Archives for category: Typographic history of the World

All civilisations rise and fall. Think of a group of people, plonk an “ancient” in front of it, and there you go – a fallen civilisation. One day, when our civilisation has fallen, relics from our own time will sit alongside ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, ancient Roman engraved plynths and ancient Sumerian clay tablets. Historians of the future will stroke their holographic beards, adjust the lapels of their cybertweed jackets, peer over their robo-glasses, and hypothesise why the peoples of the early 21st century drank from mugs adorned with sacred curly mustaches, made graven GIF images of cats playing pianos, and recited mantras from tea towels such as “Keep Calm And Eat Cupcakes”.

To date, the closest our civilisation – and indeed all human life – came to ending was in October 1962 during The Cuban Missile crisis. The USA and the USSR’s respective big red nuclear buttons were nearly pressed by their respective big red nuclear fingers, and the world came close to seeing the opening shots of World War 3. Eventually diplomacy, rather than nuclear apocalypse, won, and less than a year later, in August 1963, a telegraph machine deep within the Kremlin clattered into life – the first message to be sent through the new hotline from the Pentagon was arriving, a vital diplomatic line of communication that was established to try to avoid future potentially civilisation-ending atomic stand offs. As the Russian translators took this first message and carefully interpreted it, they must have looked at each other in confusion. Was this a code? A threat? A warning? A Nostradamus-style foretelling of worldwide cataclysm? The apparently nonsensical message read “THE QUICK BROWN FOX JUMPED OVER THE LAZY DOG’S BACK.”

Of course, thankfully, that first message didn’t start all-out nuclear war. It was simply a pangram to test the telegraph equipment; a phrase made up of every character in a language’s alphabet. Since the mid 1880s “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” (or a variation thereof) had become known as a neat way to write every letter in the English alphabet, and by the time the USA-USSR hotline was tested it was common to use it as a way of testing communications equipment. While today in the early 21st Century it is less commonly used for testing communications equipment, the boom in desktop publishing and the place of computers in the graphic design industry means that “The quick brown fox…” is instead used to test how the characters of a font look. An ordered alphabet shows the appearance of individual letters, but doesn’t give an indication of how whole words will look – a pangram, like “The quick brown fox…” gives more of an indication of how copy will read. Therefore, when looking through menus of fonts, it’s possible that a graphic designer will see the sentence repeated hundreds of times every day.

With this in mind I thought it would be fun to create an expressive piece of lettering that spelled out “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dogs”, while also showing it happening. Also, I love foxes, and who doesn’t love tiny happily sleeping puppies?

While mulling it over I started a few idle doodles at my desk:



These very quick, loose sketches suggested the idea had legs – cartoon sleeping dogs could passingly resemble letters. After deciding to get rid of the spots on the sides of the dogs, and emphasise the dogs’ happy sleepy smiles, the next step was to sketch out a full alphabet.

After producing around 3 or 4 A3 pages of sketches, I drew in propelling pencil (my drawing tool of choice) the full a to z, along with a cartoon jumping fox, and inked them with a fine black pigment liner:



Next, I scanned the alphabet into Adobe Photoshop, removed the lines, and laid out the full phrase (against a yellow background, as it increases legibility at this first layout stage):


Once I was happy with the overall layout, I cleaned up any inking errors and adjusted strokes which were too thin or thick. I then imported the black and white image into Adobe Illustrator to create a smoother, cleaner vector version of the image. Vector image files use points, curves and angles, and can be scaled to any size and retain their smooth lines, unlike raster image files (such as JPGs) which use pixels and are limited by resolution. At this stage I also started adding test colours to the image:


Finally, I exported the file back into Photoshop to add brush effects, shading and a light texture to the characters, and adjusted the colours of the overall piece. The brush effects and textures help the lettering’s legibility, as it increases the colour contrasts through the forms of the dogs, and helps emphasise the hand-drawn effect:


Until Friday 11th April 2014 you can vote for this piece of lettering in the ‘Dogs’ challenge on Threadless – if you’ve enjoyed this post and the finished piece (and, to be honest, even if you haven’t), I’d be very grateful if you visit my Threadless page and score it 5 out of 5.

I’ll also be looking into printing a limited edition run for framing and hanging – please do get in touch via the form below if you’re interested!



50 years ago, in the Autumn of 1963, the BBC broadcast the first episode of a new science fiction adventure series: Doctor Who. On November 23, it will celebrate its 50th birthday (although more accurately, it was only alive for 26 years, died, and then regenerated 8 years ago): 50 years (actually 34 years) of thrilling/boring audiences (delete as appropriate) with a simple tale of a 1,000 year old alien with 2 concurrent hearts and 11 consecutive faces, sticking his nose/sonic screwdriver into the affairs of various aliens/historic figures and travelling through time/space in a blue police box which is larger internally than externally (which might explain why the walls wobbled so much during the programme’s early years).

