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.
In 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’.
And 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.