Man of letters

Ex-London Transport RM1670, Christchurch, New Zealand (February 2011)

Ex-London Transport RM1670, Christchurch, New Zealand (February 2011)

A few years ago my cousin Richard and I dined at the now-defunct Paradiso Inferno on London’s Strand, an Italian restaurant that I understand was a favourite of the late, great journalist, Bill Deedes (1913-2007).

Richard is actually my first cousin once removed, so we’re a generation apart and I’m as fascinated by his understanding of the technological present as he is bemused by my ramblings about the historical past.

I pointed, as a tease, to the succession of red buses that stopped nearby, and mentioned that if you look closely at the destination indicators, the letter ‘l’ curls at the base and the dots of the ‘i’ and ‘j’ characters are actually diamonds.

That’s because the lettering is not Gill Sans but the specific font that London Transport’s chief executive officer, Frank Pick (1878-1941), commissioned from the typographer Edward Johnston (1872-1944).

This formed part of Pick’s campaign to give the capital’s transport system a uniform brand-image at every level from architecture and vehicle livery to poster-design and typography.

Frank Pick is a towering figure in modern marketing, and his legacy continues to colour the streets of London.

After all, though London Transport was broken up in 2000 and its bus-services are now run by a variety of operators, Transport for London still uses a revision of the Johnston font and the trademark roundel, and the buses are still red.

For the whole of our meal on the Strand, Richard and I found ourselves looking up at passing buses to check that the ‘i’s and ‘j’s really did have diamonds for dots and that the ‘l’s were turned up at the base.

Versions of Johnston’s Underground font crop up unexpectedly, even – as in the illustration above – in New Zealand.

An interesting article on Frank Pick, Edward Johnston and the designer of TfL New Johnston, Eiichi Kono, is at Edward Johnston: the man behind London’s lettering | London Transport Museum (

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