Johnston (typeface)

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Johnston 2.png
Category Sans-serif
Classification Humanist
Designer(s) Edward Johnston, Eric Gill
Foundry Linotype
Date created 1916
Also known as Underground, Johnston's Railway Type
A London Underground map of the Heathrow Airport loop and Terminal 5 stub on the Piccadilly line with text in the New Johnston typeface
Johnston printing blocks

Johnston (or Johnston Sans) is a sans-serif typeface designed by and named after Edward Johnston and commissioned by Frank Pick. It has been the corporate font of public transport in London since the foundation of the London Passenger Transport Board in 1933, and of predecessor companies since 1916, making its use one of the world's longest-lasting examples of corporate branding. It remains a copyrighted property of the LPTB's successor, Transport for London.[1] It originated the genre of the humanist sans-serif typeface, typefaces that are sans-serif but take inspiration from traditional serif fonts and Roman inscriptions.

Johnston's student Eric Gill worked on the development of the typeface, which was later to influence his own Gill Sans typeface, released in 1928–32. As Johnston, a corporate font, was until recently not available for public licensing, Gill Sans would become used much more widely.[2]


The capitals of the typeface are based on Roman square capitals, and the lower-case on the humanistic minuscule, the handwriting in use in Italy in the fifteenth century. In this, it marked a break with the kinds of sans serif then popular, which are now normally known as grotesques, which tended to have squarer shapes. Other aspects are more geometric: the letter O is a perfect circle. The minuscule letters i and j have diagonally-placed square tittles, a motif that is repeated in the full stop, commas, apostrophes and other punctuation marks, which are also based on the diagonal square dot. As with most serif fonts, the 'g' is a 'two-story' design.

Johnston brought the font (at the time called an 'alphabet') through a design process that considered a variety of eccentricities, such as a Garamond-style W formed of two crossed 'V's, and a capital-form 'q' in the lower-case, before ultimately discarding them in favour of a clean, simplified design.[3][a] Johnston greatly admired Roman capitals, writing that they "held the supreme place among letters for readableness and beauty. They are the best forms for the grandest and most important inscriptions."[3]

As an alphabet intended for signage, Johnston was originally designed without any italics. Any italic design seen is therefore an invention of a later designer, intended to match Johnston's design. Different designers have chosen different approaches to achieve this, with some releases taking the view that using Johnston in italic is inappropriate to the purpose of the original design and therefore offering none at all.[5][6]


The typeface was commissioned in 1913 by Frank Pick, Commercial Manager of the Underground Electric Railways Company of London (also known as 'The Underground Group'), as part of his plan to strengthen the company's corporate identity, and introduced in 1916.[7] Pick specified to Johnston that he wanted a typeface that would ensure that the Underground Group's posters would not be mistaken for advertisements; it should have "the bold simplicity of the authentic lettering of the finest periods" and belong "unmistakably to the twentieth century".[8] In 1933, The Underground Group was absorbed by the London Passenger Transport Board and the typeface was adopted as part of the London Transport brand. As early as 1937, the LPTB mentioned it as a package promoting the system's billboards to advertisers as an example of its commitment to stylish design, along with its commission of art from Feliks Topolski.[9]

The font family was originally called Underground. It became known as Johnston's Railway Type, and later simply Johnston. It comes with two weights, heavy and ordinary. Heavy does not contain lower-case letters.

New Johnston[edit]

A modern sign at Leytonstone station, using Johnston
Vintage sign, from before the Johnston typeface was standardised

Johnston was originally printed using wood type for large signs and metal type for print. London Transport often did not use Johnston for general small printing, with many documents such as bus maps using other typefaces such as Gill Sans. By the 1970s, as cold type was becoming the norm for printing, Johnston had become difficult for printers to use. Signs and posters of the period started to use other, more easily sourced typefaces such as Helvetica, Univers and News Gothic.[10] To maintain London Transport's old corporate identity, Johnston was rendered into cold type.

