Thursday 2 August 2007

I’ve fallen in love with a copyrighted font.

New Johnston is the official font of Transport for London, and it’s loverly. Unfortunately, the only way to get hold of a copy is via a font request form with such limited terms and conditions that it seems unlikely that anyone who wants the font, and is allowed it (it’s only available for contractors doing graphic design on TfL’s behalf), would surely already have the damn thing. I mean, if TfL commissioned you to design them a leaflet, wouldn’t it be pretty basic graphic design to ask them what font they’d like it in?

The reason I requested it was to make a Freedom-Pass-like 60th birthday invitation for a friend’s dad. The Freedom Pass allows over-60s and the disabled to move around London’s public transport for free, so, what better way to gently mock your friend’s ageing parent than to make him a birthday party invitation parodying the design of the pass, and thus celebrate his passing the landmark necessary to get one? (It might not be such a good joke if your friend’s dad has recently become disabled…come to think of it, in that case, a party might be quite a way off the mark, too.)

Anyway, since this was commissioned by my friend and not TfL, my request was promptly refused.

Unfortunately, the ensuing quest for a suitable replacement font only made my admiration for New Johnston grow.

Johnston was originally commissioned to design the font in 1913, by then-Tube-boss Frank Pick, and he proceeded to make a sans-serif font based upon classical Roman lettering. The original form was used until 1979, when it was updated into New Johnston.

Features of the font which make it so beautiful include the perfectly circular O (giving rise to perfectly circular Qs and a gorgeous capital Œ ligature—anyone who says it’s stupid to love a font because of its capital Œ ligature needs to remember that I’m not averse to inventing a few new words to take advantage of this sexy piece of design), a little playful kick at the base of the lower-case l, and a diamond motif which appears as the dot above lower-case i and j, and is also used as the basis for punctuation marks. This is a mixture of New and vintage Johnston, incorporating my favourite elements of both:

Johnston Sans typeface sample

The only letter which isn’t as gorgeous as it might be is the slightly goofy lower case t, which is bettered by Gill Sans with its delightful ‘oblique terminus of the vertical stroke’:

Gill Sans and Johnston t compared

Gill Sans is, in fact, generally a fairly good replacement for Johnston. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the incredibly sexy diamond-inspired punctuation marks, just crappy regular-Joe circular ones.

Gill Sans typeface sample

I have, in fact, been in love with a font before, and it is this font with which I have had the more enduring affair: Goudy Old Style, a far more respectable font (it has serifs) has been my typeface of preference for printed material for many years. Its gorgeous extended upper-case J and similar, slightly diamond punctuation make my knees weak.

Goudy Old Style typeface sample

Here are those sexy Js compared to boring old Times New Roman:

Goudy versus Times: J compared

I don’t really know what to do about my secret desire for New Johnston. Not only is it the intellectual property of a corporation far too large for someone of my means to pay off, I also feel a bit naughty because it’s sans-serif. What will Goudy think? (Me and Goudy, we’re on first name terms. [I know that’s the last name of American typographer Frederic W. Goudy. Shut up.])

I plan to compose a letter (in Goudy Old Style, naturally) to an agony aunt explaining all of this, and asking whether or not I should tell my girlfriend about Johnston.

And the best thing about this whole sordid shenanigans is that, when you phrase it like that, it sounds like I’m having an affair with my butler.


  1. (Just seen the very sexy opening action for this comment box… nice)

    Um, I’m not sure about the numeral 1 in New Johnston, it looks a bit… well, crap. Especially when they failed to make the ‘t’ suitably nice.

    But I agree with you about the sheer appreciability of New Johnston. Punctuation marks in headings are seriously underused by TfL – look at what commuters are missing out on!

    Finally… you should’ve been more careful about drinking water around your computer. You’ve gone and smudged the ink on the invite for the location.

  2. Did you ever get a hold of a copy? I used to have a copy on my old computer (I did some work for LUL at one point) but it was lost or corrupted or something. I’d love to track down a copy of New Johnston.

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