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Commentary

Questioning Gill Sans

Stephen Coles on March 11, 2007

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:

Gill Sans lowercase 'a' variants

  • 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’. [FontShop]

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. [MyFonts]

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. [MyFonts] [FontShop]

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. [MyFonts] [FontShop]

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. [MyFonts] [FontShop]

English Grotesque (1998) by Rian Hughes for Device.
An exaggerated interpretation by the British comic book artist and letterer. [MyFonts] [FontShop]

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. [FontShop]

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. [MyFonts]

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

Astoria Sans (2011) by Alan Meeks.
Very similar to Gill Sans in the middle weights, but much more uniform and compatible in the extremes. There is also a wedge-seriffed companion.

Update (Nov 9, 2007)

Riscatype Gill Sansserif specimen

Giangiorgio Fuga has posted a 1938 specimen of a version of Gill with the more sensible ‘a’ and spurred ‘p’, etc.

See also: Alternatives to Gill Sans at FontShop

7 Comments

  1. Craig says:

    The sample reproduced in Sebastian Carter’s Twentieth Century Type Designers (new ed., p. 77) also shows the “sensible a.” Jamie Barnett’s essay in Revival of the Fittest assumes that the hooked tail is a change made with the digital version of the typeface (p. 149).

  2. Chris Lozos says:

    You might include as one of your alternates the recent release by P22 of Johnston done by Paul Hunt.

  3. Eben Sorkin says:

    What Chris said.

  4. Eben Sorkin says:

    If I recall correctly, Paul Hunt made a case to me in a conversation that there is plenty of additional potential in what is unresolved in Johnston and Gil. I thought he was right then and these days I really think he was right.

  5. rtaylor says:

    Ben Archer’s piece also features Fedra Sans.

    I like the way this list pulls in Bliss and Frutiger, providing a connection between seemingly disparate type families commonly classed as ‘humanist sans’.

  6. Elmtree says:

    My own problem with Gill Sans, as a Londoner, is that it’s hard to separate from London Underground’s corporate image-I think that’s something any company with a London presence has to bear in mind. That goes double for Johnston, and treble for anyone considering using lower case of either since they’re particularly distinctive.

    I really like the light weights of Gill Sans and feel they’re underrated, though I believe the BBC uses them.

    I also do think Eric Gill’s personal life is a major issue for anyone considering using Gill Sans.

  7. Elmtree says:

    A year on, another comment on this great article!

    This frustrated me so much when I started using it, but now I think the best thing that ever happened to Gill Sans was that for most of its history there hasn’t been a widely available regular weight for it. Double or quits, no safe choices: you get a very thin light weight or a solid standard most fonts would consider bold, and that’s it. There are lots of humanist sans-serif fonts around now, but none have Gill Sans’s presence. (I know the pro version does have a book weight, but not many people have that.) Gill Sans is just not a body text font.

    Relatedly, I love the humanist sans-serif genre but honestly there’s a lot of competition now, as this huge list shows, especially among body text fonts. Myriad and Frutiger started it, of course, and Scala and Charlotte.

    Does that mean typeface designers (I’m not one, to be clear) should give up? I hope not: I think I see gaps in the market. With 575 years of serif type history, there are areas that haven’t made the cross into sans-serif typefaces. You don’t see many sans-serif designs with optional swash italics. I’d love to see a daring new sans-serif take on ornament or jewel fonts (something along the lines of what Requiem comes with). Is it possible to create a modern take on engraved capitals? Many seem created solely for InDesign and the web: the optional separate small caps fonts for Office users really seem to have fallen by the wayside these last few years, which is a shame since they’re no extra work to make. (I sometimes recommend Alegreya, an open-source design, to others these days, partly because it has them.) Above all, I see very few that take inspiration from handwriting without actually being script designs. Do you instinctively write q with a flick up at the end? Lower-case a that’s not a perfect Futura circle, and d with a curl at bottom right? Me too: that’s what I was taught. But most typefaces aren’t designed the way people think letters should look if you give them a pen and ask them to draw them. I’d love to see good ones that are.

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Typographica is a review of typefaces and type books, with occasional commentary on fonts and typographic design. Edited by Stephen Coles and designed by Chris Hamamoto. Founded in 2002 by Joshua Lurie-Terrell. Relaunched in 2009 by Coles and Hamamoto.

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