Rather than simply producing a phototype of the original design, Johnston was redesigned in 1979 by Eiichi Kono at Banks & Miles to produce New Johnston. The new family comes in eight members: Light, Medium, Bold weights with corresponding Italics, Medium Condensed and Bold Condensed (the old family had only two weights: Regular and Bold, and the latter had no lowercase letters). After all precisely hand-drawn letters (nearly 1,000) were completed and sent to AlphaType for digitisation in the USA in 1981-82, New Johnston finally became ready for Linotron photo-typesetting machine, and first appeared in London's Underground stations in 1983. It is the official typeface exclusively used by Transport for London and The Mayor of London ever since.

The New Johnston Medium as the new standard is slightly heavier or bolder than the original Johnston Regular (or sometimes confusingly called Medium) and lighter than the original Bold, and has a larger x-height, made suitable for main text setting as well as large display sizes. The average x-height of the New Johnston is roughly 7% larger than the original as the limit for keeping the original Johnston flavour, which was fundamental. The larger x-height allowed larger counters, and type size (size of x-height in particular) and weight are reciprocal factors for legibility, but enlarging x-height can affect style and appearance. Since the original Johnston weights, Regular and Bold, were maintained as closely as possible, inevitably New Johnston Medium appears very close to Light and Bold. This is the whole point of this particular solution because New Johnston Medium works as the one-fits-all standard font for virtually every application from large type sizes for posters and signs to minute type sizes for pocket map maintaining much improved legibility. Punctuation marks are matched the diamond tittle, differing from Johnston's original design, enhancing the identity of London Transport. The enlarged x-height gives New Johnston a very 1970s feel, somewhat reminiscent of ITC designs of the period.

In 1990-1992 Banks and Miles, in partnership with Signus Limited digitised the first PostScript Type 1 fonts for the then London Transport under the auspices of the Corporate Design Manager, Roger Hughes. In 2002 the typeface was digitized on behalf of Transport for London by Agfa Monotype Corporation, with the addition of two further weights, Book and Book Bold, and as well as corresponding italic variants. The revised font family – not commercially available – is known as 'New Johnston TfL'. In the early stages of digitisation, there was the chronic problem in letter-spacing, which seems to be solved more or less by now.

A further change occurred in 2008 when Transport for London removed the serif from the numeral '1' and also altered the '4', in both cases reverting these to their original appearance.

Johnston Delf Smith[edit]

The petit-serif variation of the font, as seen at Sudbury Town tube station

This variant was commissioned by Frank Pick as a petit-serif variation of the organisation's standard sans-serif Johnston face and was designed Percy Delf Smith, a former pupil of Edward Johnston. The typeface was originally used for the headquarters building at 55 Broadway, SW1. It can still be seen on some signs at Sudbury Town and Arnos Grove on the Piccadilly line.

In early 2007, a digitisation of the typeface was developed by TfL under the name Johnston Delf Smith for its own use on historic signs. It remains the property of TfL.[11] Designer Matthieu Cortat has released an unrelated implementation of the design commercially, under the name Petit Serif.[12]

ITC Johnston[edit]

An early sign for Tufnell Park station, not using Johnston.

International Typeface Corporation released a variant in 1999 called ITC Johnston, produced by British type designers Richard Dawson and Dave Farey. It originally included three font weights like New Johnston. However, it does not include the hooked 1 and uses side-pointed 4.

In November 2002, the typeface was rereleased in OpenType format, which also expanded the font family to include italic fonts (resembling those of Gill Sans) in all weights. Character set was expanded to support the ISO Adobe 2 character set.[clarification needed] OpenType features include alternates, case forms, small caps (romans only), old style figure. Separate small caps (romans only) and old style figure faces were also released for each weight in TrueType and PostScript formats, for a total of fifteen typefaces.

ITC Johnston Pro[edit]

Released in March 2009, this version includes support of Adobe CE character set.[clarification needed]

P22 versions[edit]

Johnston Underground[edit]

In 1997, London Transport Museum licensed the original Johnston typeface exclusively to P22 Type Foundry, available commercially as Johnston Underground. Johnston Underground included Regular, Bold, and Extras weights, with the Extra containing only ornamental symbols.

