The Ditchling Museum is currently running an exhibition of the work of Edward Johnston, in commemoration of one hundred years of his typeface for London Underground.


A calligrapher and teacher, Johnston was commissioned by London Transport to develop an alphabet for use on signing and graphics. In doing so he broke away from the contemporary usage of Victorian grotesque sans serifs and, to some extent, the traditions of scribed calligraphy. The letterforms he used, and his student Eric Gill followed, were classical, derived from the Roman tradition of stone-carved forms, improvising more freely with the lower case letters. What emerged was the earliest sans serif type to be successfully employed across a transport system and, with modifications, still in use today. Johnston’s design led the way for subsequent attempts to design legible type for signing in public situations.


The British Rail alphabet by Jock Kinneir, Standard/Helvetica on New York’s subway (Massimo Vignelli), the Paris Metro type (Adrian Frutiger), the Clearview Highway (many designers) and the Transport type (Kinneir and Calvert) on US and UK road systems respectively, have arguably all taken lessons from Johnston’s example.


From my own experience, being conscious of others who had grappled with issues of legibility, weight, colour and scale, was a constant background reminder when making design decisions on transport projects. With the MTR Corporation in Hong Kong we decided on Myriad, an early example of a sans serif with multiple weights. With the Land Transport Authority in Singapore we opted for a special design to identify station names, drawing inspiration from traditional brush script forms, and Ocean Sans for general signing.


When commissioned to update the UK rail system signs (in part for digital application), we proposed alignment with the continental use of blue grounds with white lettering in preference to the earlier black on white, thus making the words and pictograms stand out more clearly. The new type design, which we called Brunel, saved space and improved clarity. Brunel was carefully realised by typographers David Quay and Freda Sack from our design brief, with different weights to accommodate illuminated and non-illuminated messages. The typeface was envisaged for use across the UK rail network, but as individual rail operators adopted their own designs Brunel became restricted to the major stations managed by Network Rail.


In the exhibition a letter from Johnston’s client shows that the Underground was unsure of ‘the market value of the design’, but could Johnston send his account anyway. I don’t know if history records the fee for Johnston’s work, but they surely got a bargain. Fees apart, the tradition of transport type design instigated by Johnston and his enlightened client lives on, albeit intermittently.