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The History and Characteristics of the Gill Sans Typeface

Updated on March 31, 2017

The typeface of railway signs, engine plates, and television stations

This lens is about Gill Sans, the most well known of the typefaces designed by Eric Gill. With its classical proportions, clean lines and high legibility, Gill Sans was an immediate success when it was created in 1928, and remains a firm favourite today. You may recognise it from the BBC logo.

"Lettering is a precise art and strictly subject to tradition. The New Art notion that you can make letters whatever shapes you like, is as foolish as the notion, if anyone has such a notion, that you can make houses any shape you like. You can't, unless you live all by yourself on a desert island." - Eric Gill

The Gill Sans character set
The Gill Sans character set

The history of Gill Sans

Inspiration from underground

Gill Sans was created in 1928 by the English sculptor, sign painter, type designer and wannabe social reformer Eric Gill. After a short stint as an apprentice to an architect, Gill attended the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, where he studied lettering under calligrapher Edward Johnston.

In 1914, Gill met the typographer Stanley Morison, and began working for the Monotype Corporation - an independent English company based in Surrey. After reviving several classical type styles to serve as the foundation of the new Monotype typeface library, Morison wanted to develop a modern face that could compete with the popular and successful new sans serif fonts, such as Futura.

Morison saw lettering by Gill that used many of the same letterforms as Edward Johnston's signage typeface, used for the London Underground system. It struck Morison that a typeface based on this alphabet would be highly marketable. Thus, Eric Gill was given the job of creating Gill Sans.

A classical typeface with Art Deco influences

The Gill Sans alphabet is classical in proportion. It is classified as a "humanist" sans serif, making it very legible and readable in text and display work. This makes it better suited than most sans serif typefaces to setting bodies of text. The humanist movement, which occurred during the Renaissance, reacquainted society with art, literature and education. The first writing styles to come out of the movement took the upright shapes of Textura and introduced roundness and uniformity. Gill Sans, influenced by this period, uses the classic forms of "a" and "g". The rounded "c," "e" and "f" are the first examples of vertical stroke ends, which create the optical effect of the stroke thinning towards the ending, alluding to Roman type.

Despite its roots in the Renaissance, however, Gill Sans is a modern typeface - the radical geometric shapes are typical of the Art Deco movement, which was happening at the time of its creation. The Gill Sans family is huge, with 36 derivatives, including Gill Sans Light, Gill Sans Condensed, Gill Sans Bold and Gill Sans Ultra Bold.

Many of the derivatives were created in the Monotype drawing office with input by Gill as consultant to the design project - they were not mechanically produced from a single drawing, like Helvetica or Univers.

The BBC logo uses Gill Sans
The BBC logo uses Gill Sans

Gill Sans was an immediate success. It became the typeface of London and North Eastern Railways, and later British Railway, appearing on their signs, engine plates and timetables. More recently, the BBC began to use Gill Sans in their logo in 1997; it is also used by the Midlands TV company Carlton.

Other typefaces by Eric Gill include Perpetua and Joanna (named after his daughters), Aries, Gill Display, ITC Golden Cockerel, ITC Golden Cockerel Initials and Ornaments, Solus, Bunyan, Pilgrim and Jubilee.

Characteristics of Gill Sans

Gill Sans has a relatively small X-height in comparison with other sans serif fonts. A generous X-height is usually considered a prerequisite for a high legibility typeface, but Gill Sans seems to be an exception.

Gill Sans is also essentially the only sans serif typeface without modular use of strokes. The "O" is a perfect circle, and the oblique and vertical strokes as well as upstrokes and downstrokes have a consistent thickness. Only "a," "e" and "g" have thinner strokes at the openings of the small eyes. These exceptions to an otherwise consistent stroke thickness are one of the trademark characteristics of the Gill Sans typeface.

Unlike other popular sans serif fonts such as Arial and Verdana, the Gill Sans typeface uses a double storey lowercase "g". This has a distinctive eyeglass shape, which is easily recognisable.

"C," "e" and "f" have vertical stroke ends, creating the effect of the strokes thinning towards the ending.

How does Gill Sans compare?

Gill Sans compared with Arial and Verdana
Gill Sans compared with Arial and Verdana

The table above compares some of the distinctive letters in Gill Sans with Arial and Verdana.

The tail of the "Q" does not extend into the counter, as with Arial. It is also an entirely different shape to Verdana - like the "O" it is perfectly round, while Verdana is oval, and the tail does not curve as much. It is at more of an angle, and does not have a vertical stroke end.

Like Arial and Verdana, Gill Sans uses a double storey lowercase "a". The Gill Sans "a" has a spur similar to Arial, and is one of the "exception to the rule" characters, with thick and thin strokes. The main difference between the Gill Sans and Arial lowercase "a" is that Gill Sans has a vertical stroke ending (like Verdana), and Arial is almost horizontal.

The Gill Sans "W" is wider in proportion than both Arial and Verdana.

Except for the different X-height, the Gill Sans lowercase "y" is very similar to Verdana. The tail as at the same angle, and does not curve like Arial.

The Main Gill Sans font family

The Main Gill Sans font family
The Main Gill Sans font family

What do you think of Gill Sans?

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Reader Comments - Please drop me a line - I'd love to hear from you!

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      Maria Lizete Guiza 4 weeks ago

      Nice, I have now a better comprehension of the over all design.

    • goo2eyes lm profile image

      goo2eyes lm 5 years ago

      i always use arial black and times roman but since you introduced me to gill sans, i may have to try it.

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      huvalbd 5 years ago

      It's good to have an alternative to Arial, which is nearly everywhere but which I find not as readable as some other typefaces.