Type Specimen Research

GILL SANS :: Gill Sans 1928, by Eric Gill

Gill Sans typeface, colloquially known as the “Helvetica of England” was designed by British sculptor, graphic artist and type designer Eric Gill (1882-1940). Gill’s inspiration for the typeface was born from his studies under Edward Johnston at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. Gill remained close with Johnston after his schooling and was an apprentice when Johnston designed the typeface Johnston Sans for the London Underground Railway. Gill Sans is a direct inspiration from Johnston’s Underground typeface. While Eric Gill’s personal life later was uncovered to be quite scandalous (and by today’s standards possibly criminal) there is no doubt that his intensity for life and living is timelessly etched into all manifestations of his design and art.

Despite the institutional success of Johnston Sans, Eric Gill felt he could improve upon his mentor’s typeface by refining and improving it to become the ultimately legible sans serif typeface. Gill Sans began as an all capital alphabet when Gill was asked to create signage for a bookshop in Bristol. Later, Stanley Morison of Monotype noticed the typeface and commissioned Gill to make a full upper and lowercase alphabet and font family. Gill Sans was published by Monotype Corporation in 1928.

Gill Sans is one of the earliest of the Humanist Sans Serif typefaces. It is based on Roman capitals but lacks the serifs found on the Old Style and Transitional typefaces. It is further classified as a Humanist Sans Serif due to several identifying markers. Like the early Roman typefaces, its x-height is relatively small. It has virtually no contrast in its variation of stroke width, and its counterforms are more calligraphic and less perfectly geometric like the sans serifs which came after (i.e. Futura). It also has several irregularities in certain letterforms, like the uneven two-story lowercase “a” and the slightly curved tail in both the lowercase “a” and the uppercase “Q.” These kinds of details in the typeface add to the hand-penned, “human” quality.

Gill Sans has a cultured aura to it, evincing both the reference to historical typefaces in its proportions and a cleanliness to its lines, while still maintaining hints of a hand-lettered feel. Although it was initially crafted and is perfectly appropriate for commercial use, it maintains a spare quirkiness in its letterforms, (i.e. the link and loop of the lowercase “g”, the tails of the uppercase “Q” and lowercase “a”, and the ear of the lowercase “r”). It’s a typeface that broadcasts its design pedigree subtly, but with a wink to the viewer; a Helvetica for cool kids everywhere.

Here are a number of logos and signage using the Gill Sans Typeface:

And here are a few more examples of Gill Sans playing well with others:

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