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
Variations Gill Kayo

Gill Sans is a sans-serif typeface designed by Eric Gill and released by the British branch of Monotype from 1928 onwards.

The original design was created in 1926 when Douglas Cleverdon opened a bookshop in his home town of Bristol, for which Gill painted a fascia over the window in sans-serif capitals.[1][2] In addition, Gill sketched a design for Cleverdon as a guide for him to use for notices and announcements.[3]

Gill developed his design into a typeface on the commission of Stanley Morison of Monotype, who hoped that the design could be a competitor to 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 titling capitals that was quickly followed by a lower-case.[4]

Gill was a well established sculptor, graphic artist and type designer, and Gill Sans takes inspiration from Edward Johnston’s Johnston alphabet for London Underground, which Gill had worked on while apprenticed to Johnston; this 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.[5] Designed before setting documents entirely in sans-serif text was common, its standard weight is noticeably bolder than most modern body text fonts.[6][7]

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.[8][9] It also soon became used on the modernist, deliberately simple covers of Penguin books, and was sold up to very large sizes which were often used in British posters and notices of the period.[10] The popularity of Gill Sans influenced many other typefaces, and helped to define the genre of the humanist sans-serif.

Monotype expanded the original regular or medium weight into a large family of styles, such as condensed, schoolbook and shadowed versions, which it continues to sell.[11] A basic set is distributed with iOS and Mac OS X and with some Microsoft software as Gill Sans MT.[12]


Gill Sans is often used in an all-caps setting, as on this 1949 railway poster.

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 traditional serif lettering (for the lower case).

The upper-case of Gill Sans is partly modelled on monumental Roman capitals like those found on the Column of Trajan. Some aspects of Gill Sans have a geometric feel: the O is an almost perfect circle and the capital M is based on the proportions of a square with the middle strokes meeting at the centre of that square; this was not inspired by Roman carving but is very similar to Johnston.[a] The 'R' with its widely splayed leg is Gill's preferred design, unlike that of Johnston; Mosley has suggested that this may be inspired by an Italian Renaissance carving in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.[13][14] The humanist influence is noticeable in the two-story lower-case a and g, unlike that of Futura. 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 italic of Caslon.[15] Like most serif fonts (but unlike most sans-serif fonts), several weights and releases of Gill Sans use ligatures to allow its expansive letter f to join up with or fit around following letters.

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 and was originally marketed as such. Indeed, even the lighter weights are somewhat inconsistent. 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."[16] (It should be noted that at this time the idea that sans-serif typefaces should form a consistent family, with glyph shapes consistent between all weights and even sizes, had not fully developed: it was quite normal for fonts to vary as seemed appropriate for their weight.) Past the bold weight the designs have an extremely eccentric design of 'i' and 'j' with the dots (tittles) smaller than their parent letter.


Alternate characters from Gill Sans Nova, most or all based on those offered in the metal type era.[17]

Morison commissioned Gill to develop Gill Sans after they had worked together on releasing Gill's serif design Perpetua from 1925 onwards. Morison is known to have visited Cleverdon's bookshop while in Bristol in 1927, although this may not have been the exact point of the project's genesis.[18][19]

Extensive material on the development of Gill Sans survives through records in Monotype's archives at Salfords and in Gill's papers. While the capitals resemble Johnston quite closely, the archives document Gill (and the Monotype team, who developed a final precise design and spacing) grappling with the challenge of creating a viable sans-serif lower-case and italic. Early concept art for the italic looked very different, with swashes on many capitals, resulting in a design somewhat similar to Goudy Sans.[20] The final released italic was more restrained, almost an oblique in many characters such as the 'e'. In the upright style, particular areas of discussion were the 'a' (several versions and sizes in the hot metal era had a straight tail like Johnston's or a mildly curving tail) and the b, d, p and q, where some versions (and sizes, since the same weight would not be identical at every size) had stroke ends visible and others did not.[b] Wedge cuts at the top of ascenders were also considered.[10] 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."[22] While Morison was an enthusiastic backer of the project, Monotype's engineering manager and type designer F.H. Pierpont was reportedly unconvinced by the project, commenting that he could "see nothing in this design to recommend it and much that is objectionable."[23]