It’s the blue box – the TARDIS – which makes Doctor Who possible. It allows him to travel: to see new places, experience new times and meet new people. Without it he’d just be Doctor Him. In the original scripts, the TARDIS was going to change shape and appearance based on the location and time to which it was travelling – for instance, it would look like a Roman plinth in ancient Rome, an Egyptian sarcophagus in ancient Egypt, a 1960s British Police box in ancient 1960s Britain. Then the BBC looked at their budget, realized the cost of creating all these alternate TARDISes, and just stuck with the last one, explained away by a neat sci-fi line about the chameleon circuits being stuck. So, instead of an ever-changing appearance, the TARDIS was stuck with just one, forever, everywhere.

While The Doctor and his companions would always see the same 1960s blue police box TARDIS wherever he travelled, up until 1963 anyone travelling in real life Britain was confronted by an ever-changing set of road signs. A haphazard array of varying designs with different typefaces, appearances and conventions; signage commissioned by different bodies, designed by various manufacturers and overseen by no-one. In 1961, typographer Herbert Spencer showed this by documenting a short journey from central London to Heathrow airport in a series of photographic essays in Typographica magazine. Even though his journey was basically just going along the A3, it revealed a complete lack of uniformity – inconsistent colours, symbols and typefaces, changing according to the local body which had placed them, serving only to baffle road users.

By 1963 Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert – commissioned by the government to resolve this problem – had changed all this with their unified design vocabulary for all UK road signs, including a brand new typeface which they had designed: Transport.


Kinneir and Calvert’s primary concern was legibility – creating a typeface that could be read clearly at a distance and while travelling quickly. Despite this desire for clarity, however, they were also aware of a need for aesthetics. They avoided the stark, geometric sans serifs which were growing in popularity – instead, motivated by a desire to produce a font that would be sympathetic to the English countryside, they designed a sans serif that would be rounded, friendly and warm.

While Kinneir and Calvert set out to unify signage for the UK, their font was so successful at making roads clearer that it was also adopted for road signage in other countries around the world. Travel to Denmark, Greece, Hong Kong, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain and much of the Middle East, and you’ll use Transport (or a virtually identical bolder variant) to help you find your way.

Like a TARDIS with functioning chameleon circuits, Transport makes effective travel possible, while also managing to remain almost unnoticed – quietly but confidently helping travellers, wherever they find themselves. Transport is an excellent example of a classic typeface that will stand the test of time, carrying out its duties as intended without difficulty. To this day, 50 years later, every road sign in Britain is still typeset in Kinneir and Calvert’s Transport font; a part of the design tapestry of modern Britain. Happy 50th Birthday, Transport.


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.


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.”


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.


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.


(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.


I’m writing this on a shiny, smart, cool new Macbook, which means it’s almost certainly going to be several times more clever and creative than the previous bits I’ve written, which were (and I hope you can find it within yourself to forgive me, because I’m quite ashamed to admit this) all done on a very ordinary, very cheap, very plastic-encased PC. I know. I’m really sorry.

Obviously, anything created on an Apple Mac is better, in the same way a Mont Blanc fountain pen will, obviously, always produce better writing than a slightly-chewed Bic Biro. We know people who use Macs are smart and cool and clever and creative, because we’ve seen smart, cool people casually using them in Starbucks, or in smart and cool adverts, or in films, being smart and cool like people in films often are. You’re probably overwhelmed by the smart coolness of these Mac-typed letters oozing out of your screen right now, like expensive and delicious oil oozing out of a truffle (I think truffles ooze expensive and delicious oil, I think I saw it in an advert once).

As I stood in the Apple Store and handed over (a lot of) money to a smart, cool chap wearing a bright blue T shirt and sporting A Haircut, I thought back on the past three years I spent using a PC. Admittedly, it worked perfectly well, and I did all the same designing and writing on it that I would have done on a smarter, cooler computer, and it was a lot cheaper to buy, and has basically done the jobs I’ve given it to do, but it’s been an ordeal. Do I mean ordeal? Well it wasn’t a Mac, was it, so yes, actually, that’s right, it was an ordeal. I wasn’t a PC user, I was a refugee, a Mac user in exile.

Is there a reason that Apple computers are seen as the natural choice for designers? Unsurprisingly, I think there is, and I think it all comes back to typography.

While at college Steve Jobs started dropping into calligraphy classes simply because he had a passing interest in typography; “I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great… Ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography.”

The woman who had the task of putting typography into the heart of the Mac was Susan Kare. In 1983, a year before it first went on sale, she started work on a series of digital fonts, carefully drawing each letter pixel by pixel. These fonts were the first typefaces designed for use on a computer that used something called proportional spacing – rather than having an unnatural uniform monospaced width, like on a typewriter, letters could occupy just the right space they needed to look like the typography that existed in the print world.


The first 
font Susan Kare designed was bold, subtly curved, with contrasting stroke widths, which made it easy to read on small computer screens. It had personality; it felt friendly and reassuring. The font was Chicago (it was briefly and awfully called Elefont, the bad pun stemming from the soft curves and boldness that gave it a sort of cartoony pachyderm quality), and it became an integral part of the early Apple Mac experience, used in every menu, button, label and system message.


