Going underground – the Tube’s latest typography facelift

* 1 min read

It’s recognised the world over – and much copied for its beautifully simple and legible design. The London Tube map, first unveiled in 1933 and now an iconic guide to London, was the brainchild of electrical draughtsman Harry Beck. Based on the circuit diagrams he drew as his day job, Beck’s map owes much to Edward Johnston’s Johnston100 typeface, designed a century ago. That’s why news of Transport for London’s typeface update, Johnston100, has captured headlines and my attention.

Typography has a strong bearing on design, so any change, especially to the century-old font, could be seen as tricky. For me, Johnston100 is a classic. Fortunately, there are no drastic tweaks that would be noticed by the majority of travellers. Three new symbols – the hashtag, the ampersand and the @ – along with some subtle remastering, make up the change.

As a designer, my initial reaction is that the new lower counter on the “g” isn’t any better. The original is rounder, more “comfortable” and fluid. That said, TfL has retained what counts. A big ‘hooray!’ that the diamond dot on the ‘i’ still lives on. That is the really recognisable, ownable part of the font for TfL.

The slight modifications have emerged for a range of reasons, but it’s largely a matter of technological change. The facelift, and its various different weightings are perfectly suited for high-res displays for instance. The new symbols are a sensible move too, allowing TfL to evolve with the rise of social media.

Edward Johnston’s design has lasted so long because of its finely balanced idiosyncrasy and clarity. But for typography to survive it must adapt with the times. Johnston has been lauded as the father of modern calligraphy, almost “single-handedly reviving the art of formal penmanship”.  It’s a testament to his skill that a few tiny tweaks are all it takes to bring his typeface into the 21st century.