NICK WRIGHT recommends a tribute to two pioneers of print design whose work still has a huge visual impact
Johnston and Gill: Very British Types by Mark Ovenden (Lund Humphries, £40)
MAY 1928 saw the worthy craftsmen — and wily businessmen — of the Federation of Master Printers gathered at Blackpool’s Imperial Hotel for their publicity and selling congress.
Stanley Morison, the Monotype Corporation’s typographical adviser, challenged the master printers with a talk entitled Robbing the Printer, arguing that “the explosive, arresting force of novelty must be used as never before.”
“Old-fashioned” he told them, is a fatal word to the jobbing printer who works in an atmosphere of high and increasing tension and who, if he wants to maintain his position, must appeal to the present day in terms of the present day.
The congress’s printed programme was dressed in new sans serif typeface designed by sculptor Eric Gill, which received a mixed reception. “An insolent and truculent section” condemned the typeface as “typographical Bolshevism.”
Despite its revolutionary connotations, the typeface was a runaway commercial success. With its subtle synthesis of classical proportions and modernist appeal it became a defining motif of the next decades.
Today, Gill Sans shapes the typographical identity of hundreds of commercial and public bodies and is unfailingly attractive to graphic designers and public alike.
It’s in use from the Post Office to the Port of Grimsby and from Ballet Rambert to the Bradford and Bingley Building Society.
Today the BBC deploys it beautifully while the Communist Party — despite the best efforts of this writer — deploys it erratically.
Two years after the launch of the type, Stanley Morison asked Eric Gill to design a new style for the fledgling Daily Worker and a hammer-and-sickle device was added to the masthead set in Gill Sans.
Mark Ovendon’s exquisite book Johnston and Gill: Very British Types traces the origins and development of two of the ubiquitous typefaces that have fashioned the visual landscape of urban life in Britain and which stand as exemplars of the modernist aesthetic.
The beautifully designed and illustrated book is an immensely rich resource for the typographer and is accessible to the very wide public that delights in wellfounded design.
It draws out the personal, commercial and aesthetic links between the earlier sans serif type designed by Edward Johnston and the type created by his one-time student Eric Gill.
The former was commissioned by the innovative and publicspirited Frank Pick —commercial manager of the Underground Electric Railways Company of London — to design a typeface suitable for use across the network.
His typeface is today still the corporate styling of London Transport. His approach was rooted in calligraphy and his embrace of the sans serif was seen, wrongly, by some as a repudiation of the craft aesthetic.
But Pick took the idea — rooted in the thinking of William Morris — that “the test of the goodness of a thing is its fitness for use.” His maxim stands in good stead to this day.
“If it fails on this first test, no amount of ornamentation or finish will make it any better; it will only make it more expensive, more foolish.” Wise words
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