How Edward Johnston became a modern designer

To celebrate the centenary of Edward Johnston’s London Underground font (Johnston Sans), the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft is launching an exhibition revealing how Ditchling resident Johnston turned from a peripheral arts and crafts figure into a modern designer.       

We asked Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft curator Donna Steele to tell this story ahead of the opening of Underground: 100 Years of Edward Johnston’s Lettering for London.

Edward Johnston, Design for an alphabet, 1916 (V&A E 47 1936). Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Edward Johnston, Design for an Alphabet, 1916 (V&A)

Edward Johnston’s typeface for the Underground Group was in the pipeline for 3 years before being rolled out in 1916, at first on posters and publicity, and then from the early 1920s as station signs. His iconic typeface was designed in the village of Ditchling, and is known variously as Underground or Johnston Sans.

The commission came from Frank Pick, commercial manager for the London Underground Electric Railway, who was looking for a consistent ‘voice’ for the Underground Group; Pick asked Johnston to produce a new typeface with the ‘bold simplicity of the authentic lettering of the finest periods and yet belonging unmistakeably to the 20th century.’

Pick’s masterplan was to create an Underground ‘design fit for purpose’; an Underground whose buildings, graphics and functionality were at the cutting edge of modern design.

Johnston’s typeface, and importantly, his redesigned roundel, sits alongside Charles Holden’s stations, Harry Beck’s tube map, and Marianne Straub’s moquette seat covers as a true icon of the Underground.

From 1933 known as “London’s handwriting”

To travel on the Tube is to travel through a chronology of design classics, but it was in 1933 when the Underground Group became London Transport and Johnston’s typeface was used on bus signs and for the Metropolitan Railways as well, that it began to be known as London’s Handwriting.

On the surface, Johnston, a calligrapher who made his own quills, may not appear a likely candidate for the job, but he was responsible for reviving and redefining calligraphy, a craft that was considered obsolete in the modern age.

His initial training was in medicine but he gave up his studies to pursue a career in the arts. He was already keen on lettering and illuminating, and in 1898 artist Harry Cowlishaw who had encouraged him, introduced Johnston to W R Lethaby, principal of the newly founded Central School of Arts & Crafts. Lethaby was looking to introduce illumination to the curriculum, and he had now found his man. He sent Johnston off to study manuscripts at the British Museum, and Johnston took up his teaching post in 1899.

Edward Johnston and William Morris

Johnston was on the coat tails of William Morris who had responded to industrialisation by looking back to medieval craft guilds. The shock of new ideas, and difficulty to process change, is often responded to by being nostalgic, and to idealise the future, but Morris’s work was so labour intensive that it was prohibitively expensive for working class people and actually worked against his socialist principles.

Johnston’s belief in ‘truth to materials’ heralded the way forward by shifting the emphasis away from decoration. His teaching of lettering to a new generation of craft workers was in the tradition of the medieval guilds but it was also in the context of a modern learning establishment. Johnston was not a fan of industrialisation either, but his passion for lettering extended to type; it was after all a tradition that dated back 500 years.

Far from being nostalgic though, Johnston applied the proportions of his beloved Roman capitals from the Trajan column to his modern typeface and to this end he absolutely achieved Frank Pick’s vision for a pioneering corporate branding for London’s Underground.

100 years of Edward Johnston’s Lettering for London runs from 12 March – 11 September 2016 at Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft, Lodge Hill Lane, Ditchling, East Sussex, BN6 8SP

Edward Johnston, Way Out, Brompton Road, 1916, Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft
Edward Johnston, Bulls Eye, no date, Crafts Centre
E.584-1999 Poster Defacing Posters; London Transport poster asking people not to deface posters; Britain. Edward Johnson (1825-1896), of font London Transport; Baynard Press England Colour offset lithography on paper
Edward Johnston, Defacing posters, V&A.
Edward Johnston at his desk
Edward Johnston at his desk

Latest articles


Conference: Design for Europe – key learnings

Design for Europe: Powering Innovation was a one-day summit which took place in Tallinn Estonia this month, with industry experts discussing everything from education to skills development and business growth – we summarise the speakers’ key points on the value of design.


Michael Wolff: “Why all the poor logos?”

Michael Wolff scrutinises recent logos which he believes have fallen short and offer little more than “visual nonsense” as he assesses where they’ve gone wrong and how they could have been designed differently.