In addition to Chicago, Kare also designed New York, a Roman serif font; Geneva, a Swiss-style sans serif; Athens, a solid slab serif; Los Angeles, a script face which had the appearance of handwriting; and San Francisco, a font made from a jumble of stylized characters, giving a sort of ransom-note feel. In a technological, typographical way, this was like jazz – free expression, without the restrictions and rigidities of the earlier age, was suddenly possible on a computer. Type foundries began making their own fonts available digitally, and designers began to see that the computer – crucially, the Apple Mac – could be used in a way that replicated the freedoms of traditional printing.

Designers had picked their side in the conflict with the PC. The initial allure of good typography was the call to arms, the battle lines were drawn, and the industry standard has been in the Apple camp ever since. Yes, today a designer could easily use a PC instead, but thanks in part to Jobs’ vision for a computer that could do beautiful typography, 30 years after the creation of Chicago most designers are still loyal to Apple.

And the smart, cool shininess probably helps too.

(Original Macintosh control panel image from the Susan Kare’s website


Neil Armstrong’s first words as he stepped onto the surface of the Moon are amongst the most famous in history. Imagine the immense pressure as, with the eyes of the world on you, you begin moving down onto the surface. You will forever be known as the first man to step foot on the Moon. Since the dawn of time, men have mythologised this place, dreamt of reaching it. You will be seen as a pioneer, a model of bravery and a standard bearer for the space age. Your words will be heard not just by mission control, 400,000 kilometres and 4 days of cramped space flight behind you, but by all of mankind, across the planet, for all of history. Your words matter. What you say next is important. This is the ultimate public speaking engagement. Don’t screw up. DO NOT SCREW UP.

“That’s one small step for man…”

You screwed up.

A pause. Maybe that pause was Armstrong realising his mistake. One small step for man? That doesn’t make sense. Man means mankind. You didn’t mean mankind, not yet – the mankind bit comes later! You meant man, as in you, because YOU ARE A MAN – you should have said ‘one small step for A man,’ you lunar idiot.

The pause is now dripping in dramatic tension and gravity. Which is ironic, as gravity is one of many things in which this particular extra-terrestrial body is lacking.

You carry on: “…one…” (another pause… too late now…) “…giant leap for mankind.”

Phew. Maybe, just maybe, you got away with it.

Armstrong’s understandably flustered moment of imprecision contained a mistake; an aural typo. The first printed words on the surface of the Moon, however, were not characterised by breathless excitement and imprecision, but by the precise, steady geometry of Futura.


The lunar lander module, which to this day remains on the Moon’s surface, bears a plaque which proudly proclaims to any curious visitor in precise upper-case letters set in Futura Medium, and in terms which don’t confuse the concept of man and A man, “HERE MEN FROM THE PLANET EARTH FIRST SET FOOT UPON THE MOON JULY 1969, A. D. WE CAME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND”.

Why was Futura chosen for the task of communicating this message? Well, with its crisp, geometrically derived letter forms, Futura speaks in a clear and calm voice of an exciting modern age. When Paul Renner designed Futura in Germany in 1927, he wanted it to be new and modern, rather than a revival (or redesign) of an old font. He believed that his typeface should look and feel modern, and Futura still manages that more than 85 years later. It isn’t the longest-serving geometric sans serif typeface (that honour is held by the slightly more Germanic-looking typeface Erbar) but Futura is arguably the most successful.


Futura’s alphabet is typified by efficiency and clarity. Each stroke seems to reject the history of typography wholesale – there are no serifs, flourishes, no real contrasting weight between strokes. The letter O is a Moon-like perfect circle. Other letters, such as the a, b and d are made from similarly circular bowls. Letter terminals finish cleanly and abruptly. Yet despite bold design choices, Futura still manages to carry a warmth with it. The proportions are well balanced, particularly in the lower case. The circular derivation of some of Futura’s lower case letterforms gives them a pleasing quality, with the x-height and the letter width being similar. The curve of the lower case u or the descender on the g are softly seductive in contrast to angular w and y’s straight descender. Crucially, there is no sign of the overtly German blackletter typefaces which would have been prevalent in Renner’s upbringing – Futura is a rejection of that type.

Renner’s own politics were fiercely anti-Nazi, and in 1933, when Hitler came to power, he was arrested as a political prisoner. In a way, his Futura reflects his opposition to nationalism. It is a typeface which, due to its characters being stripped of character, is universal and looks to a utopia free of nationalism or division.

After the Second World War many German scientists switched their allegiance to the USA. They had worked on perfecting rockets to land in towns and cities to bring death and destruction, but now saw a chance for forgiveness and rehabilitation, using their skills for a more peaceful purpose.

As they worked on the technology needed to send man to the Moon, and as America looked to a new age of space travel in the name of peace, it’s easy to understand why Futura was chosen to mark this start of a new age, with all its hopes for unity, rejection of the old, and celebration of the future.