Gill Sans: History of a Typeface

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Gill Sans, common weights and styles at 36pt

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Eric Gill, creator of Gill Sans

Most of us don’t give typefaces or fonts any consideration.  We read, encounter advertisements in all their forms, and go about our day without any concern or interest in what goes into the creation of all the writing that we encounter on a daily basis.  However, many of the shapes and styles of letters that are used to present textual information have an interesting history to consider, and their use has an effect on all of us as well.

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Metal font box

A typeface refers to a family of letters and symbols with a coherent style and appearance.  Within a typeface, the term font refers to different variations of those symbols and letters; perhaps in a larger or smaller size, or bolder or thinner in style.  The term typeface is taken from a time earlier in history when printers had to hand-set type using blocks of wood or metal to lay out a page of text before printing.  Each block contained a symbol or letter of a specific typeface.   Of course, this all becomes confusing when we open up a Microsoft word document and are allowed to choose a font.  And as a result of technological changes and the easy access that everyone has to creating and printing their own work, the terms typeface and font are often used interchangeably.    

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Gill Sans in woodblock type and distinctive features of the typeface

Regardless of what term one chooses to use when referring to a set style of letters and symbols, many of these font families have a reason for existence and an interesting story to tell.  One of the most popular typefaces or fonts is Gill Sans, which was created by Eric Gill in the late 1920s.  

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Original sketch of Gill Sans Bold Extra Condensed by Eric Gill for Monotype, April 5th 1937 (Photo: Jon Tangerine, Flickr)

Eric Gill was born in 1882 in Brighton, England.  He was drawn to a variety of creative fields during his life.  He attended art school, spent time as an apprentice to an architect, took classes in stonemasonry and calligraphy, and learned printing and typography.  Within his life, he was a sculptor, typeface designer, stonecutter, and printmaker.  In 1926, he created the preliminary version of Gill Sans for a bookshop owner to use for signs, notices and announcements.  Gill’s patron Stanley Morison, who was an advisor to the Monotype Corporation, was drawn to the result and commissioned Gill to expand his work into a full font family.  

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Gill Sans is the font used for the popular series of ‘Keep Calm’ posters

Gill Sans is a sans serif font.  This means that the typeface has none of the projecting features, called “serifs,” which are the small lines attached to the end of a stroke in a letter or symbol.  Eric Gill found influence for the font in a typeface created by his teacher and mentor, Edward Johnston.  The Johnston typeface was specifically commissioned to be used for the London Underground, in an attempt to strengthen its corporate identity.  For a time, Gill worked with Johnston on the project and his own font was created in a desire to improve upon his mentor’s work.  In his 1931 “Essay on Typography,” Gill states, 

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Comparison of lowercase r, t, and y in Gill Sans and Johnston

The first notable attempt to work out the norm for plain letters was made by Mr Edward Johnston when he designed the sans-serif letter for the London Underground Railways. Some of these letters are not entirely satisfactory, especially when it is remembered that, for such a purpose, an alphabet should be as near as possible ‘fool-proof,’ i.e. the forms should be measurable, patient of dialectical exposition, as the philosophers would say—nothing should be left to the imagination of the sign-writer or enamel-plate maker.

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Comparison of capital k and t in Gill Sans and Johnston

Upon examination, many users of typeface question whether Eric Gill was successful in his attempt to create a “fool-proof” typeface.  Gill Sans is described as a humanist typeface, a term that characterizes letter styles that take inspiration from serif fonts and are often influenced by classic letter forms.  It was marketed by Monotype as being a design of “classic simplicity and real beauty.”   It is often noted for its legibility and the fact that it seems to combine elements of modern and traditional style, thus rendering it both authoritative and comfortable in the feeling it evokes.

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Comparison of lowercase i, l, and number 1 in Gill Sans and Johnston 

However, critics point out the numerous flaws contained in this typeface.  Because the letters were all hand-drawn, they were created to fit together in certain expected combinations and styles, but they don’t always have the versatility to work well in other ways.  So, if a designer uses Gill Sans, it often requires extensive work to tweak the letters and spacing to ensure legibility and a satisfactory result.  As Dan Rhatigan, Monotype’s UK type director says, “Gill Sans can be used so beautifully. Yet when you look too close, it’s messy. It’s like looking at a close-up of your skin – ‘My pores are awful!’ Gill Sans can be used really beautifully but it’s difficult to use well. In part because people don’t see as much of it as they used to, so you can’t just drop it into a layout and have it work. It does require a certain sensitivity.”

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Comparison of Gill Sans light and Gill Sans regular show the inconsistencies in style and appearance within different weights used

More intense criticism comes when discussing the uneven weighting of the letters, the inconsistent style, and Gill’s insistence on producing Gill Sans in an extreme bold form which lacks any aesthetic appeal.  A frequently cited example is the lower case letter a.  Its top line is more heavily weighted than the rest of the letter, making it appear top heavy and unbalanced.  Other letters lose their stroke details when reproduced in bold text, or appear to be unrelated due to alterations in form.

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Gill Sans Bold and Gill Sans Kayo show differences and inconsistencies in style and letterforms 

Despite these issues, upon its release in 1928, Gill Sans quickly gained in popularity.  The following year, it was chosen as the standard typeface for the London and North Eastern Railway, and in 1935, Penguin books began to use Gill Sans for its book jacket designs.  In the 1940s, it became the typeface of choice for much of the printed output for British Railways.  In the past, it was widely used by the Church of England and the British government.  Until 2006, it was the official typeface of BBC News, and it is also used by Tommy Hilfiger and United Colors of Benetton.  Today, Gill Sans is distributed with iOS and Mac OS X and appears in some Microsoft software.  

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Gill Sans in use: BBC World News, eHarmony, Toy Story, Monotype Imaging Inc., United Colors of Benetton, Penguin Books’ 70 year anniversary, Tommy Hilfiger, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Saab

Determining the quality and success of Gill Sans is up to individual opinion and interpretation.  Regardless, of one’s opinion on this controversial typeface, Eric Gill said it best when he wrote, “The shapes of letters do not derive their beauty from any sensual or sentimental reminiscences. No one can say that the O’s roundness appeals to us only because it is like that of an apple . . . or of the full moon. Letters are things, not pictures of things.”

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Poster celebrating and sharing information about Gill Sans

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