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.

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’ 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. 

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Johnston Events

Further information and booking for all of the events below can be found on our Events Calendar

The Man Who Branded London: Edward Johnston’s Underground Typeface

23 February 2016
Journalist and author Simon Garfield will explore the importance of the Johnston typeface and talks about the life and work of its creator, Edward Johnston.

Go West Young Man, the untold story of Edward Johnston

23 March 2016
Johnston’s grandson, television director Andrew Johnston, tells how a trip to the Wild West of North America in 1898 helped his grandfather make the journey from failed medical student to founder of the 20th century revival of calligraphy.

London’s first fonts

10 May 2016
Join graphic designers, authors and Central Saint Martins’ academics Phil Baines and Catherine Dixon to explore the importance of lettering to the identity of the early underground railway companies.  Discover what underground railways and stations looked like before the introduction of the Johnston typeface and find out more about the impact of his font on the look and feel of London travel over the last century.

New Johnston: New font - Eiichi Kono in conversation

7 June 2016
In 1979, Japanese graphic designer Eiichi Kono was given the job of updating the iconic Johnston font – a typeface that had inspired him to become a designer.  Join Eiichi in conversation with journalist Simon Garfield, author of Just my Type, and Professor Ewan Clayton, author of The Golden Thread  to find out more about how he went about adapting London’s famous alphabet for the digital age.

Friday late: 20th century design – our greatest hits

18 November 2016
Enjoy the Museum galleries after hours during our fun design themed Friday late with bar, adult make-and-take workshops, talks, tours and quizzes and our in-house DJ Museum of Vinyl.  For 18s and over.

Acton Open Weekend:  The A to Z of London

23 to 24 April 2016
Celebrating the centenary of the Johnston font, the weekend’s events will include calligraphy workshops, font making activities and the opportunity to see a vintage steamroller being used as a giant printing press courtesy of Ditchling Museum of Art  + Craft.  There will also be rides on the miniature railway, family fun workshops, curator led tours behind the scenes, and transport displays brought along by model makers from across the south-east of England.

Johnston Journey tours

Various dates
Perfect for design lovers, this tour explores the Museum’s collection to see how Edward Johnston’s typeface has been applied over the last century. The Johnston Journeys tours have been made possible by the generous support of the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Transported by Design Festival, Regent Street, London

3 July 2016
Join us on 3 July 2016 for the Transported by Design Festival, a fantastic day out showcasing how good design makes life in London better. The festival will feature activities for type enthusiasts and families alike, including:

  • a pavilion dedicated to the Johnston font and the iconic Roundel design,
  • a display of heritage signs using the font from across the transport network
  • demonstrations highlighting the development of the Johnston font from calligraphy to the modern font of today
  • a celebration of transport posters and images featuring the famous font

More information coming soon

Partner Events

In the small village of Ditchling, just a few miles over the Downs from Brighton, Edward Johnston created the iconic typeface for the London Underground.

Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft celebrates 100 years of the Johnston lettering and the evolution of this single typeface through a programme of four exhibitions, workshops, lectures, artists’ residencies, events and live-printing activities in the Museum, around Ditchling and beyond.

Key highlights from 12 March to 11 September 2016 include:

  • Underground: 100 years of Edward Johnston’s lettering for London
  • Signs of Ditchling: a tradition of lettering from 1800 to the present day
  • Bob & Roberta Smith: Why do we communicate?

For full programme information visit ditchlingmuseumartcraft.org.uk

Central Saint Martins: Window Gallery

Johnston and the Central School

21 March to 24 April 2016
Co-curated by the Central Saint Martin’s Museum and Study Collection and Professor Phil Baines this exhibition will explore Edward Johnston’s connection to the Central School of Arts and Crafts where Johnston taught calligraphy and met his typographical collaborator Eric Gill. The display will show how the written hand underpinned Johnston’s understanding of lettering design and will include examples of Johnston’s calligraphy, photographs of Johnston’s legendary blackboards, lettering designs and signage from London Underground.

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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