Circle and Sans Serif Line
February 5, 2010 6:36 AM   Subscribe

I think one of the main differences being that TfL takes its font and general graphic design very, very seriously.

They recognise that transport is an important part of the fabric of everyday life in London. It's important to keep the message clear and consistent - even if that comes at a cost.

The TTC, as usual, just seems to half-ass it. Witness Queen Station, one of the more important downtown stations, where they didn't even bother to maintain the font.

I know I shouldn't be so down on the TTC, it just irks me to see so much heritage and potential going to waste.
posted by generichuman at 6:51 AM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thank you for this post, though. I do adore both of those fonts.
posted by generichuman at 6:52 AM on February 5, 2010

Second link by MetaFilter's Own, by the way.
posted by Shepherd at 7:11 AM on February 5, 2010

Second link by MetaFilter's Own, by the way.

Discussed previously, here.
posted by Kabanos at 7:19 AM on February 5, 2010

Nice post. Speaking as a complete dilettante, I actually think I like both Johnston and New Johnston much better than Gill Sans (here's an interesting post comparing them). That lowercase "a" bugs me in particular; I was gratified to find that at least one person with actual design credentials seems to agree.
posted by en forme de poire at 7:28 AM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

On a tangent: are there any free-for-embedding (with @font-face) Johnstonesque humanist sans-serifs around?
posted by acb at 8:14 AM on February 5, 2010

I heart Gill Sans. My Metafilter is in Gill Sans and it helps to make it feel that little bit more British.
posted by him at 9:13 AM on February 5, 2010

Yes, the second link is mine. But this is kind of a double, is it not?

Also, Him, you do realize a discussion of London subway type is not actually a discussion about Gill Sans?
posted by joeclark at 9:23 AM on February 5, 2010

Ah, yes. Sorry. I was responding to en forme de poire's link two comments up. Having now read it, I appreciate the distinctions between Gill Sans and Johnston, but my heart is still drawn in the direction of Penguin and the Beeb rather than the Underground. Maybe it's because I'm not a Londoner.
posted by him at 9:28 AM on February 5, 2010

Thanks much for this, I enjoyed reading both links.

On our trip to Europe last year, we used public transit and trains in France, Switzerland, Germany, Holland and England. As well, we toured the fairly new London transit museum, which has a very informative exhibit about Pick, Johnson, and the story of the roundel (which I adore - it's so... British. We have one on the fridge now)

Like generichuman, I'm a bit less impressed by the TTC efforts in this area. I am a TTC fan, and love the original subway cars and station design, and especially the old PCC streetcars, but there's no getting around how the current signage is somewhat of a hodgepodge. It IS a typical Canadian product - it starts with good intentions and some decent planning and design, but by the second or third iteration, the original ideals have been forgotten or rejected, and half-assery ensues. I don't know if this is buried national insecurity, self-effacing reticence, fear of excelling, or just laziness.

(Disclaimer - I am an anxious self-critical Canadian living in Toronto)
posted by Artful Codger at 10:10 AM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

(Disclaimer - I am an anxious self-critical Canadian living in Toronto)

You could've just said, "I'm from Toronto," to much the same effect.


[Also not Torontoist]
posted by regicide is good for you at 10:37 AM on February 5, 2010 [8 favorites]

It IS a typical Canadian product - it starts with good intentions and some decent planning and design, but by the second or third iteration, the original ideals have been forgotten or rejected, and half-assery ensues.

I think it might be a deeper philosophical and political problem. London takes transport seriously - it's publicly important there. Nobody really seems to begrudge the purchase of new buses, trains or trams. Nobody really seems to mind that TfL has people employed to work on design and typeface.

I think they recognise that since lots of people spend a goodly portion of each day on the system, it might be nice to actually try to make their eyes bleed.

Contrast that with the TTC where they can't even get the streetcar priority signals turned on on Spadina ave.

Part of me suspects it's all a deeply rooted class thing. Driving and parking in London is so expensive and so impractical (and the city so huge) that even relatively well heeled professionals take public transport all the time.

In Toronto I think there's probably still the stigma of transport as something that's used by poor people who can't afford cars. There is no perceived need to make it a good experience, since not having to take transit is something people aspire out of.

That's my completely non-professional-friday-afternoon-$0.02 anyways. I am also an anxious self-critical Canadian living in Toronto, but also lived in London.
posted by generichuman at 11:03 AM on February 5, 2010

Rather, transit is something people aspire out of, and towards car ownership.

That could have been more clear. Stupid coffee.
posted by generichuman at 11:09 AM on February 5, 2010

I know I shouldn't be so down on the TTC, it just irks me to see so much heritage and potential going to waste.

Why the hell not? What have they gotten right lately? Or since you can remember?
posted by Evstar at 4:55 PM on February 5, 2010

Second link by MetaFilter's Own, by the way.

