In 1928, Eric Gill set about to improve on Edward Johnston’s type for the London Underground. The result was Gill Sans. In a piece for Singapore’s designer magazine, Ben Archer argues that Gill failed:
I contend that the majority of character shapes in Gill Sans are actually worse than in Johnston’s design of fifteen years previous. Gill Sans achieved its pre-eminence because of the mighty marketing clout of the Monotype Corporation and the self-serving iconoclasm of its author. Thus, rather than Johnston’s lettering, it was Gill Sans that became the English national style of the mid-century.
Archer makes some excellent points that I’ve wanted to articulate for years, including:
- The initial lowercase ‘a’ versions were far better than what made the final cut (pictured far right).
- The addition of the crazy ‘a’ tail calls into question the removal of Johnston’s tail on the lowercase ‘l’.
- Digital versions of metal typefaces are often missing critical elements of the original.
- The heavy weights of Gill Sans are “aesthetically unjustifiable”.
Archer concludes with a list of alternatives, all of which are either improvements on Gill Sans or historical revivals of Johnston’s model. Here are links to those along with a few of my own suggestions:
Gill Sans Alternatives
Gill Sans (1928–32) by Eric Gill for Monotype
The OpenType Pro version released in 2005 offers multilingual and cross-platform support, but no additional Western glyphs besides an alternate numeral ‘1’.
Granby (metal in 1930) by Stephenson Blake
Stephenson Blake’s competitor to Gill Sans is actually closer to Johnston. As Archer informs, this is probably because they cut the wooden masters for the original Underground lettering. Granby is probably the most underused of the alternatives on this list.
Update (Mar 13, 2007) — Romesh Naik of Stuttgart has generously hosted photos of Granby specimens from a Stephenson, Blake book: here and here, including an interesting Inline version. Naik has many more wonderful images of specimen books in a Flickr set.
Bliss (1996) by Jeremy Tankard
Probably the most complete and usable of these alternatives, Bliss improves on nearly every failing in Johnston and Gill Sans. It’s also a great replacement for Frutiger and Syntax. “Forms were chosen for their simplicity, legibility, and ‘Englishness’”. See also Tankard’s Wayfarer, inspired by Granby.
Foundry Sterling by David Quay and Freda Sack for The Foundry
Released a few years after Bliss, Sterling seemed like a bit of a bandwagon jumper, but it has its own merits.
Agenda (1993–2000) by Greg Thompson for Font Bureau
The first Gill Sans follower with digital origins, Agenda is highly regularized for text settings with expanded weights and widths, but maintains some Johnston idiosyncrasy like the diamond dots.
P22 Underground (1997) by Paul Hunt and Rich Kegler for P22
An extensive expansion of their original revival with additions such as circle dots, petite caps, and broad language support. See this Print review and more discussion at Typophile. The most complete set of fonts in this list.
ITC Johnston (1999–2002) by David Farey for ITC
Farey’s family does the best job of all the interpretations in adapting Johnston’s alphabet for modern use.
English Grotesque (1998) by Rian Hughes for Device.
An exaggerated interpretation by the British comic book artist and letterer.
Tschichold (1933, 2001) by Jan Tschichold, Thierry Puyfoulhoux
It’s not widely known that Jan Tschichold, famous for Sabon, first drew a face heavily inspired by Gill Sans. An interesting and underused revival by Puyfoulhoux.
Today Sans by Volker Küster (1988) for Scangraphic
Jean François Porchez reminded me of this groundbreaking humanist family that influenced many followers, including Robert Slimbach’s excellent Cronos. Today, with its prevalent tails and angled ends, is more “friendly” and casual than Gill and its ilk.
Prenton RP (2006) by Roy Preston
An undiscovered modern alternative with plenty of cuts. Preston makes some of Gill’s decisions (lowercase ‘t’) seem workable.
FF Milo (2006) by Mike Abbink
FF Yoga Sans (2009) by Xavier Dupré
Halifax (2015) by Dieter Hofrichter
Update (Nov 9, 2007)