Underground Pro[edit]

P22 later had Paul Hunt add to their version of the Underground typeface to create the Underground Pro (or P22 Underground Pro) family. The full Underground Pro Set contains nineteen Pro OpenType fonts and 58 Basic OpenType fonts, covering extended Latin, Greek, Cyrillic character sets. Weights are expanded to six: Thin, Light, Book, Medium, Demi, Heavy. Underground, Underground CY, Underground GR support extended Latin, Cyrillic, Greek characters respectively. The Latin sub-family contains medium weight Titling fonts, which feature underscored and/or overscored Latin small letters. Pro fonts include extensive OpenType features, including eleven stylistic sets with stylistic alternates inspired by early signs, Johnston's calligraphy and draft designs for Johnton and geometric sans designs such as Futura.[4][3] Following the lead of Johnston's original, P22 decided not to offer an itaIic.

London 2012 wayfinding signage at Glasgow Central railway station.

Railway Sans[edit]

An open-source interpretation of Johnston's original by Justin Howes and Greg Fleming.[13][14] Intended for non-commercial use, including a number of alternate glyphs such as a Garamond-inspired W (used on old signs at West Brompton station), ligatures and a characteristic arrow design.[15]


Its use has included the Tube map, nameplates and general station signing, as well as much of the printed material issued by the Underground Group and its successors; also by the nationalised British Road Services in the immediate post-war era.

It was also used for wayfinding signs at the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games,[16] including venues outside London.[17] It is also used in the overlays of the BBC TV show Sherlock. New Johnston is used for signage in the fictional Princeton–Plainsboro Teaching Hospital in the Fox TV show House, although in later seasons the similar font Gill Sans was used, most noticeably on Wilson's door during season 8. It is also used in the way finding signage at Westfield London.

Comparison between Gill Sans and Johnston
Johnston (upper) and Gill Sans (lower), showing some of the most distinctive differences between these similar typefaces.

Similar fonts[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Several of these have been included in the P22 digitisation, described below.[4]


  1. ^ "Copyright and Licensing". London Transport Museum. Retrieved 23 December 2014. 
  2. ^ "Font Designer - Edward Johnston". Linotype GmbH. Retrieved 2007-11-05. 
  3. ^ a b c Tam, Keith (2002). Calligraphic tendencies in the development of sanserif types in the twentieth century (PDF). Reading: University of Reading (MA thesis). 
  4. ^ a b "P22 Johnston specimen" (PDF). P22. Retrieved 8 November 2015. 
  5. ^ "ITC Johnston". Monotype. Retrieved 11 July 2015. 
  6. ^ "P22 Underground pdf specimen". P22. Retrieved 11 July 2015. 
  7. ^ Green, Oliver; Rewse-Davies, Jeremy (1995). Designed for London: 150 years of transport design. London: Laurence King. pp. 81–2. ISBN 1-85669-064-4. 
  8. ^ Barman, Christian (1979). The Man Who Built London Transport: A Biography of Frank Pick. David & Charles. p. 43. ISBN 0-7153-7753-1. 
  9. ^ Coles, Stephen. "London Transport ad: Edward Johnston". Fonts in Use. Retrieved 17 January 2016. 
  10. ^ Lew, David. "No Smoking sign in Helvetica". Retrieved 23 December 2014. 
  11. ^ "Johnston Delf Smith". Transport for London. Retrieved 23 December 2014. 
  12. ^ Cortat, Matthieu. "Petit Serif". MyFonts. Retrieved 23 December 2014. 
  13. ^ Johnston’s ‘Railway’ Sans
  14. ^
  15. ^ "Great roundels of the DISTRICT line". Diamond Geezer blog. Retrieved 13 May 2015. 
  16. ^ "London 2012: the look of the Games". CreativeReview. 12 July 2012. Retrieved 24 August 2012. 
  17. ^ "Weymouth and Portland Olympic sailing venue". 6 August 2012. Retrieved 24 August 2012. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Howes, Justin (2000). Johnston’s Underground Type. Harrow Weald: Capital Transport. ISBN 1-85414-231-3. 
  • Banks, Colin (1994). London’s Handwriting: the development of Edward Johnston’s Underground railway block-letter. London Transport Museum. ISBN 1-85476-098-X. 
  • Ovenden, Mark (2013). London Underground by Design. Particular Books. ISBN 9781846144172. 
  • Garfield, Simon. Just My Type: A Book about Fonts=Profile Books=2010. ISBN 978-1846683015. 

External links[edit]

Johnston Delf Smith[edit]

New Johnston[edit]

ITC Johnston[edit]