A new serif in town: The fonts used on London's signs and shops have an army of fans

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

 

It's the dots that do it, on the "i's". Except that they're not dots at all, but diamonds. The adornments on an otherwise beautifully simple typeface are an identifying quirk of Johnston Sans, a font that is as synonymous with London as Big Ben. It has become known as the "handwriting" of the city, but can you identify it? Did you even know its name?

Antony Harrington is obsessed with type. It is partly the job of successful fonts to be invisible and as such they are usually overlooked. Johnston Sans, as it happens, is the font of London Underground. Harrington wants everyone to know this and is inviting fellow enthusiasts to draw a typographic map of the capital. He wants to use modern technology to record great or endangered examples of lettering to show the unique and quiet way the words around us can help shape the identity of a place and how we feel about it.

I meet Harrington, a partner at a branding and design company in north London, outside the Covent Garden Tube station, where lunchtime shoppers steer a course around two men behaving strangely. We are doing what few Londoners ever do, looking up to admire the Underground's unmistakable roundel sign, as well as the more ornate typeface used on the station's façade. After a few minutes I reach for my phone, start the app Harrington has devised and take a photo. I write a caption and upload the image to the London Typographica website, where it is added to a map of the city now dotted with examples of type.

Harrington admits to being a font geek, but says there's a reason we should all look with fresh eyes at the words in our own towns and cities. "Typefaces work well as little milestones," he says. "They anchor a building to a time and a function, whether it's commercial or social, and this is a heritage worth preserving."

Edward Johnston was commissioned in 1913 to design a unifying font for an underground network still made up of lines owned by different companies. Using a quill at his studio in Sussex, he ignored the conventions of the time to design a typeface of startling simplicity. It was among the first functional fonts to communicate only information but nothing about class or education and first appeared on posters in 1916. It has survived minor tweaks to appear as clean and as modern today as it did on the drawing board 100 years ago, diamonds included. Johnston also inspired, directly or otherwise, several other sans serif fonts (serifs are the little flourishes that appear at the end of the strokes in, for example, Tiempos, the typeface you're reading now; it's Georgia if you're online. Sans serif type does away with these marks).

Gill Sans, designed by Eric Gill, a student of Johnston's, became the font of the old British Railways and, now, the BBC logo. Helvetica, a Swiss font designed in 1957, has been embraced by corporations and cities and, in New York City, is as strongly associated with the subway as Johnston is with the Tube.

Simon Garfield, author of Just My Type, a book about fonts, says the letters on signs as well as shopfronts and buildings have a crucial and increasingly overlooked role. "You should be able to be parachuted into any city in Europe and know where you are instantly from seeing the typeface," he says. "You can land at a London airport and know you're there because you see Gill Sans everywhere." But Garfield says the power of type to characterise a place is threatened by the digital drop-down menu. "Since computers arrived, type has become internationally homogenised," he says. "In the old days someone would come up with a typeface and great metal blocks had to be carted around. Now someone designs a typeface in Hawaii and gives it to a big typographical sales bureau and it's all over the world within a day.

"If you're branding a place today you go with the font everyone else has gone with – and only a few of these have an impact."

In some cases the fonts that once marked out cities face a physical threat. From Covent Garden Tube station, Harrington guides me down Long Acre, one of the area's busiest shopping streets. We're following a route originally charted by Phil Baines, a professor of typography at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. "Can you see it?" Harrington asks as we stop to look up at a branch of H&M. "See what?" And then, like a camera coming into focus, my eyes begin to see the ghostly remnants of words in the stone: "London's favourite fruiterers, T Walton & Sons (London) Ltd."

The shapes are the shadows left by metal letters that once identified this handsome building, which stands a few cartwheels away from the old Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market. "It won't be long before that disappears completely," Harrington says. We take a photograph and record the ghost font on Harrington's website, before continuing our walk.

If the modern typographic landscape fails to distinguish cities as it once did, one man is trying to preserve the role of the font, casting himself as a modern-day Edward Johnston. Jeremy Dooley is a type designer who lives in Chattanooga, a small city in the southern American state of Tennessee. Once known as one of America's most polluted cities, Dooley says it's now a thriving centre for a creative industry that struggles to separate itself. In 2012, Dooley wondered, could a font help a city make a comeback?

Dooley joined forces with a fellow type designer, Robbie de Villiers, to create Chatype, unveiled this year. "By creating a custom font for the city we wanted it to immediately say, in every application, this is Chattanooga," Dooley says. "We wouldn't even need to say it – it would be subliminally communicated."

Dooley says the design of a city font is "as important as picking the colours in a flag". His font combines the city's Native American heritage with its industrial past and entrepreneurial, creative present. Chatype has already been used by a handful of Chattanoogan businesses and Dooley has had good feedback from the city's authorities.

"Chattanooga already has a vernacular language but not one that distills down into a font," Dooley says. "And we're big on distilling in Tennessee."

It was not always clear what the designers of the last font on Harrington's tour were trying to achieve. We have walked from Covent Garden down St Martin's Lane, where we nip down May's Court, an alley, to admire the vast Art Nouveau letters built in stone which mark the London Coliseum, the home of the English National Opera. At Trafalgar Square we pause at the clock installed to count the seconds until the 2012 Olympics. When London revealed its Olympic logo in 2007 it was ridiculed.

The more recent unveiling of 2012 Headline, the official Olympic font, passed more quietly but its shouty angles and jaunty slant have not won it many fans. Garfield calls it "surely the worst new public typeface for 100 years". Harrington was similarly unimpressed but has since changed his mind. "I think it's a stroke of genius," he says. "They've managed to predict a feeling, that we'd grow into the type. There's a vibrancy to it and an emotional impact." Most importantly, Harrington says, "when you look at it now, you think London".

London fonts: Click here to launch the gallery

londontypographica.com

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appeal
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly finalists Simon Webbe, Caroline Flack, Mark Wright and Frankie Bridge
tvLive: Simon Webbe, Caroline Flack, Mark Wright and Frankie Bridge face-off in the final
Sport
Ched Evans in action for Sheffield United in 2012
footballRonnie Moore says 'he's served his time and the boy wants to play football'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture