On re-drawing Gill Sans

Probably the best attempt at redrawing the British humanist sans serif modelled on Gill Sans and Johnston has already been done by Jeremy Tankard with Bliss. That was just over twenty years ago and its synthesis included other sources – Syntax by Hans Eduard Meier and the Transport typeface by Margaret Calvert & Jock Kinnear.

That said, I recently investigated my own responses to the question ‘how would you seek to update or improve Gill Sans?’ Because ever since the original article in 2007, that has been the logical question.

(NB: In all the following illustrations, Gill Sans Regular is in cyan, and my modifications are in magenta; the overlap, or forms I don’t feel the need to contest, are the resulting royal blue.)


The initial answers seem childishly simple; reduce the widths of the extra-wide uppercase characters, and examine all the characters where logical consistency of form appears to be lacking or the counters are either too small or mis-shaped.

With the numerals, the opening of counters and the reduction of ambiguity is easy.

Gill-Sans-Mod-numeralsIn the lowercase, reinstate the better, calligraphic tail of  ‘a’ (which Gill tried and discarded) and use it to produce a ‘hockey stick’ lowercase ‘l’ and a right side running serif for ‘u’. Reinstate the bowl-to-straight junctions (the ‘crotches’ described in Gill’s correspondence with the Monotype drawing office) in ‘b’, ‘d’, ‘p’ and ‘q’.


Get rid of the (optically distracting) sharpness at the midpoint junction of ‘k’ and ‘K’.

This then leads into more nuanced territory and the deployment of some critical aesthetic judgement; open up the counter in ‘e’ by dropping the crossbar, and regularise stroke width on the arm of ‘r’. Ultimately, this also means redrawing the mid-curve of ‘s’.

Gill-Sans-Mod-defgAnd once that has been done, one realises that all the curves are at least questionable; redrawing lowercase ‘s’ allows one to see what is stiff, unnatural or just plain wrong in the lowercase ‘g’ – strengthening and harmonising the bowls, reducing the width overall and using the calligraphic forms to inform the ear at the top.

This then follows through to lowercase ‘y’ and (perhaps sacrilegiously) the uppercase ‘R’ and ‘S’, where the countershapes are much improved by some judicious tweaking.



At the end of the exercise I find that 1) the uppercase widths are all now much closer to those in Bliss, Frutiger and Syntax and 2) the result looks more like Gill Sans Schoolbook or Gill Sans Infant than anything else – it’s still Gill Sans, but a user-friendly version. It’s also similar to Pablo Impallari’s Cabin font.

The combination of the crotches and that rightwards flick on lowercase ‘a’, ‘l’ and ‘u’ has a definite effect on the feel of the font. Judge for yourselves;



It is perhaps unfair to contrast this against BBC Reith, but Impallari’s experiment in 2011 and the cursory examination above both highlight how little interest Monotype now appears to have in retaining and servicing the needs of its institutional customers. Certainly, the massively missed opportunity that was Gill Sans Nova has allowed Dalton Maag and others at the BBC to come up with something this year that is undoubtedly cheaper, both visually and financially. You only ever get what you pay for.

BBC Reith Sans & Serif


Two Types: The Faces of Britain

BBC4 and BBC i-Player
9.00pm Monday 31st July

Delighted to receive notification that the one-hour documentary by Mark Ovenden will screen next week. Featuring footage from the event we held in February Johnston & Gill: Very British Types at Leicester Print Workshop, this promises to deliver more of his painstaking research into the story of these seminal British typefaces and their inter-relationship.

Two Types Documentary Notice

“A less-than-ideal typeface drawn up by an idealist.” The irony is that while Eric Gill proclaimed his beliefs more loudly than Edward Johnston, it was the protected function and specific locality of Johnston (the typeface) that saved both its aesthetic and authority in the long run. Johnston’s reticence and Gill’s bombast simply heightened the contrast between the two. Precisely because Gill Sans was destined to be a Monotype best-seller, it ultimately suffers from overexposure and bad applications – exactly the fate to befall ‘the Helvetica of England’.

Gill Sans Shadows & Colours

Of course the recent Very British Types event was founded in part on last years’ series of public talks called Fonts@The Font, in which I asked the question ‘how does one do British typography?

wot is Brit typo

(with apologies to those expecting to actually read the Greek or Cyrillic). This of course was about typesetting with Gill Sans and detailed a couple of er, industrial techniques gained from my time in the publishing industry.

One of the things Mark Ovenden remarked on was the apparently recent expansion of the Gill Sans family in Gill Sans Nova to include the display variations, Gill Sans Titling, Shadow, Extra Bold Condensed etc ; but the shadow variants for GS have been with us all along – they existed in metal and were digitised in the ‘80s rush to convert the Monotype library to postscript type 1 format. So not all that nova at all really…
However, the fact that the shadow face can be converted to paths and its components coloured or tinted independently was something I had used last year for a local client.

In a splendid example of synchronicity, Mark subsequently hinted that there would be a requirement for some display typesetting featuring the variations of Gill Sans in a national context, and I decided to experiment further with that shadow style, beyond flat colours;

Britain tricolourSo far, so tricolour – a clash between the high street and the fairground, both jolly and deadly serious – and ‘very Sir Peter Blake’ if I say so myself.
But this kind of visual jingoism is something that troubles me very much, because it’s rooted in nostalgia. Post-brexit, the British visual identity (whatever that is or may be), appears all too likely to succumb to such simple, crowd-pleasing tricks. Maybe that’s its appeal?

Johnston & Gill: Very British Types

We had a wonderful time with Mark Ovenden at Leicester Print Workshop on Tuesday evening. Despite the rain it was well-attended and Mark gave a highly-detailed talk about the genesis and evolution of both Johnston and Gill Sans.

In fact, Mark packed more than a century’s worth of seminal British typo-history into a hundred minutes of illustrated exposition without skipping a beat!

Mark’s book Johnston & Gill: Very British Types is well-researched (including the article at typotheque), and amply illustrated, but there was a wealth of material in the talk that I hadn’t noticed in the book.

The audience graciously gave their consent to be filmed for the event, and were rewarded with book signings, goody bags and limited edition posters. As photographer David Weight remarked, these were good subjects in an ideal setting – everyone was great to work with.

Big thanks to Serena, Lucy, Katharine, Grace, Theo, Peter, Sarah and everone at LPW. Our thanks also to Tony, Kezia, and the DMU Cultural EXchanges Festival organisation.

The question I wanted to ask the audience (but didn’t) is a simple one and it’s this;
if Cultural EXchanges is a festival of ideas, and the original idea for both Johnston and Gill Sans was a relentless and optimistic British modernism, what is the prevalent idea in contemporary (post-brexit) British visual culture?

If you missed out on this event and want to see more of the same, drop us a line and watch this space…



The other thing that made me happy was the response to our limited edition Very British Types A2 poster, which looks like this;

Very British Types part 2

Despite some dodgy weather forecasts, we’re all looking forward to Johnston & Gill: Very British Types on Tuesday 28th Feb. Monotype have graciously sent a load of souvenirs for the event, and normally I’m not wild about tote bags, but these beauties are of a different class entirely…


…and will make excellent book bags for all those trips to the library! Stylish stuff.

Also a sneak preview of something I’m very pleased about. It looks great, folds great, feels great, and even smells great (ah, the smell of print!); detail here from an item we’ll be distributing on the night to our lucky audience at Johnston & Gill: Very British Types.


Johnston & Gill: Very British Types

6-8 pm Tuesday February 28th 2017

at Leicester Print Workshop
50 St. George Street, Leicester LE1 1QG
0116 251 4174

Very pleased to announce a typographic talk and exhibition at Leicester Print Workshop with Mark Ovenden, author of Johnston & Gill: Very British Types.


Commemorating the centenary of Johnston’s lettering for London Transport, and the 90th anniversary of Gill Sans, the talk will be accompanied by an exhibition of the Gill Sans wooden printing types in the collection of Leicester Print Workshop, and a screening of the short film on the making of Johnston 100 for TfL. Proudly supported by Monotype.

This will be a free event but seats are limited, and we’ll be asking for donations to fund the continuing work of the LPW; bookings from February 1st via the DMU Cultural Exchanges Festival 2017 website.

Postscript; the event is now sold out (Feb 10th) and oversubscribed; PLEASE if you are holding a ticket and won’t be able to join us on the night, can you cancel the booking so someone else can use it. Ta.