To cater for the tastes and national printing styles of different countries, Monotype developed a set of alternate characters. These include Futura-inspired designs of N, M, R, a, g, t and others, a Garamond-inspired W, an R with a tighter leg, an alternative Q with swash tail (a design preferred by the LNER), oblique designs as opposed to the standard true italic, a more curvaceous italic e and several alternative numeral designs.[17][8] 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 number-heavy situations where this could otherwise cause confusion, such as on price-lists.[6][c] Most alternate characters were not offered in any digitisation until the 2015 Nova release (see below), restoring Gill's first choices at the expense of user choice, but the alternate 1 was included in the Monotype Pro release and the alternate a and g returned in a digitised infant edition. Gill was involved in the design of these alternates, and Monotype's archive preserve notes that he rethought the geometric designs. Other work such as the decorative versions may more have been designed by the Monotype office, with Gill examining, critiquing and approving the designs sent to him. Gill's son-in-law Denis Tegetmeier may also have prepared drafts of Kayo.[24]

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.

Weights and styles[edit]

Compilation image of the fonts of the Gill Sans family intended for display use.

Gill Sans proved extremely successful and Monotype rapidly produced a wide variety of additional designs.

Versions of Gill Sans exist in display, condensed, outlined (Monotype ser. 290[25]), ultra bold (ser. 442), among others, and also Greek and Cyrillic letters. An ultra-light version slightly lighter than the normal light style was also not digitally available until the 2015 Nova release.[26] Several shadowed designs are currently available, including a capitals-only regular shadowed design and a light-shadowed version with deep relief shadows. In the metal type era, a 'cameo ruled' design that placed white letters in boxes or against a stippled black background was available.[27][28][29][30]

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 design named Kayo (from knockout, implying its solidity). This has often been branded as Gill Sans Ultra Bold, though in practice many letters vary considerably from the structure of Gill Sans. It is available in regular and condensed widths.[31][32][33] Gill, who thought of the design as something of a novelty, considered naming it 'Double Elefans'.[34] Gill's colleague Robert Harling reportedly described it as 'dismal' and sarcastically commented that "typographical historians of 2000AD (which isn’t, after all, so very far away) will find this odd outburst in Mr Gill’s career, and will spend much time in attempting to track down this sad psychological state of his during 1936."[35][36] It was particularly popular in graphic design of the 1970s and 80s.[37]


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.[38][39]

Digital releases[edit]

A Penguin paperback from 1949 compared to digital Gill Sans semi-bold above it. It can be seen that the original has a subtly different weight compared to the digitisation, and somewhat looser spacing. The tail of the 'g' also seems somewhat differently proportioned.

The digital releases of Gill Sans fall into several main phases: the early releases before 2005 (which includes most bundled ‘system’ versions of Gill Sans), the 2005 Pro edition, and the 2015 Nova release which adds many alternate characters and is in part included with Windows 10. In general characteristics for common weights the designs are similar, but there are some changes: for example in the book weight the 2005 release used circular ij dots but the 2015 release uses square designs, and the 2015 release simplifies some ligatures.

The digital release of Gill Sans, like many Monotype digitisations, has been criticised, in particular for excessively tight letter-spacing. In the hot metal era this varied by size, with wider spacing at smaller text sizes. In the phototype period Monotype continued to offer three sizes of master, but this subtlety was lost on transfer to digital. Former ATypI president John Berry commented "both the regular weight and especially the light weight look much better when they’re tracked loose."[40] Like all metal type revivals, reviving Gill Sans also raises the issue of how to compensate for the ink spread that would have been seen in print, so the weight of printed Gill Sans and its digital facsimile may not always quite match.

