Gill Sans is a humanist sans-serif typeface designed by Eric Gill and released by the British branch of Monotype from 1928 onwards.
Gill Sans is based on Edward Johnston’s 1916 “Underground Alphabet”, the corporate font of London Underground. As a young artist, Gill had assisted Johnston in its early development stages. In 1926, Douglas Cleverdon, a young printer-publisher, opened a bookshop in Bristol, and Gill painted a fascia for the shop for him in sans-serif capitals. In addition, Gill sketched an alphabet for Cleverdon as a guide for him to use for future notices and announcements. By this time Gill had become a prominent stonemason, artist and creator of lettering in his own right and had begun to work on creating typeface designs.
Gill was commissioned to develop his alphabet into a full metal type family by his friend Stanley Morison, an influential Monotype executive and historian of printing. Morison hoped that it could be Monotype’s competitor to a wave of German sans-serif families in a new “geometric” style, which included Erbar, Futura and Kabel, all being launched to considerable attention in Germany during the late 1920s. Gill Sans was released in 1928 by Monotype, initially as a set of titling capitals that was quickly followed by a lower-case. Gill’s aim was to blend the influences of Johnston, classic serif typefaces and Roman inscriptions to create a design that looked both cleanly modern and classical at the same time.
Marketed by Monotype as a design of “classic simplicity and real beauty”, it was intended as a display typeface that could be used for posters and advertisements, as well as for the text of documents that need to be clearly legible at small sizes or from a distance, such as book blurbs, timetables and price lists. Designed before setting documents entirely in sans-serif text was common, its standard weight is noticeably bolder than most modern body text fonts.
An immediate success, the year after its release the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) chose it for all its posters, timetables and publicity material. British Railways chose Gill Sans as the basis for its standard lettering when the railway companies were nationalised in 1948. Gill Sans also soon became used on the modernist, deliberately simple covers of Penguin Books, and was sold up to very large sizes which were often used in British posters and notices of the period. Gill Sans was one of the dominant typefaces in British printing in the years following its release, and remains extremely popular: it has been described as “the British Helvetica” because of its lasting popularity in British design. Gill Sans has influenced many other typefaces, and helped to define a genre of sans-serif, known as the humanist style.
Monotype rapidly expanded the original regular or medium weight into a large family of styles, which it continues to sell. A basic set is included with some Microsoft software and Mac OS.
The proportions of Gill Sans stem from monumental Roman capitals in the upper case, and traditional “old-style” serif letters in the lower. This gives Gill Sans a very different style of design to geometric sans-serifs like Futura, based on simple squares and circles, or realist or grotesque designs like Akzidenz-Grotesk, Helvetica and Univers influenced by nineteenth-century lettering styles. For example, compared to realist sans-serifs the “C” and “a” have a much less “folded up” structure, with wider apertures. The “a” and “g” in the roman or regular style are “double-storey” designs, rather than the “single-storey” forms used in handwriting and blackletter often found in grotesque and especially geometric sans-serifs.
The upper-case of Gill Sans is partly modelled on Roman capitals like those found on the Column of Trajan, with considerable variation in width. Edward Johnston had written that, “The Roman capitals have held the supreme place among letters for readableness and beauty. They are the best forms for the grandest and most important inscriptions.” While Gill Sans is not based on purely geometric principles to the extent of the geometric sans-serifs that had preceded it, some aspects of Gill Sans do have a geometric feel.[a] The J descends below the baseline. The “O” is an almost perfect circle and the capital “M” is based on the proportions of a square with the middle strokes meeting at the centre; this was not inspired by Roman carving but is very similar to Johnston.[b] The ‘E’ and ‘F’ are also relatively narrow.Distinctive characters of Gill Sans.
The influence of traditional serif letters is also clear in the “two-storey” lower-case “a” and “g”, unlike that of Futura, and the “t” with its curve to bottom right and slanting cut at top left, unlike Futura’s which is simply formed from two straight lines. The lower-case “a” also narrows strikingly towards the top of its loop, a common feature of serif designs but rarer in sans-serifs.
Following the traditional serif model the italic has different letterforms from the roman, where many sans-serifs simply slant the letters in what is called an oblique style. This is clearest in the “a”, which becomes a “single storey” design similar to handwriting, and the lower-case “p”, which has a calligraphic tail on the left reminiscent of italics such as those cut by William Caslon in the eighteenth century. The italic “e” is more restrained, with a straight line on the underside of the bowl where serif fonts normally add a curve.[c] Like most serif fonts, several weights and releases of Gill Sans use ligatures to allow its expansive letter “f” to join up with or avoid colliding with following letters.