First link is as well - I'm John Bull.

Whenever you think about Johnston it is worth remembering that in some ways it's a real product of chance. There are four figures to whom it owes its existence (and brilliance) and the removal of any one of those figures would probably have left London with either a typographically schizophrenic Underground system, or one that would have likely leapt wholeheartedly into the Helvetica craze of the eighties and lost much of its character in the process.

The first - and most important - of those characters is Frank Pick. It really is impossible to underestimate the sheer importance of Pick in creating London Transport as we know it.* Pick was that rare instance of a manager who appreciated - and most importantly understood - both good design and good engineering. He also realised from a very early point in his career just how important the integration of both was to the successful operation of London's Transport network - both above ground and below.

Johnston is a direct legacy of that. Pick identified that there was a real need for better typography on the Underground and he was lucky enough to be in the position to do something about it.

The second of those people is of course Johnston himself, the lettering (and don't forget it was really lettering - initially he only created an upper-case, for example) that Johnston created for Pick was, quite simply, a masterpiece of design. That's not to say it doesn't have its flaws, of course, because it does - and many of those flaws would be addressed by Gill when he created Gill Sans or by Kono when he reinvented Johnston later on. Johnston, however, created a set of letters that were strong enough to remain relevant, largely without modification, for over sixty years - strong enough to survive until the importance of reinventing them rather than destroying them could be realised.

And that is where our third figure comes in - John Miles. Miles had the presence of mind to realise that not only had Pick's approach been correct, but that it was also still relevant. Most importantly, he was in the right place at the right time to try and convince London Underground of precisely that point. To a certain extent both the LUL Board (for ultimately opting to go along with his recommendations) and Colin Banks (for agreeing with him and for spotting Kono) deserve credit as well, but without Miles realising the importance of preserving the typographical tradition that had already been established, Johnston would have disappeared.

The fourth and final figure is obviously Eiichi Kono himself. If Johnston had created a masterpiece of lettering it was Kono who turned it into a masterful typeface. His work reinvigorated Johnston and effectively cemented its future as the typeface for London's Transport Network. When Transport For London (TfL) came into existence a few years later it was almost impossible for them not to use Johnston everywhere, and almost impossible for them not to realise the importance of keeping the typeface at the heart of the organisation.

I guess what I'm saying, in a very long-winded way, is that to a certain extent I've always felt its slightly unfair to compare the typographical history (and failures) of other transport networks to London Underground. TfL may (and indeed most certainly do) fully appreciate Johnston now, but the fact that it is in a position to do so at all is less due to any long term organisational appreciation of the typeface, than it is to a few key designers and managers being in the right place at the right time to make a real difference.

Johnston is often held up as an excellent example for organisations, as it vividly demonstrates the importance of good, consistent design. This is most certainly true, but what I think most people don't realise, is that it is also a perfect example of how important, sometimes, the individual - whether as designer or manager - can be in shaping a design legacy that makes millions of people's lives that little bit better on a daily basis.

Basically whether you're a designer trying to stop a client using Comic Sans, or a manager trying to explain to your staff why its important everyone writes their letters in the same font, you can look to the likes of Pick, Johnston, Miles and Kono and take heart in the fact that in many ways they were just doing the same thing. Sure, you may be doing it on a smaller scale, but that's just as important in its own way.

Besides, as Springsteen once (almost) said:

"From small-caps, mama, big things one day come."

*as an aside, there really is a shocking absence of good writing about Pick. There was a biography published in the 70s, but its heavily biaised towards his influence in the world of architecture rather than his transport legacy. I've been pulling together research on him for a while now but I don't think you could do justice to it via blog entries unfortunately.

Fascinating character though - used to regularly go out incognito on new bus routes to check that the stops were sited at the best possible locations. He was also the architect of the evacuation plan for the children of London during WW2.

posted by garius at 6:18 AM on February 6, 2010 [9 favorites]

I hate, hate, hate, hate, hate Univers. It's far uglier and even more boring than Helvetica. All the hideous parts of Arial come from Univers. The TTC is full of medium weight Univers, as if the platform wall were an office memo or something. Gah. It makes every arrival at Union Station the most underwhelmingly banal experience of my day.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:23 AM on February 6, 2010

PS: This post is a rare double double.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:04 PM on February 6, 2010

Not to try and be U.S.-centric or anything, but we also previously discussed the standardization of typeface on the NYC Subway (or lack thereof).

I used to really like Helvetica, and used it a lot when doing layout on my pages on my college paper. But recently I've soured on it a bit. I don't know why, exactly, other than pure overuse. But Gill Sans and Johnston are two amazing fonts--dignified, understated, and clear, and with much more character than the intentionally neutral Helvetica. I really like the concept of a living font, too. Seems to fit with the times.
posted by thecaddy at 4:08 PM on February 8, 2010

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