Some "bloody design consistency" on the Underground
September 18, 2009 4:33 PM   Subscribe

Eiichi’s self-confessed shock is now hopefully more understandable – he was not simply being asked to rework an old typeface, he was being asked to touch up an acknowledged “Old Master.” Johnstone Sans - A Typeface for the Underground.

Johnston Sans helped begat the also classic Gill Sans, created by the now infamous Eric Gill (Previously)

The undergroud font is commercially available from P22.

Britsh Rail commisioned its own typeface in the 1960's known as the Rail Alphabet (new version here), created by Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert who also produced the system for Britain's road and motorway signage (a free version is available here).
posted by badrolemodel (25 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Also previously.
posted by badrolemodel at 4:36 PM on September 18, 2009

I totally only just now grasped that the obsession with typefaces is equivalent in some respects to avidity for calligraphy. Avidity for calligraphy, say that three times fast.
posted by XMLicious at 4:40 PM on September 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

The author keeps referring to "san serif", when it should be "sans serif", no?
posted by mrnutty at 4:45 PM on September 18, 2009

It's obviously the small Mediterranean island nation of San Seriffe.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 4:52 PM on September 18, 2009

San Seriffe is in the Indian Ocean, JZ. Usually.
posted by hattifattener at 4:58 PM on September 18, 2009

And it's apparently normally spelled with a double R as well. Neither of those make much sense to me, so I'm claiming artistic license.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 5:01 PM on September 18, 2009

I like the font that looks all bloody. Why don't we ever see any articles about it?

posted by mccarty.tim at 5:09 PM on September 18, 2009 [5 favorites]

And Omar Sharif has a brother named San. (And another brother named John, but that's another derail... oops, shouldn't have said 'derail' in a thread related to a subway system).
posted by wendell at 5:14 PM on September 18, 2009

That was a fascinating read. Thanks for sharing.
posted by Caduceus at 5:27 PM on September 18, 2009

I have been looking for an electronic copy of Rail Alphabet. But at £100 per weight (and £1000 for the whole thing), I think that I'll have to make do with Helvetica.
posted by acb at 6:00 PM on September 18, 2009

Btw, I wonder how much the redigitisation of Rail Alphabet ties in with nostalgia for pre-Thatcherite public institutions noted in the Keep Calm And Carry On thread. It's certainly good timing, if nothing else.
posted by acb at 6:30 PM on September 18, 2009

This is very interesting. Terrific post.
posted by Methylviolet at 7:08 PM on September 18, 2009

Cool! I've never known much about typography, but now I'm fascinated. Has any fiction been written involving the subject, even tangentially?
posted by stray at 1:14 AM on September 19, 2009

Fantastic typefaces. Thanks for this.
posted by Lleyam at 1:47 AM on September 19, 2009

the litthe squares instead of over the i & j's get me every time. *swoon*
posted by dabitch at 2:57 AM on September 19, 2009

Johnston Sans works brilliantly as an upper-case display face on big notices saying TICKET OFFICE or WAY OUT or THE LONDON TRANSPORT PASSENGER BOARD HEREBY GIVE NOTICE THAT THIS FOOTPATH IS A PRIVATE FOOTPATH. That's what it was designed for, after all. But it doesn't work so well in lower-case on all the posters you see around the Underground saying Transport for London would like to apologise to all its customers for the delays to their journey yesterday. It does the job of giving the transport system a strong brand identity, but it doesn't alter the fact that most of the signage on the Underground is a mess: too much information, too much clutter, and a lot of the really important information hidden away where you can't find it.

I'm a Londoner, so naturally I love the classic London Underground designs (doesn't everybody?) and Edward Johnston and Frank Pick are up there in my personal pantheon of saints. On the other hand, I sometimes think that the reputation of Johnston Sans as a 'design classic' is as much of a hindrance as a help to good design on the Tube, in that it makes TfL complacent about their brand identity and prevents a radical rethink of Tube signage. Take the furore last week over the redesign of the Tube map. (Explanation for non-Londoners: the tube map was redesigned to remove the River Thames. There was such an outcry that Boris Johnson has now ordered the Thames to be put back. More details here.) I think it's great that Londoners feel so possessive about the Tube map. (How often do you see the general public getting so passionate about a piece of design?) But the fact remains that the current version of the Tube map is overloaded with information and badly needs decluttering. The same is true of Tube signage in general.
posted by verstegan at 3:24 AM on September 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Blimey. I've just been Metafiltered. How... Well... Meta.

"John Bull" is my pen name - that's my blog and I wrote the article. *giggles and blushes. But in a manly way.*

Another fun fact about Eiichi that I didn't put in the article - he was also the key player in the design of Meiryo, the standard Japanese display typeface used by Vista (and Windows 7).

@verstegan - Johnston can work well at lower point sizes - that's one of the major reasons it was redesigned - but you are correct in that TfL could probably do with hiring someone with a decent knowledge of Information Architecture.

