Gill Sans on the British Railways trains.

Published by Fourthbus on

Catching up a train down the King’s Lynn line, and passing through a myriad of either retro-fit, or actual station signages, I asked myself, why can’t make a proper retrofit on BR hot dog signs at King’s Lynn, but the NSE signs down at Downham Market seems much more like an actual sign of that age?

This blame goes to typeface design again.

As you might suspect when you are creating a retrospective railway signage using Gill Sans, why would the British Railways (BR) signage looks so different from the one you’ve made, so much more elegant and accurate. The typeface on it feels like Gill Sans, also doesn’t look identical to the Gill Sans you’ve used. But when you pick Rail Alphabet, on the other hand (I’m not going to make any comment about that Rail Alphabet 2 here in case I go on for days nights), they seem pretty much the same as the signs designed by NSE in the 80s & 90s.

The reason is simple: there has never been a proper Gill Sans for titles (aka. large letters) available as a computer font. Based on the unextensive, unprofessional, and pretty much inconclusive research (comparing on PhD in engineering I’m reading this is for sure a sub-standard piece of research). The computer font version of Gill Sans, is based on a much lower optical size design of Gill Sans, say around 8-14 pt as I would expect. They are a great design for content, typeset around 8-14 pt for a healthy reader. Especially when you look at the distinctive design of letters such as ‘C’, ‘G’, ‘d’, some curves are artistically skewed to produce an effect of a large opening. Such features are helpful when designing text fonts as it significantly improves the readability — no one would want to spend more than a second differentiating a C and G (yes, I’m talking about those old gothic types on tenders and signages from pre-big-four ages). But when you trying to erect something onto the roof by getting it larger and thicker, it’s another story. You need something special for the larger and thicker.

I’m not the first one found this. As Robert Tarling noticed here (also picture below) about a decade ago. Several noticeable differences including a shorter ‘J’, and ‘B’ having a more regular shape in the BR variant. The flamboyant font might be good for bringing a hint of the renaissance into the content, but signage design in public service should probably prefer something neutral and done to the ground. So these fonts are different, but technically they are not different ‘Typeface’. They share the same features, and, very likely, the same designer. So they are technically Gill Sans, but a different version for some specialised use-cases.

Gill Sans and British Railways.

As I tried to dig out more about this special version of Gill Sans, it becomes clearer it quite likely originates from the large-print wood letterpress.

I will talk a bit more about this terious research when the time goes along…

Annoyingly, nobody has ever attempted to digitise the titling sized Gill Sans. This is rather irritating for my OCD, and I decided to embark on this project on digitising this marvellous typeface.

I aimed to complete capital letters and numbers on both ‘Light’ and ‘Medium’ weights as the first phase of this project. This part is rather straightforward as Mike Ashworth has posted BR Sign Standard on Flickr. The design job is more like using tracing paper on Glyphs.

British Railways Standard Signs Manual - 1948
A sample of the current completed type.