The basic letter shapes of Gill Sans do not look consistent across styles (or even in the metal type era all the sizes of the same style), especially in Extra Bold and Extra Condensed widths, while the Ultra Bold style is effectively a different design altogether and was originally marketed as such. Digital-period Monotype designer Dan Rhatigan, author of an article on Gill Sans’s development after Gill’s death, has commented: “Gill Sans grew organically … [it] takes a very ‘asystematic’ approach to type. Very characteristic of when it was designed and of when it was used.” (At this time the idea that sans-serif typefaces should form a consistent family, with glyph shapes as consistent as possible between all weights and sizes, had not fully developed: it was quite normal for families to vary as seemed appropriate for their weight until developments such as the groundbreaking release of Univers in 1957.)
In the light weights, the slanting cut at top left of the regular “t” is replaced with two separate strokes.[d] From the bold weight upwards Gill Sans has an extremely eccentric design of “i” and “j” with the dots (tittles) smaller than their parent letter’s stroke.
Morison commissioned Gill to develop Gill Sans after they had begun to work together (often by post since Gill lived in Wales) on Gill’s serif design Perpetua from 1925 onwards; they had known each other since about 1913. Morison visited Cleverdon’s bookshop while in Bristol in 1927 where he saw and was impressed by Gill’s fascia and alphabet. Gill wrote that “it was as a consequence of seeing these letters” that Morison commissioned him to develop a sans-serif family.[e]
In the period during and after his closest collaboration with Johnston, Gill had intermittently worked on sans-serif letter designs, including an almost sans-serif capital design in an alphabet for sign-painters in the 1910s, some “absolutely legible-to-the-last-degree … simple block letters” for Army and Navy Stores in 1925 and some capital letter signs around his home in Capel-y-ffin, Wales.[f] Gill had greatly admired Johnston’s work on their Underground project, which he later wrote had “redeemed the whole business of sans-serif from its nineteenth-century corruption” of extreme boldness. Johnston apparently had not tried to turn the alphabet (as it was then called) that he had designed into a commercial typeface project. He had tried to get involved in type design before starting work on Johnston Sans, but without success since the industry at the time mostly created designs in-house. Morison similarly respected the design of the Underground system, one of the first and most lasting uses of a standard lettering style as corporate branding (Gill had designed a set of serif letters for WH Smith), writing that it “conferred upon [the lettering] a sanction, civic and commercial, as had not been accorded to an alphabet since the time of Charlemagne”.
Morison and Gill had met with some resistance within Monotype while developing Perpetua and while Morison was an enthusiastic backer of the project, Monotype’s engineering manager and type designer Frank Hinman Pierpont was deeply unconvinced, commenting that he could “see nothing in this design to recommend it and much that is objectionable”. (Pierpont was the creator of Monotype’s previous mainstay sans-serif, a loose family now called Monotype Grotesque. It is a much less sculptured design inspired by German sans-serifs.) Morison also intervened to insist that the letters “J” and “Q” be allowed to elegantly descend below the baseline, something not normal for titling typefaces which were often made to fill up the entire area of the metal type. In the early days of its existence it was not always consistently simply called “Gill Sans”, with other names such as “Gill Sans-serif”, “Monotype Sans-Serif” (the latter two both used by Gill in some of his publications) or its order numbers (such as Series No. 231) sometimes used.
A large amount of material about the development of Gill Sans survives in Monotype’s archives and in Gill’s papers. While the capitals (which were prepared first) resemble Johnston quite closely, the archives document Gill (and the drawing office team at Monotype’s works in Salfords Surrey, who developed a final precise design and spacing) grappling with the challenge of creating a viable humanist sans-serif lower-case as well as an italic, which Johnston’s design did not have.[g] Gill’s first draft proposed many slanting cuts on the ends of ascenders and descenders, looking less like Johnston than the released version did, and quite long descenders. Early art for the italic also looked very different, with less of a slope, again very long descenders and swash capitals.[h] The final version did not use the calligraphic italic “g” Gill preferred in his serif designs Perpetua and Joanna (and considered in the draft italic art), instead using a standard “double-storey” “g”.
