While many consider it to be the quintessential British type style, the Gill Sans® typeface family has been used in virtually every country – and for every application imaginable. The reason for Gill Sans’ near ubiquity is because it is an exceptionally distinctive design with a potential range of use that is almost limitless.
Eric Gill, the man responsible for designing Gill Sans, was a versatile and brilliant talent in the early part of the last century. He was active, prolific and successful in many disciplines from wood engraving to sculpture and calligraphy. In the 1920s, he began an association with Monotype and, in 1928, his first typeface, Gill Sans, was released. This was followed by the Perpetua® and Joanna® designs.
Were it not for Stanley Morison, typographic consultant to Monotype in the early 1920s, Gill would not have produced any of the faces he did. Morison’s commanding personality, lofty scholarship and control over what fonts were developed at Monotype, made him one of the most powerful forces in modern typeface development. After first reviving several classical type styles to serve as the foundation of the new Monotype® typeface library, Morison thought that a truly modern face (designed by a living artist) should be released. He also thought that Eric Gill was ideal for the job.
Early in his career, Gill apprenticed under Edward Johnston, the famous British calligrapher. During this time he was able to collaborate with Johnston on one of the calligrapher’s most well known projects: the signage alphabet for the London Underground system. Morison was aware of Johnston’s sans serif font, and when, several years later, he saw lettering by Gill using many of the same letterforms, it struck him that a typeface based on this alphabet would be highly marketable. In Morison’s plan, Gill Sans was to be the British counterpart to the Futura® design.
One of reasons for the enduring success of Gill Sans is that it is based on Roman character shapes and proportions and is unlike virtually any other sans serif typeface. There is also warmth and humanity found in Gill Sans that is found in few sans serif typefaces. In addition, each weight in the family retains a distinct character of its own. They were not “mechanically” produced from a single design, as is the case with many other sans serif designs. The light is open and elegant. The regular, with its flat-bottomed d, flat-topped p and q and triangular-topped t, has a more compact and muscular appearance. The bold tends to echo the softer, more open style of the light, while the extra bold and ultra bold have their own vivid personalities.
Gill Sans has been popular almost from its inception. In the year following its release, it was chosen to be the official font for the LNER railway system. Gill Sans would go on to appear on nearly everything associated with the company, from the menus used in its dining cars to the timetables printed for use in its stations to posters advertising the railway. In 1948, the newly created British Railways also opted to use Gill Sans for all printed media, including its timetables. Gill Sans continues to be a popular choice, as it has been featured prominently by the Church of England, which adopted the typeface in 2000 when publishing its series of books known as Common Worship. Saab Automobile uses Gill Sans in all its marketing and advertising materials, and Gill Sans has also been the corporate typeface of the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) since 1997.