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Gill Sans

Gill Sans

When Futura became a bestseller in Germany in the late 1920s, Stanley Morison (see “6: Times”) began looking for a British equivalent for his employer Monotype. Sometime towards the end of 1928, he thought of the sculptor and graphic artist Eric Gill, and the impressive sans-serif for the London Underground on which Gill had worked with Edward Johnston seven years earlier. Something like that might make a good “Futura killer”.


Eric Gill as a young man, circa 1908 (© Harry Ransom Center)

Morison set off that same day to the tiny Welsh hamlet of Capel-y-ffin, where the 42-year-old Gill had moved in 1924 to complete his Perpetua typeface. It did not take Morison long to convince the artist that he was the right man for the job, especially as Gill had no end of unused ideas for typefaces lying around.

In London, two weeks later, they examined Gill’s old and new type sketches together. Morison was astonished to see that, with only a few changes, many of the Johnston characters made a wonderfully readable text font, despite their small x-height. The explanation for this was that the characters of Gill’s new typeface were based in the first instance on Roman forms and proportions, with their forms made geometrical by the designer in a subsequent second step.

Between 1929 and 1932, more than 36 series of Gill Sans were created for use in mechanical typesetting. What distinguishes this sans-serif – as compared to Futura – is not only the pronounced contrast in weights, but indeed that all its fonts have a distinct character of their own because they were not derived mechanically from the same design.


The secret of Gill Sans: first the basic Roman form, and then the geometrical construction; a 1933 drawing by Eric Gill (Source: St Pride Printing Library, London)

The light font has a heavily hooded f and a tall t, and is open and elegant in appearance. The regular is compact and muscular, with a flat-bottomed b, flat-topped p and q, and triangular-topped t. The bold Gill Sans reflects the open style of the light, while the extra bold and ultra bold have a flamboyant character of their own. Thus, the Gill Sans family reflects its creator’s understanding of craftsmanship.

Eric Gill’s sculptural and typographical oeuvre has an indisputable place in British cultural history. Nevertheless, Fiona MacCarthy’s 1989 biography of Gill has cast a shadow over the artist’s work. His strict Catholicism did not deter him from an incestuous relationship with his sister, or from sexually abusing his children. In his diaries, Gill gives a detailed description of his sexual experiments with the family dog.

[Update, 13 March 2007]

Three variations of a lower case a: the two rational characters were never released.

The typography expert Ben Archer (Auckland, New Zealand) published a noteworthy re-evaluation of Gill Sans at typotheque.com (first published in Designer Magazine, Singapore, January 2007). He concludes: “I contend that the majority of character shapes in Gill Sans are actually worse than in Johnston’s design of 15 years previous. Gill Sans achieved its pre-eminence because of the mighty marketing clout of the Monotype Corporation and the self-serving iconoclasm of its author. Thus, rather than Johnston’s lettering, it was Gill Sans that became the English national style of the mid-century.”
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