In the regular or roman style of Gill Sans, some letters were simplified from Johnston, with diamond dots becoming round (rectangles in the later light weight) and the lower-case “L” becoming a simple line, but the “a” became more complex with a curving tail in most versions and sizes. In addition, the design was simply refined in general, for example by making the horizontals slightly narrower than verticals so that they do not appear unbalanced, a standard technique in font design which Johnston had not used. The “R” with its widely splayed leg is Gill’s preferred design, unlike that of Johnston; historian James Mosley has suggested that this may be inspired by an Italian Renaissance carving in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Particular areas of thought during the design process were the “a” (several versions and sizes in the hot metal era had a straight tail like Johnston’s or a mildly curving tail) and the “b”, “d”, “p” and “q”, where some versions (and sizes, since the same weight would not be identical at every size) had stroke ends visible and others did not.[i] Rhatigan has commented that Monotype’s archives contain “enough [material] for a book just about the ‘b’, ‘d’, ‘p’, and ‘q’ of Gill Sans”.
The titling capitals of Gill Sans were first unveiled at a printing conference in 1928; it was also shown in a specimen issued in the Fleuron magazine edited by Morison. While initial response was partly appreciative, it was still considered dubious by some ultra-conservative printers who saw all sans-serif type as modern and unsound; one called it “typographical Bolshevism“. Sans-serifs were still regarded as vulgar and commercial by purists in this period: Johnston’s pupil Graily Hewitt privately commented of them that:
In Johnston I have lost confidence. Despite all he did for us … he has undone too much by forsaking his standard of the Roman alphabet, giving the world, without safeguard or explanation, his block letters which disfigure our modern life. His prestige has obscured their vulgarity and commercialism.
Nonetheless, Gill Sans rapidly became popular after its release.
Gill Sans’ technical production followed Monotype’s standard method of the period. The characters were drawn on paper in large plan diagrams by the experienced drawing office team, led and trained by Pierpont and Fritz Steltzer, both of whom Monotype had recruited from the German printing industry. The drawing staff who executed the design was disproportionately female and in many cases recruited from the local area and the nearby Reigate art school; they worked out many aspects of the final drawings including adaptations of the letters to different sizes and the spacing. The diagrams were then used as a plan for machining metal punches by pantograph to stamp matrices, which would be loaded into a casting machine to cast type. It was Monotype’s standard practice at the time to first engrave a limited number of characters and print proofs (some of which survive) from them to test overall balance of colour and spacing on the page, before completing the remaining characters. Walter Tracy, Rhatigan and Gill’s biographer Malcolm Yorke have all written that the drawing office’s work in making Gill Sans successful has not been fully appreciated; Yorke described Gill as “tactless” in his claims that the design was “as much as possible mathematically measurable … as little reliance as possible should be placed on the sensibility of the draughtsmen and others concerned in its machine facture”.
Gill Sans rapidly became very popular. Its success was aided by Monotype’s sophisticated marketing, led by Gill’s supporter (and sometime lover) Beatrice Warde, and due to its practicality and availability for machine composition in a very wide range of sizes and weights.
Despite the popularity of Gill Sans, some reviews have been critical. Robert Harling, who knew Gill, wrote in his 1976 anthology examining Gill’s lettering that the density of the basic weight made it unsuitable for extended passages of text, printing a passage in it as a demonstration. The regular weight has been used to print body text for some trade printing uses such as guides to countryside walks published by the LNER. William Addison Dwiggins described it and Futura as “fine in the capitals and bum in the lower-case” while proposing to create a more individualistic competitor, Metro, for Linotype around 1929. Modern writers, including Stephen Coles and Ben Archer, have criticised it for failing to improve on Johnston and for unevenness of colour, especially in the bolder weights (discussed below). More generally, modern font designer Jonathan Hoefler has criticised Johnston and Gill’s designs for rigidity, calling their work “products more of the machine than the hand, chilly and austere designs shaped by unbending rules, whose occasional moments of whimsy were so out of place as to feel volatile and disquieting.”
Gill broached the topic of the similarity with Johnston in a variety of ways in his work and writings, writing to Johnston in 1933 to apologise for the typeface bearing his name and describing Johnston’s work as being important and seminal. However, in his Essay on Typography, he proposed that his version was “perhaps an improvement” and more “fool-proof” than Johnston’s. Johnston and Gill had drifted apart by the beginning of the 1920s, something Gill’s groundbreaking biographer Fiona MacCarthy describes as partly due to the anti-Catholicism of Johnston’s wife Greta. Frank Pick, the Underground Electric Railways Company managing director who commissioned Johnston’s typeface, privately thought Gill Sans “a rather close copy” of Johnston’s work.