Alight, font hipsters

By Sean Anderson on August 28th, 2012

The London Underground is a marvel of visual communication. A train every minute during rush hour. Change here for mainline suburban rail services. Keep behind the yellow line at all times for your own safety. Despite the complexity of the network, millions of commuters breezily navigate it every day.

Perfect intuition? It didn’t happen by accident.

Transport for London has created an easy-to-use system of visual communication that allows this to happen. Hop on to any public transport in London, especially the underground, and you’ll be presented with a startling array of signs in a variety of colours.

Yet you know you’re on a Central Line train because the signs are in red, the handrails are red. It feels like the Central Line. When you’re doing a busy interchange at rush hour, follow the red rabbit.

A key aspect of the system is the Johnston typeface, which was created especially for London transport in 1916. As it’s licensed exclusively to TfL and used in all their signage, anyone that has spent time in London can use it to distinguish between official notices and advertising.

Combined with the logo and a colour, depending on the transport medium, TfL have one of the most distinctive and flexible visual identities in the world.

Similarly, the Olympic branding stands out amid an array of transport signage and advertising, and not just because it’s pink. The typeface and logo are distinctive. You can’t get them confused with the purple Metropolitan line, because the Olympic headline is there and set at a jaunty angle.

In an environment where it is considered amateur to use anything distinctive and new, the Olympic organisers decided to stand out from the pack. The games are an exceptional event. They should jump out, shout, be noticed. It says: move over Gill Sans, the games are here.

When the London 2012 identity was unveiled, people complained that it was a travesty to inflict such a poor logo on such a design-rich city. Granted, the logo looks like Lisa Simpson administering a blow job. That is unfortunate, and cannot be unseen.

However, the typeface provoked an uproar among experts (people that have seen the film Helvetica twice) because it didn’t look enough like Helvetica or Times for them. Twitter was practically apoplectic with disgust.

What was wrong with the big “London 2012” logo with the Olympic colours running through the words in the shape of the Thames? It was boring.

The 2012 logo doesn’t look like anything else on the high street or the underground, and retains its jagged identity on a wide range of products. The logo and typeface had to be this way for the same reason that the Johnston typeface is used only on London transport and explicitly licensed to them.

Nobody else is allowed to use it commercially, because that would detract from the ability of TfL signage to stand out from the noise. London 2012 did not have, like Johnston, nearly a century to establish a typeface with a few minor quirks like diamond dots – so in a golden age of typography they made something brave.

Yet nobody appreciated it. Because it was too different. For all the talk of London being a design-conscious city, it was too conservative to accept 2012 Headline.

Too many people think that not using Comic Sans makes you a typography expert qualified to categorise “good fonts” against “bad fonts” and scorn the latter on a regular basis; you’re acting as if you’ve happened upon some universal easy metric to decide whether abstract shapes are well designed. There are no such metrics.

Also, nobody is interested in your minimalist synthpop exploration of the financial crash.