Celebrating and recording the changing face of publishing

Paper + Screen

Paper + Screen

Celebrating and recording the changing face of publishing

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About

Paper + Screen is the brainchild of Anastasia Grabova, a freelance writer and magazine creator. Having worked in digital and print publishing for the past 15 years as writer, founder and editor, Anastasia wanted to create a website which explores the changing face of publishing, celebrates its history and supports new launches. You can expect to read reviews of publishing-related TV shows, exhibitions and events, as well as interviews with both established and new faces in the industry.

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Featured Post

Two Types: The Faces of Britain

Two Types: The Faces of Britain

A story of two of the most influential typefaces in modern British design history takes an unexpectedly dark turn on BBC4.

The train geek in me rejoiced last week as I settled down with a cup of Redbush tea to watch Mark Ovenden’s riveting documentary, Two Types: The Faces of Britain, the premise of which was how two typefaces came to dominate British culture, starting with the creation of Johnston for the London Underground. But this initially innocuous-seeming homage to perfectly round ‘o’s and diamond dots on ‘i’s, included shocking revelations that completely changed my perception of one of the types in question.

As the documentary revealed, in the early 20th century, London tube station walls were crammed full of signs and advertisements, each using different styles and typefaces. Signposts and station names were visually drowned out and rendered virtually useless.

The companies running the various Underground lines needed one unifying, legible type which would stand out against the surrounding advertising posters, and offer instantly obvious direction. Central Saint Martins calligraphy teacher, Edward Johnston was commissioned for the job by Frank Pick, Commercial Manager of the London Underground Group. Although completely inexperienced in the art of type creation, Johnston must have shown great promise. And Pick wasn’t disappointed; by all accounts, Johnston did a sterling job, creating a clean and modern typeface that is still recognised around the world, over a century later.

The immediately recognisable Johnston typeface (Credit: Wikimedia Commons).

The introduction of the new lettering was deemed a huge success, and became an integral part of the London Underground’s branding. In fact, it was so important, that the typeface was guarded by management with a fierce protectiveness. Any printer working for the company and with access to the block letters, was strictly warned not to use it for anyone else.

And so Johnston, the brave new type, remained in London, completely out of sight to anyone outside of the capital’s transport system. Meanwhile one of Johnston’s admirers, and students, Eric Gill, who had assisted Johnston during the creation of his seminal new typeface and was given a generous 10% of the total fee, created a type inspired by his tutor, for Douglas Cleverdon, a bookshop owner in Bristol.

The rest of the developments are a lesson in serendipity – spotted by an agent from Monotype, Gill’s typeface was then used by London and North Eastern Railway, then the second biggest railway line in the UK, gracing such esteemed trains as the world-record-breaking ‘Mallard’ and ‘The Flying Scotsman’. The type was becoming a runaway success, snapped up by all and sundry looking for a modern branding makeover.

The sign for Douglas Cleverdon’s bookshop, painted by Eric Gill, which inspired Stanley Morison at Monotype to commission the Gill Sans typeface (credit: Reproduced in “A book of alphabets for Douglas Cleverdon drawn by Eric Gill”, published by Christopher Skelton at Wellingborough, 1987).

Not hampered by ownership in the way that Johnson was, Gill Sans has since been appearing in various forms on all types of media – famously on the back of The Beatles’ Abbey Road album, and then used throughout The Face magazine in the Eighties. Channel 4 used it when it launched in 1982, and other broadcasters such as the BBC and Carlton quickly followed suit. Today it’s seen on the Waitrose logo, eHarmony and many more. For a typeface it has earned a huge following, and though many people might not know its name, it will, in a subconscious way, feel as omnipresent, familiar and British as The Beatles, as a British Railway station, as the BBC.

Whilst the typeface he designed and lent his name to, was clear and easily deciphered, Gill the man was anything but. Primarily a sculptor by trade, Gill gained notoriety for his controversial art which mixed religious imagery with eroticism. What was known was that he was a complex man, but many artists are. His sculptures, though contentious must have felt popular and established enough to have been commissioned for the front of Broadcasting House in 1928.

Gill died in 1940, so it was quite shocking that 49 years later his biographer Fiona MacCarthy revealed some scandalous diaries in which Gill recorded his sexual experimentations in frank detail, including abominable acts with his dog and abuse of his children. For what appeared initially to be a light-hearted documentary, this took for me, a repugnant turn, but unfortunately, when talking about Gill, the man or the typeface, the dramatic revelation, could not be avoided.

The BBC’s new in-house typeface BBC Reith, created to save money and be easier to read on screens (credit: BBC).

In a further testament to his dubious character, though Gill owes his success to Johnson, he did not give him a penny. Perhaps some can separate the art from the artist but for me the two are inextricably linked. Though some might pass Gill Sans off as just a typeface, and assign it no other meaning, the name of the type itself has given Eric Gill, the man, immortality, and an influence so subtle we barely notice it’s there. For me at least, this type’s been tarnished, so I am glad that the BBC will no longer be using Gill Sans and has just released a new typeface of its own.

In 1913, Johnson said that books should “bear some living mark of the time in which we live.” Yet over 100 years later, his designs remain as fresh, functional and relevant to city living as they did a century ago. The real hero for me in this story of Two Types is Johnson, the true mastermind behind a ground-breaking new approach to typography.

Two Types: The Faces of Britain is available to watch on BBC iPlayer until 22:00 on 30th August 2017.