About ITC Johnston Font Family
ITC Johnston is the result of the combined talents of Dave Farey and Richard Dawson, based on the work of Edward Johnston. In developing ITC Johnston, says London type designer Dave Farey, he did “lots of research on not only the face but the man.” Edward Johnston was something of an eccentric, “famous for sitting in a deck chair and carrying toast in his pockets.” (The deck chair was his preferred furniture in his own living room; the toast was so that he’d always have sustenance near at hand.) Johnston was also almost single-handedly responsible, early in this century, for the revival in Britain of the Renaissance calligraphic tradition of the chancery italic. His book Writing & Illuminating, & Lettering (with its peculiar extraneous comma in the title) is a classic on its subject, and his influence on his contemporaries was tremendous. He is perhaps best remembered, however, for the alphabet that he designed in 1916 for the London Underground Railway (now London Transport), which was based on his original “block letter” model.
Johnston’s letters were constructed very carefully, based on his study of historical writing techniques at the British Museum. His capital letters took their form from the best classical Roman inscriptions. “He had serious rules for his sans serif style,” says Farey, “particularly the height-to-weight ratio of 1:7 for the construction of line weight, and therefore horizontals and verticals were to be the same thickness. Johnston’s O’s and C’s and G’s and even his S’s were constructions of perfect circles. This was a bit of a problem as far as text sizes were concerned, or in reality sizes smaller than half an inch. It also precluded any other weight but medium ‘ any weight lighter or heavier than his 1:7 relationship.” Johnston was famously slow at any project he undertook, says Farey. “He did eventually, under protest, create a bolder weight, in capitals only ‘ which took twenty years to complete.”
Farey and his colleague Richard Dawson have based ITC Johnston on Edward Johnston’s original block letters, expanding them into a three-weight type family. Johnston himself never called his Underground lettering a typeface, according to Farey. It was an alphabet meant for signage and other display purposes, designed to be legible at a glance rather than readable in passages of text. Farey and Dawson’s adaptation retains the sparkling starkness of Johnston’s letters while combining comfortably into text.
Johnston’s block letter bears an obvious resemblance to Gill Sans, the highly successful type family developed by Monotype in the 1920s. The young Eric Gill had studied under Johnston at the London College of Printing, worked on the Underground project with him, and followed many of the same principles in developing his own sans serif typeface. The Johnston letters gave a characteristic look to London’s transport system after the First World War, but it was Gill Sans that became the emblematic letter form of British graphic design for decades. (Johnston’s sans serif continued in use in the Underground until the early ‘80s, when a revised and modernized version, with a tighter fit and a larger x-height, was designed by the London design firm Banks and Miles.)
Farey and Dawson, working from their studio in London’s Clerkenwell, wanted to create a type family that was neither a museum piece nor a bastardization, and that would “provide an alternative of the same school” to the omnipresent Gill Sans. “These alphabets,” says Farey, referring to the Johnston letters, “have never been developed as contemporary styles.” He and Dawson not only devised three weights of ITC Johnston but gave it a full set of small capitals in each weight ‘ something that neither the original Johnston face nor the Gill faces have ‘ as well as old-style figures and several alternate characters.
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