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Humanist Elements: Examining the Gill Sans Font

Throughout the history of printing, previous generations have always looked upon new generations of typographic technology with scorn. Thanks to Microsoft Word and other commonly used desktop applications, most computer users are conversant in the fundamentals of type, even if they only know what a font is. This doesn’t mean that they always practice good typography. For example, there are now Web sites dedicated to wiping Comic Sans off the face of the Earth. See, for example, For professional designers, typography, like anything else, has trends and fashions. Over the course of the 2000s, there has been a tendency toward an increased use of humanist typefaces. A humanist typeface is a variety of sans serif that is more calligraphic than your average sans serif, with more variation in the stroke width and greater degrees of legibility. Newer varieties mingle serif and sans serif characteristics. The idea is to impart a sense of warmth and humanity to a sans serif face.

The Gill Sans Font

One of the first and most popular humanist typefaces was Gill Sans, initially developed in 1928. Eric Gill (1882–1940) was born in Brighton, England, and attended art school in Chichester. In 1900, he was an apprentice to an architect, and studied lettering in the evenings with Edward Johnston. Gill soon abandoned architecture to start his own stone carving and letter cutting business. In 1907, he learned printing and typography. In 1925, Stanley Morison (soon to be famous in his own right for designing Times New Roman for the Times of London) asked Gill to design a new typeface for the Monotype Corporation. This was Perpetua (a serif face), but Gill also designed Gill Sans, based on the Jonhston typeface. Gill’s mentor Edward Johnston designed the Johnston typeface for the London Underground, which still advises people to “mind the gap” to this day. Gill sans evenutally became the leading British sans serif typeface. Some refer to as “the national typeface of England”.

Monotype Imaging’s website describes Gill Sans thusly: “Based on Roman character shapes, the design maintains a warmth and humanity not typically associated with sans serif typefaces. While each character shape shares design attributes with the others, the individual characters have their own organic uniqueness and are not derivative of a single design.”

A wide variety of companies and organizations adopted Gill Sans. Until 2006, it was the official typeface of the BBC. Radiohead fans might also be interest- ed to know that lead singer Thom Yorke used Gill Sans on the cover of his 2006 solo album The Eraser.

Apple currently distributes Gill Sans, with a limited number of styles, as an OS X system font. You can purchase complete packages from a variety of type foundries.

As always, when using and specifying fonts in design work, be sure to supply exact copies of the fonts—be they Gill Sans or any other font—to your printer or prepress service provider. Different type foundries cut their fonts slightly differently (even fonts having the same name), and subtle differences can reflow text and cause layout errors.

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