Current work – glittering shadows

“… I don’t like luxury in typography the use of gold or brilliant paper” – Willem Sandberg, one-time director of the rather austere Stedlijk Museum in Amsterdam, probably wouldn’t approve of the current job for Leicester Cathedral, based on a strange drop-shadowed variant of Gill Sans once seen in mid-century promotions for Monotype;

Monotype Shadowed

But then the brief called for opulence, while the wayfinding requirement (around a large underlit cathedral by inebriated guests) certainly called for clarity. With the ability to tint both the face and the shadow of the design independently of each other, the job satifies those criteria and a current fashion for ‘coloured fonts’.

Gill Caps Shadow

Type talks April 14

Jean François Porchez of the typofonderie delivered an interesting Type Talk at the Typographic Hub at Birmingham City University last Thursday April 14th.

Titled ‘Adding value to the invisibility of typefaces’ the talk detailed his firms input to the visual language of Paris via signal commissions for Parisine, the typeface of the French métro operator RATP.



There was an explanation of the problems encountered with translation to bus destination board signage, along with the complexities of French direction-finding and signage.


He also showed historical considerations for talking about type development, and rounded out with discussion of commercial commissions for the Galeries Lafayette in Paris and an American consulting firm whose house typeface is the very attractive Henderson family (serif, sans and slab). Some jobs are simply more successful than others, even when they occur on home territory.


I’m grateful to Geraldine Marshall for organising the event, David Osbaldestin who invited me along, and Jeff Leak for showing me around and introducing me.


The 100 best typefaces

Until very recently I had forgotten about Fontshops 100 best typefaces of all time but a current (and highly limited) undergraduate brief for a historical typography poster required some reference pointers for a select group (Times Roman, Helvetica, Baskerville, Avenir and Gill Sans).

When I checked the entry for Gill Sans I was surprised to find myself there;
Gill sans opinion at 100typesIncidentally, the caption for the three lowercase a is not quite correct; the middle variant was released and can be seen on Monotype specimen sheets from the early ’30s.

Monotype themselves released Gill Sans Nova as a long-awaited update in November 2015 with an exhibition in London’s Brick Lane at the Truman Brewery. This ‘new’ Gill Sans includes Cyrillic and Greek characters in the Opentype format, as well as many accented characters, extra sorts and roman numerals.




This aside, there cannot be any improvement in the character shapes themselves (although someone had a go at the numeral 2 and added a head serif to the numeral 1 as an optional alternative character). There is also the addition of a very useful new weight at semibold.

Although the issue of the missing stem terminals (‘crotches’ according to Gill) on lowercase b,d, p and q was never resolved, and is noticeably absent from Gill Sans Nova, Monotype at least have the thoroughness of mind to display the archive material that relates to this;

Fonts at The Font

A very big thanks to all who attended Fonts at The Font on three Thursday evenings in January 2016.

This was a pilot series of public talks about historical and contemporary typesetting that raised funds for the student-run F10 Design Society and our local friends the Leicester Print Workshop. The students will use to proceeds to help mount their degree show – and the printers will buy another press!

It was great to see a mix of people including first year students, some of our Brazilian exchange students, local design practitioners and members of the LPW, all hosted by Jo and her lovely staff at The Font – without whom it wouldn’t have been possible.

The film screenings included Banging Out: Fleet Street Remembered and Chuck Kraemer’s excellent documentary about letterpress printing at The Firefly Press in Somerville, Massachusetts.


The contemporary (digital) practice presentations focussed on why and how to hack the default font menu, also how to manage font resources using FontBook or Suitcase Fusion and the wonderful new font licensing model from Fontstand – which is a real ‘try before you buy’ proposition. The upshot is that time-wasting, endlessly-scrolling metre-long font menus can be shortened to include only the fonts one really wants to work with, and they are now available for no down-payment!

Despite this knowledge not being found on any undergraduate syllabus, students no longer have to pirate (well-made) fonts or download badly-made ones from sites like dafont. Nor should they have to waste time scrolling onscreen through the defaults.

Typography books were raffled and donated, suggestions were made for follow-up events, and enough interest generated to validate the pilot series, so for now, it’s a case of ‘watch this space’.