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When I was 7 years old I visited London for the first time. It was August 1992 and I spent most of the day encased in the hood of my cagoule. My memories of that visit have blue waterproof bars at each side, like an old 4:3 ratio VHS playing on a widescreen TV, and centre around Trafalgar Square: a grey blur of rain-soaked concrete and The Pigeons. If I saw pigeons at home in Oxford they would be anxiously gathered in threes or fours, gently cooing at each other like nervous members of a support group. But in Trafalgar Square The Pigeons were a different, bold breed, swarming and swooping and swishing their wings with a greedy courage that comes from exposure to tourists oddly intent on hand feeding vermin. To me, The Pigeons were noisy, chaotic and confusing, which was also exactly how I felt about the rest of London.

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I wasn’t a very cool kid: I’d just discovered I was scared of pigeons, I wore a blue cagoule with the hood up, and my trousers had green diamond patches stitched over holes in the knees. As I went down into the Tube the noise, chaos and confusion of London took on a different tone, like it was suddenly subject to rules that didn’t exist on the surface. By the age of 7 I was a connoisseur of structure, consistency and order, as only a quite uncool child can be, and I could tell that on the Tube there was definitely a structure, consistency and order, and I liked it. I saw a couple kissing passionately at the other end of my Tube carriage (I instantly felt possessive of the Tube) and was incensed that they somehow weren’t showing the Tube the respect it deserved – no, demanded. I really wasn’t a very cool kid.

This year, 2013, is the 150th anniversary of the first underground train service in London, and to celebrate, the London Transport Museum are exhibiting 150 posters from the history of the Underground. Some posters are familiar, some are less well known, but each simultaneously shows something of the time when they were created and a connection to Tube passengers today. One poster by Alfred Leete, “The Lure of the Underground,” shows crowds of passengers literally flying into a station entrance, enthralled by the irresistible draw of the comfort and ease of Tube travel. Though it was designed in 1927, it perfectly captures how I felt 65 years later when I first approached the stairs that led to Charing Cross station.

The man who made the biggest contribution towards the attractive order and consistency of the Underground was Frank Pick: his aim was to unite the network through standardisation, so that it was less confusing, more familiar, and easy to navigate. As well as being the 150th birthday of the Underground, 2013 is also the centenary of the conception of what is, in my opinion, Frank Pick’s most visionary innovation for the Underground – its typeface. By 1913 Pick had become convinced of the need for a corporate typeface for the Underground. He knew that the order and unity he craved for the network had to be supported by a single typeface that could be used for all signage, posters and maps. Pick commissioned the calligrapher Edward Johnston to start work on designing a typeface for the Underground, stipulating it should possess “the bold simplicity of the authentic lettering of the finest periods” and belong “unmistakably to the twentieth century”. Showing his understanding of the value of iconic design, he added that each letterform should be “a strong and unmistakeable symbol.”

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By 1916 Johnston had finished work on his font, which he named, with suitable simplicity, Underground. A sans serif with uniform stroke widths, it was inspired by the painted signs of the tradesmen that Johnston saw as he travelled around London. With the intention of creating a distinctive and legible set of letters, Johnston based his alphabet on square and circular geometry. Upper case letters took their proportions from the square forms of carved Roman letters, while lower case letters were drawn with soft curves suggesting flowing perfect circles. The upper and lower case O letters are circular, as are the bowls on the b, d, g, p and q. The l and y have curved kicks to them, which hint at the flow of a calligrapher’s pen. Johnston’s background as a calligrapher also led him to create each letter around the framework of a stack of 7 diamond-shaped ink pen strokes – this can be spotted on the diamond-shaped dots above the i and j letters. All these features, shown below – the uniform strokes, circular curves and bowls, calligraphic kicks, and subtle reminders of the diamond-shaped frame – made Underground a bold and distinctive unmistakably twentieth century font, just as Pick had specified.

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In the years after Underground was introduced, a second, bolder weight of capitals was added (and was met with Johnston’s disapproval: apparently for decades he refused to speak to the typographer who had betrayed him by designing the bold capitals), and Underground was renamed Johnston’s Railway Type, and then simply Johnston. As Frank Pick had intended, it became an integral part of the personality of the Underground network, consistently seen all over Tube stations and carriages. Through the 1960s and 70s other fonts started to creep into the fabric of the design of the Underground (as you can see in the 60s and 70s posters in the transport museum’s exhibition), and Johnston looked like falling out of favour. However, in the late 1970s the typographic agency Banks & Miles suggested reviving Johnston, making slight improvements to Edward Johnston’s original designs. In 1979 New Johnston was introduced, and has continued to be used as the corporate typeface for the Underground – and Transport for London – ever since.

New Johnston is beautifully and quintessentially British, keeping the charm and feel of the original, but with an added refined quality. And it is a joy to work with – in my first design job I worked for Transport for London, producing Tube maps, signage and posters, such as the seasonal events campaign (shown below), and always relished typesetting the perfect letterforms of New Johnston. It is probably the most reliable, hard-working font I’ve ever used – without fail it adds a bold clarity to everything it’s applied to. It’s the typographic equivalent of a Stephen Fry voiceover. Calm, clear, charming. The perfect English gentleman of type.

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(Examples of 3 posters I designed for Transport for London)

First as Underground and Johnston, now as New Johnston, the font commissioned by Frank Pick 100 years ago has come to represent not only Transport for London, it’s also become a typeface for London, as much a familiar part of the city’s rich soup of design classics as the black cab, red telephone box or bobby’s helmet. Whether welcoming the world to the Olympic games last year, or informing seasoned commuters of the latest service alterations, it is Johnston’s font that helps guide us, as it always does, bringing order to the noise, chaos and confusion of the city.