Gill Sans Research

Gill Sans is a sans-serif typeface designed by Eric Gill.

The original design appeared in 1926 when Douglas Cleverdon opened a bookshop in his home town of Bristol, where Gill painted the fascia over the window in sans-serif capitals that would later be known as Gill Sans.

In addition, Gill had sketched a design for Cleverdon, intended as a guide for him to make future notices and announcements.  Gill further developed it into a complete font family after Stanley Morison commissioned the development of Gill Sans to combat the families of Erbar, Futura and Kabel which were being launched in Germany during the latter 1920s as a British equivalent for his employer Monotype. Gill had worked with Edward Johnston seven years earlier. Something like that might make a good “Futura killer”.

Gill Sans was later released in 1928 by Monotype Corporation.  Gill Sans became popular when in 1929 Cecil Dandridge commissioned Eric Gill to produce Gill Sans to be used on the London and North Eastern Railway for a unique typeface for all the LNER’s posters and publicity material. Gill was a well established sculptor, graphic artist and type designer, and the Gill Sans typeface takes inspiration from Edward Johnston’s Johnston typeface for London Underground, which Gill had worked on while apprenticed to Johnston. Eric Gill attempted to make the ultimate legible sans-serif text face. Gill Sans was designed to function equally well as a text face and for display.

It is distributed as a system font in Mac OS X and is bundled with certain versions of Microsoft products as Gill Sans MT.

Eric Gill, circa 1908

WHY USE THIS NEW FONT?

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.

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.”

Gill died in 1940, Gill Sans entered public domain in 2010 and is now free to use by anyone.

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