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.[41] This release offered a 'schoolbook' version using the 'geometric' a and g, which more resemble the characters used in handwriting.[42] (In the Nova release, this is folded into the standard weights, with the schoolbook/geometric characters being offered as stylistic alternates in the same digital font file.)

Gill Sans Nova (2015)[edit]

A massive remastering and expansion, Gill Sans Nova adds many additional variants, including some of the previously undigitised inline versions and stylistic alternates and an ultra-light weight (once an option in metal type) which had been digitised for Grazia.[43] The basic set of Regular, Light and Bold weights is bundled with Windows 10. The fonts differ from Gill Sans MT in their adoption of the hooked 1 as default. Monotype celebrated the release with a London exhibition on Gill's work, as they had in 1958 to mark the general release of Gill's serif design Joanna.[44][45][46][47] One addition was italic swash caps, which had considered by Gill but never released.

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. Jan Tschichold, who would later make extensive use of Gill Sans while working for Penguin, created a similar design for an early phototype machine, which was at the time little-used.[48]

Jeremy Tankard's Bliss and Volker Küster's Today Sans are modern variations. Arthur Vanson's Chesham Sans is inspired by the British tradition of sans-serif signpainting, with many similarities to Gill's work.[49] Rowton Sans is inspired by Gill but has a nearly upright italic, similar to that used by Gill in his serif font Joanna.[50]

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.[51][52][53][54] 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.[20][55][56][57] Indeed, Monotype themselves released Joanna Sans in 2015, as a screen-optimised sans-serif font intended to complement (but not exactly match) Gill’s serif design Joanna.[58][59]


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.[10][60]

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.[21][60] The LNER promoted their rebranding by offering Gill (who was fascinated with railway engines) a footplate ride on the Flying Scotsman; he also painted a custom version of Gill Sans for the signboard.[d] (While Monotype marketed it as an artistic development of sans-serif type, it was still considered unacceptable by some ultra-conservative printers who saw all sans-serif type as modern and unsound; when first shown at a printing conference in 1928 one called it 'typographical Bolshevism'.)[7]

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 Railway Executive (part of 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 the British official mapping agency Ordnance Survey. The result was that Gill Sans became Monotype's fifth best selling typeface of the 20th century.[citation needed]

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 included Railtrack (and initially its successor 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.

Gill Sans on some Penguin Crime novels, with a modern reprint at bottom left
Gill Sans Condensed on an East German sign

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 Monotype's own Twentieth Century; Linotype's dominance in the American market may have been a factor in this.[10] The shadow-effect capitals-only fonts appear in some US specimen brochures that otherwise excluded it in this period.[30][61] 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).

Edward Tufte, the information design theorist, uses Gill Sans on his website[62] and in some of his published works.[63]

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.

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

Islington Council in London also uses this font.

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

British rock band Bloc Party used Gill Sans MT in its logo from 2004 to 2015. They have since switched to Gill Sans Light.

Legal aspects[edit]

A railway timetable using Gill Sans from 1950.
Logo of the Spanish government
Gill Sans on an LNER hotel menu, 1940

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.[64] 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.[65] K22, a foundry in Quezon City operated by the designer 'Toto G', has released two Gill Sans shadowed variants 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.[66][67] 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.[68][69]


  • 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.


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  1. ^ Mosley suggests that this may have been Gill's idea even in Johnston, since it does not resemble Johnston's calligraphy.[10]
  2. ^ An accessible specimen showing this is the Monotype Recorder article on the LNER timetable, which prints the sizes and weights the LNER favoured: stroke ends are visible on the 18pt medium but not the 10pt medium sample on d, p and q.[21]
  3. ^ Although not all timetables used it: for example, the L.N.E.R. preferred the simple version.[8]
  4. ^ The signboard survives in the collection of the St. Bride's Library.[10]

External links[edit]