Sunday, 30 January 2011

Critical Debates In Design: Task 1: Gill Sans vs Prototype

In the age of the desktop computer, font design software and page make-up programs, type has acquired a fluidity of physical outline, an ease of manipulation and, potentially, a lack of conceptual boundaries unimaginable on a few years ago. It is obvious that the new digital tools remove typography from exclusive domain of the specialists and place it in the hands of the graphic designers. Therefore, I believe that fonts are an indispensable part of graphic design and should be created by real type designers. In this manner, from all the font families I love - Century, Futura, Eurostile, Trebuchet, Verdana and of course Helvetica - I choose to write about two contrary types - Gill Sans by Eric Gill and Prototype by Jonathan Barnbrook - to investigate the conflict between two opposite approaches.

Originally, Gill Sans first appeared in 1926 when Eric Gill painted the fascia in sans-serif capitals over the window of Douglas Cleverdon's new opened bookshop in Bristol. The font became popular in 1929 when Cecil Dandridge commissioned Eric Gill to produce Gill Sans to be used on the London and North Eastern Railway for a unique typeface all the LNER's posters and public material. The following year to become the standard typeface for the London railway system, soon appearing on the every facet of the company's identity made Gill Sans an irrevocable part of the design world. The typeface is also very famous for being used at the celebrated paper jacket designs of the Penguin Books from 1935. During those years Gill Sans became the corporate identity of many well known brands including BBC Televisions and Philips and later the famous company Monotype's fifth best selling type face of the twentieth century.

BBC's identity had transformed many times since 1953, but final logo designed with Gill Sans and released in 1988.

The designer Eric Gill was a well established sculptor, graphic artist and type designer. Therefore, the iconic typeface takes inspiration from Edward Johnston's "Johnston" typeface designed in 1916 for London Underground, which Gill had worked on while apprenticed to Johnston. Eric Gill's purpose was to make the ultimate legible sans-serif text face. For that purpose, Gill Sans was designed to function equally well as a text face and for display. According to me, comparing to its contemporaneous Gill Sans is the most successful and modern typeface. If we take a close look of the characteristics of the typeface we can notice the uppercase of Gill Sans takes inspiration from the monumental Roman capitals like those found on the Column of Trajan, and the Baskerville typefaces. 

What I love the most about the Gill Sans is the notion behind the typeface can be observed very clearly with the capital M, which is based on the proportions of a square with the middle strokes meeting at the center of that square. Therefore it is simple and as legible as a typeface can be. The font family contains fourteen styles and has less of a cubical feeling than geometric sans-serif typeface Futura, because its proportions stemmed from Roman tradition. Gill Sans also serves as a model for several later humanist sans-serif typefaces including Syntax, and FF Scala Sans. Unfortunately there is a very clear weakness of the typeface which is inconsistency between some letters. The basic shapes do not look coherent across font weights, it is more obvious in Extra Bold and Ultra Bold weights, and Extra Condensed width. However, even in lighter weights, some letters still do not look in a harmony. For example, in letters p and q, the top strokes of counters do not touch the top of the stems in Light, Bold, Heavy fonts, but touch the top of the stems in Book and Medium fonts. Nevertheless, Helvetica of the England is still one of my favorite fonts, I believe with its simpleness it never covers the way behind the message you want to convey to the audience. Consequently, nobody can deny that the Gill Sans is a part of the British visual heritage, and modern graphic designers lifes.

In this polymorphous digital realm, typefaces can cross-fertilize each other or merge to form strange new hybrids. Therefore Jonathan Barnbrook's "Prototype" is collaged from body snatched parts of ten other typefaces, among them Bembo, Perpetua and of course Gill Sans. Barnbrook is an innovative graphic designer and typographer. As a graphic designer, I admire the idea he stands for which is "Designers stay away from the corporations that want you to lie for them". However, for me Barnbrook's work is more like pictograms rather than real and functional typefaces. You can always enjoy his art, but you can't make a new design out of them. I believe that all the letter forms carries their designers idiosyncracies however in examples like Barnbrook's Prototype, it is in a more obvious way.

The first typeface that Barnbrook had drew - was also a school project - called "Mulatto", was designed in 1987, before the Macintosh entered designers everyday life. The notion was to produce a typeface with sans-serif features in each character. During the years Mulatto had developed into "Prototype", which was partly inspired by the idea of "sampling". The idea behind the design was to taking digital bits, using them in a new context, but realising their source. Barnbrook had taken the existing parts of upper and lower case characters from existing typefaces and grafted them into a universal form. This approach had been experienced before, most notably by Bradbury Thompson. What is clever about Prototype is, it tricks people into recognizing that the characters had all aspects of the shapes that go to make up the identity of what a letter form is. In 1995, after the sampling process, Barnbrook redraw the letters to make them a workable typeface until 1997, when the Prototype had taken its final form. During this last evolution, the weight was critical to emphasis on serif and sans-serif. After this, the project was extended to come up with new punctuation marks for process. The marks were to work as nodes between sentences, rather like a diagram. The only weakness of the project that the results aren't strictly typeface design, it involved more with expression of thought in an iconographic form. Consequently, beside the fact that the design is beautiful and strong, it is definitely not very functional for usage.

Throughout many publications, it has been suggested that the tradition of experimental typography initiated by Futurism, Dada and the Bauhaus, and sustained by the work of Robert Massin, Wolfgang Weingart and others, is being refreshed. However, none of these projects is part of the typographic mainstream, or reaches a particularly wide readership. I believe that Gill Sans and Prototype are the work of two opposite approaches, which demonstrates my point perfectly. In my estimation, I like both of those typefaces and admire their designers, however - in contrast to Gill Sans - Barnbrook's letters are individual elements rather than part of a larger discourse. Therefore, as a typeface, Prototype doesn't serves its purposes conveniently. Moreover, if graphic designers will have the freedom of taking over the typographer's role, then we must be able to function as visual editors who can bring acute perception to the readings of the text. All in all, to demonstrate a satisfying relationship between typographic expression and text author and typographer must work together much more closely.

Ambrose, G. and Harris, P., 2006,  The Visual Dictionary of Graphic Design USA: Thames & Hudson
Harling, R. and Godine, R., 1977, The Letter Forms and Type Designs of Eric Gill USA: David R. Publishers
Heller, S. and Pettit, E., 1998, Design Dialogues USA: Allworth Communications
Poynor, R., 1991, Typography Now: The Next Wave UK: Booth-Clibborn Editions
Turner Berry, W., Johnson, A. and Jaspert, W., 1958, The Encyclopedia of Typefaces UK: Blandford Press
Web Sites
Barnbrook: Portfolio,, Sub Page, Branbrook Blog,
Available from:
BBC: Home Page,, Sub Page, Logo Story, Available From:
Wikipedia: The Online Encylopedia,, Sub Page, Edward Johnston, Available from:
Wikipedia: The Online Encylopedia,, Sub Page, Jonathan Barnbrook, Available from:
Wikipedia: The Online Encylopedia,, Sub Page, London Underground, Available from:

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