My impression (from my conversations with Mike Ashworth) is that this is something that they are gradually becoming more aware of, and hopefully we'll see some steps to remedy the situation and enforce some new, well thought out, standards in the next couple of years.

With regards to the map, I think I'm one of the few people who actually thought they'd done a decent job with the new version. However you cut it, the old map had become ridiculously cluttered, and this was an effort to take it back to the really core information that was vital to "at a glance" travel. I don't think there was any intention of replacing the full "London Connections" map that graces most stations and which features the FULL network, zones, related transport etc.

Don't get me wrong, I liked having the Thames on the map (it helped me avoid accidentally going south of the river) so that's the one thing I thought they got wrong - but it wasn't exactly vital unless they were going to start indicating piers etc.

Despite how it's being presented in the Evening Standard and suchlike, there was a lot of planning that went into that new map, and also a certain degree of boundary pushing - TfL know they've got to do a new one in December anyway when the Circle Line gets tea-cupped, so this was a good opportunity to try and do things a little differently.

Finally, don't get me started on our Esteemed Mayor's role in this - he's rolling in from New York playing the popular hero and, as usual, the Standard and the rest are lapping it up. Not one of them has noticed that the change took place before he left. Nor have they remembered that he's also the sodding Chairman of TfL. The map would have been discussed at board level - so where was he when this happened? Not to mention I'm pretty certain I remember him boasting on twitter about seeing a preview of it a few months back.

The shit the papers let that man get away with makes my blood boil.

Anyway. Sorry. Rant Over.

Moving vaguely back on topic, I'm actually thinking about doing a piece similar to this Johnston article on the Underground map in the not-too-distant future.

The map's history and evolution is just as interesting, yet is normally just summed up in the following statement - "the tube map was created by Harry Beck" - a statement that's hugely unfair on a whole host of others who had (and still have) a great deal of input into it.

Similarly, I'd really like to do one on Eric Gill's battle with the Government over the typography of motorway signs - its a fascinating story. Can't really justify doing it on the blog though - as obviously it wouldn't really be about "London Transport" and is therefore kind of "out of scope." So short of bumping into the editor of Wired or something randomly in a pub and getting him drunk enough to agree to let me write it up, I suspect that's one that won't see the light of day.

Oh, and I fixed the "san-serif" thing first thing this morning. Sorry about that, I got into the habit of spelling it wrong when I first got into web design and old habits die hard.
posted by garius at 4:20 AM on September 19, 2009 [14 favorites]

If only they put this much care and attention to detail into the bloody trains.
posted by public at 4:33 AM on September 19, 2009

Cheers Garius/John Bull. I'd often notice on older signs on the tube (such as ones that still say British Rail etc) that the font was slightly different, and I'd always wondered when exactly it was changed - thanks for such an interesting article.

As for Calvert & Wilson, it's simply staggering to think that in the sixties those two were given free license to completely rewrite the handwriting of Britian, as it were. Just a shame Rail Alphabet is slowly dying out, the new station signage in Scotland being worst of all IMHO
posted by F Lafferty at 5:06 AM on September 19, 2009

Delightful story! I especially loved this picture. Brings back many fond memories.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:20 AM on September 19, 2009

I'm a grad student in Digital Rhetoric and Professional Writing and I have to say, it made me happy to see the phrase "professional writing" show up in this article. Most people don't even have any idea what that might entail. And we are almost all huge typography geeks, so I will be sharing this article with my cohort.
posted by Tesseractive at 9:35 AM on September 19, 2009

Garius - I'll definitely be bookmarking the blog (as a Londoner, of course, my primary obsession is transportation), but I was wondering: you obviously photograph a lot of stations and platforms. Have you been arrested yet at all?
posted by Grangousier at 10:34 AM on September 19, 2009

F Lafferty, it's not the typography - it's just that Crosshill Station is an irredeemably dismal shitehole.

(Glasgow Suburban Electric Forever!)
posted by scruss at 11:34 AM on September 19, 2009

Garius - I'll definitely be bookmarking the blog (as a Londoner, of course, my primary obsession is transportation), but I was wondering: you obviously photograph a lot of stations and platforms. Have you been arrested yet at all?

To be honest, most of the photos are kindly contributed by people who are far better at transport photography than me or who happen to be in the right place at the right time. The blog is very much a community thing in that way.

I've never had a particular problem with photography when I have done it though - mainly I've found that as long as you're polite and let staff know what you're up to, then they're fine.

Actually a not-inconsiderable amount of the photos I get are actually from the staff. After all, they're interested in London Transport too!
posted by garius at 11:53 AM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Great post.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 12:49 PM on September 19, 2009

« Older It’s on and on and on on and on like the hot...   |   You see this marshmallow? You don’t have to eat it... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments