacket designs from 1935, and Gill Sans became Monotype's fifth best selling typeface of the 20th century.

The BBC logo at BBC Broadcasting House, Belfast

The typeface continues to thrive to this day, often being held to bring an artistic or cultural sensibility to an organisation's corporate style. Monotype themselves use it in their corporate style, and the typeface was prominently used by many public service organisations. These include Railtrack (and now Network Rail), which used Gill Sans for printed matter, the Church of England, which adopted Gill Sans as the typeface for the definitive Common Worship family of service books published from 2000, and the British Government, which formally adopted Gill Sans as its standard typeface for use in all communications and logos in 2003. It has been described as 'the English Helvetica' because of its great, lasting popularity in British design.

Logo of the Spanish government
Gill Sans Condensed on an East German sign

The BBC adopted the typeface as its corporate typeface in 1997. Explaining the change, designer Martin Lambie-Nairn said that “by choosing a typeface that has stood the test of time, we avoid the trap of going down a modish route that might look outdated in several years’ time.” Until 2006, the corporation used the font in all its media output; however, the unveiling of its new idents for BBC One and BBC Two has signalled a shift away from its universal use, as other fonts were used for their respective on-screen identities, but the BBC logo still uses the typeface.

Since 2001, Gill Sans is the official corporative typeface of the Spanish Government, (Gobierno de España).

SEPTA's Regional Rail lines use Gill Sans (or a very similar font) for most signage at Jefferson Station and Suburban stations in Center City Philadelphia; other signage uses Helvetica.

On the business side, Saab Automobile adopted the font for almost all of its advertising and marketing communications.

Edward Tufte, the information design theorist, uses Gill Sans on his website[25] and in some of his published works.[26]

Zedelgem, a municipality located in the Belgian province of West Flanders uses Gill Sans in its annals and letters.

The closing credits of The Bold and the Beautiful used Gill Sans from 1992 to 1997.

Thorpe Park, a theme park in Surrey, uses Gill Sans in its 2014 Map.

"Charlie Rose The Week", a weekly PBS program hosted by veteran broadcaster Charlie Rose, uses Gill Sans in its credits.

Legal aspects[edit]

A railway timetable using Gill Sans from 1950.

Because Gill died in 1940, in some parts of the world the typeface became part of the public domain in 2011. In countries where typefaces are not copyrightable (like in the US) this is not important but in other parts of the world this makes it possible to freely use the original design for any purposes, including creating digitised versions of the typeface. These may or may not have copyright protection (depending on the given country's view on creative works, and whether they consider visually exact lookalikes "creative" or not), often possessing their own copyright terms. In any case, the name "Gill Sans" remains a Monotype Corporation trademark (No. 1340167 in the US and No. 0950970 internationally, filed in 1983) and may not be used to describe any derivative font.

No complete, direct open-source Gill Sans clone has yet been released. A direct clone of the medium weight, Sans Guilt, was released by Brussels open source design group OSP in 2011, but it contains several obvious glitches such as misaligned w and x characters.[27] The most extensive at present is Gillius, a derivative by the Arkandis Digital Foundry and designer Hirwen Harendal, which includes bold, italic, condensed and condensed bold styles. It is not a pure clone, but rather partly created by modifying Bitstream Vera. It also adds influences from geometric fonts particularly visible in the design of the w.[28] K22, a foundry in Quezon City operated by the designer 'Toto G', has released two Gill Sans variants that have no official digitisations, as K22 EricGill Shadow (digitising the Gill Sans Shadow 338 design) and K22 EricGill Shadow Line, an inline variant, for free for 'personal, private and non-commercial purposes' and for sale for commercial use.[29][30]


  • Carter, Sebastian. Twentieth Century Type Designers. W.W. Norton, 1995. ISBN 0-393-70199-9.
  • Johnson, Jaspert & Berry. Encyclopedia of Type Faces. Cassell & Co, 2001. ISBN 1-84188-139-2.
  • Ott, Nicolaus, Friedl Fredrich, and Stein Bernard. Typography and Encyclopedic Survey of Type Design and Techniques Throughout History. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers. 1998, ISBN 1-57912-023-7.


  1. ^ Paul Townsend (20 October 2009). "Douglas Cleverdon Book Publishers". Retrieved 7 January 2011. 
  2. ^ "Eric Gill & The Cockerel Press". Retrieved 7 January 2011. 
  3. ^ "Promotional Poster, 1928". Red List. Monotype. 
  4. ^ Archer, Ben. "Eric Gill got it wrong; a re-evaluation of Gill Sans". Retrieved 7 January 2011. 
  5. ^ East Coast Joys: Tom Purvis and the LNER
  6. ^ "Gill Sans MT in Microsoft products". Retrieved 7 January 2011. 
  7. ^ Monotype Retrieved 2 August 2014.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  8. ^ Rhatigan, Dan. "All about Workflow". Eye Magazine. Retrieved 15 February 2015. 
  9. ^ Archer, Ben. "Eric Gill got it wrong; a re-evaluation of Gill Sans". Retrieved 7 January 2011. 
  10. ^ Cees W. de Jong, Alston W. Purvis, Friedrich Friedl. Creative Type: A Sourcebook of Classic and Contemporary Letterforms. Thames & Hudson. ISBN 978-0-500-51229-6. Retrieved 7 January 2011. [dead link]
  11. ^ "Gill Sans Pro". Retrieved 7 January 2011. 
  12. ^ Hicks, Jon. "What's the Typeface". Flickr. Retrieved 17 September 2014. 
  13. ^ Fuga, Giangiorgio. "Riscatype 028029: Gill Sans specimen booklet 1938". 
  14. ^ Fuga, Giangiorgio. "Riscatype 0030: Gill Sans specimen book 1938". 
  15. ^ "Kayo Poster". Luc Devroye. Monotype (original design). Retrieved 2 January 2015. 
  16. ^ Pitt, John. "Kayo – also known as Gill Sans Ultra Bold". Stone Letters. Retrieved 2 January 2015. 
  17. ^ Coles, Stephen. "Gill Kayo". Fonts in Use. Retrieved 2 January 2015. 
  18. ^ Blair, S.S. Islamic Calligraphy. p. 606, Fig. 13.7. 
  19. ^ Graalfs, Gregory (1998). "Gill Sands". Print. 
  20. ^ Vanson, Arthur. "LHF Chesham Sans". Letterhead Fonts. 
  21. ^ Millington, Roy (2002). Stephenson Blake: The Last of the Old English Typefounders. Oak Knoll Press. ISBN 1-58456-086-X. 
  22. ^ Tankard, Jeremy. "Bliss". Retrieved 1 August 2014. 
  23. ^ "Speak Up Archive: Saab or Dodgeball?". Retrieved 7 January 2011. 
  24. ^ « Previous Next » Commentary. "Questioning Gill Sans - Typography Commentary". Typographica. Retrieved 7 January 2011. 
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^ "Sans Guilt release". OSP. Retrieved 7 September 2014. 
  28. ^ "ADF Fonts". Arkandis Digital Foundry. 
  29. ^ Devroye, Luc. "Toto". Retrieved 14 December 2014. 
  30. ^ "K22 EricGill Shadow". K22 Fonts. Retrieved 14 December 2014.  |first1= missing |last1= in Authors list (help)

External links[edit]