Edward Johnston

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London’s timeless and iconic lettering – the Johnston typeface – was created a century ago for London Underground by Edward Johnston and since its introduction it has come to represent not just transport but the idea of London itself.

London Transport Museum and partners are marking the 100th anniversary of its introduction to London’s landscape with a number of events including a series of talks, a special Museum Depot Open Weekend, and behind the scenes Johnston Journey tours.  

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Edward Johnston (1872-1944)

Early years

Edward Johnston, the son of Scottish settlers, was born on their remote ranch in the province of San José, Uruguay. The family returned to England when Johnston was three years old. A creative child, he was absorbed by the popular Victorian hobby of ‘illuminations’, the copying of texts in the manner of a mediaeval manuscript.


In 1895 Johnston abandoned the study of medicine at Edinburgh University with the idea of working in the arts.

On arrival in London Johnston had what he described as the “miracle of his life” when he met W. R. Lethaby, the founding Principal of the Central School of Arts and Crafts. On seeing samples of Johnston written illuminated work, Lethaby commissioned a work from Johnston and urged him to study manuscripts at the British Museum. When Johnston delivered his commission, he was astonished to be offered a post teaching illuminating at the Central School.

Before resettling in London, he embarked with his cousin on a “Wild West” three month trip to Canada via the USA.  On Johnston’s return from the Wild West, his new role didn’t start straightaway and he spent more time in the British Museum and was encouraged to study Roman and Renaissance lettering. Rather than simply being a Victorian ’illuminating’ class, his new course at the Central School would rework and re-establish this tradition of hand-lettering. Over a 30 year period of teaching, including 25 years at the Royal College of Art, Johnston influenced a generation of artist-craft workers including the brothers MacDonald and Eric Gill.

He married in 1903 and lived at Hammersmith Terrace in West London, where there is now a blue plaque to him. In 1906 Johnston published his book Writing & Illuminating & Lettering.  In this Johnston expressed that lettering should always aspire to the qualities of ‘Readableness, Beauty and Character’This book is still widely used by students of calligraphy today.

In 1912 Johnston moved to Ditchling in Sussex to be near his friend Eric Gill, the letter cutter, carver and wood engraver. In subsequent years others would follow Gill to Ditchling which became a centre for artists and craftspeople. Johnston remained in Ditchling until his death in 1944.

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London’s lettering

In 1913, Johnston met Frank Pick, Commercial Manager of the London Underground Group.  This meeting ultimately resulted in the commissioning of Johnston’s Standard Block Lettering for the Underground and the London Underground ‘bullseye’ symbol.

Pick’s immediate objective as Commercial Manager was to drive up fare income.  He set about making the Underground more attractive to passengers by publicising it more effectively, by making its stations easier to identify, and by making the system easier to use and to navigate in order to encourage repeat business.  

It was with these objectives in mind that Johnston submitted the first examples of Johnston Capital letter block letter type to Pick in February 1916.

The first use of the Johnston typeface was in wooden block prints for posters.  The type was soon used in signage in the development of the new Tube extensions and station refurbishments in the 1920s and 1930s. 

At the turn of 1916/17 Frank Pick asked Johnston to redesign the trademarks for the Underground Group including The Bullseye logo which Frank Pick had first initiated in 1908.  Johnston refined this to the now familiar branding of the bar and circle we still see today and which is recognised the world over.

Johnston’s legacy

In the 1970s, London Transport looked into the suitability of using Johnston or its replacement with a more modern letter form. In 1979, Eiichi Kono, a young Japanese designer working for Banks and Miles, revised the original Johnston with slight changes to the proportions to some of the letters and created bold and italic fonts. The New Johnston type is still in use across the network today. 

Shop Johnston Products

We have new and exclusive Johnston inspired product arriving soon from note books to lampshades all of which will be available to buy in store or online at ltmuseumshop.co.uk.

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