|Date released||1928 (Monotype)|
|Re-issuing foundries||Monotype, Adobe Systems, ITC|
|Design based on||Johnston|
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. In addition, Gill had sketched a design for Cleverdon, intended as a guide for him to use for notices and announcements.
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, initially as a set of capitals that was quickly followed by a lower-case.
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 for the text of documents that need to be clearly legible at small sizes or from a distance, such as book blurbs, timetables and price lists. Designed before setting documents entirely in sans-serif text was common, its standard weight is noticeably bolder than most modern body text fonts.
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. 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. More unusual weights, such as condensed, schoolbook and shadowed versions, can be licensed from Monotype.
Gill Sans has less of a mechanical feel than more 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. This gives some aspects of Gill Sans a geometric feel: 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, and the O is an almost perfect circle. 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 Extra Condensed widths, while the Ultra Bold style is effectively a different typeface altogether. 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." (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.)
Weights and styles
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), ultra bold (ser. 442), among others, and also Greek and Cyrillic letters.
Monotype released in August 2005 a collection of 21 fonts including Heavy, Heavy Italic, Display Bold, Display Bold Condensed fonts of Gill Sans, as well as new Book, Book Italic designs between light and regular styles. It adds support of Eastern European characters but not Greek and Cyrillic.
A schoolbook or infant edition, which has been digitised, has the single-story letters a and g, giving a simpler design resembling handwriting. It therefore looks somewhat more like Futura. An ultra-light version slightly lighter than the normal light style has never been digitised.
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.
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.
To cater for the tastes and national printing styles of different countries, many alternate characters were offered. These include a Garamond-inspired W, an R with a tighter leg intended for body text, an alternative Q with swash tail, oblique designs as opposed to the standard true italic, Futura-inspired designs of N, M, R, a, g, t and others, and several alternative numeral designs. In particular, in the standard designs for Gill Sans the numeral 1, upper-case i and lower-case L look identical, so an alternate 1 was sold for numerical setting, such as on price-lists and timetables. Most alternate characters are not offered in any digitisation, restoring Gill's original preferences at the expense of user choice, but the alternate 1 is included in the Monotype Pro release and the alternate a and g returned in a digitised infant edition.
The series of drawings, extensions and redrawings of one of Monotype's most important designs (extending long beyond Gill's death) has left Gill Sans with a great range of alternative designs and releases. Monotype executive Dan Rhatigan, author of an article on Gill Sans's development after Gill's death, commented that Monotype's archives contain "enough [material] for a book just about the b, d, p, and q of Gill Sans."[a]
The digital release of Gill Sans, like many Monotype digitisations, has been criticised, in particular for excessively tight letter-spacing. Former ATypI president John Berry commented "both the regular weight and especially the light weight look much better when they’re tracked loose."
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. Gill, who thought of the design as something of a novelty, considered naming it 'Double Elefans'.
Gill was commissioned to develop a typeface with the number of allographs limited to what could be used on Monotype or Linotype machines.
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.
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. It can be identified by a tendency to use single-story as and (less often) 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. Generally modern sans-serif designs inspired by Gill tend to adapt the concept by creating a design more flowing and suitable for body text, and often also by releasing a wider and more homogeneous range of weights, something easier since the arrival of the computer due to the use of multiple master technology.
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.
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. (It was still considered unacceptable as a sans-serif design to some ultra-conservative printers who disliked sans-serif fonts as modern and unsound; when first shown at a printing conference in 1928 one called it 'typographical Bolshevism'.)
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 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.
The BBC adopted the typeface as its corporate typeface in 1997, including on its logo. 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, it has since switched its idents for BBC One and BBC Two to other fonts including Avenir.
While extremely popular in Britain, and to a lesser extent in European printing, Gill Sans did not achieve popularity with American printers in the hot metal era, with most preferring gothic designs like Franklin Gothic and geometric designs like Futura and Twentieth Century. The shadow-effect capitals-only fonts do appear in some US specimen brochures that otherwise excluded it in this period. Gill Sans therefore particularly achieved worldwide popularity after it became a system font on Macintosh computers, as well as with Microsoft Office. In Philadelphia,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.
Since 2001, Gill Sans is the official corporative typeface of the Spanish Government (Gobierno de España).
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.
The opening credits of the film A Walk Among the Tombstones used the font.
"Charlie Rose The Week", a weekly PBS program hosted by veteran broadcaster Charlie Rose, uses Gill Sans in its credits.
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. 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. 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. The companies SoftMaker and Fontsite obtained the rights to sell Gill Sans digitisations under different names, and have done so under the names 'Chantilly', 'Gibson' and others.
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- 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).