Making a book #7 The font

I was surprised last week by Ellen’s knowing question – what font will you use? And I said Gill Sans.

Why I love this font

It is English, it is retro, it is elegant and balanced; it makes life more beautiful! While Gill Sans is a very common font, ubiquitous even, it always looks fresh and modern to my eye.

  • English

I am not nationalistic, far from it, but I am always interested in English and British artists, designers, styles, products and traditions. The Gill Sans font was developed by one of the greatest British artists of the 20th Century – Eric Gill – specifically for posters, advertising and public information purposes. Creating a systematic approach to design and branding (as it is now known) developed in the 1930s, and the Gill Sans “alphabet” was widely adopted (although it evolved) by the Underground, the Railways, the BBC and Penguin books.

There are several nice German and Swiss modern, rather more geometric styles that are similar, but I prefer Gill Sans.

  • Retro

This font was developed in the late 1920s/1930s, originally as an alphabet of capital letters, based on the finely honed Roman style. (At my secondary school we had the gravestone of a Roman soldier, Lucius Baebius Crescens from Augusta Vindelicorum (modern-day Augsburg), soldier of the Sixth Legion.   I enjoyed looking at the amazing typography, carved our of the stone in a regulation style, and we used to seek his help for exam success).


Roman Alphabet and Gill’s version


  • Elegant and balanced

The design is artistic rather than technological or engineered. It flows and has flourishes. Behold the “Q”.

  • Beautiful

I love this font because it has an openness and lightness to it. As it was developed to include lower case letters it started to be used for body text and soon won many fans.

What is “Sans”?

Fonts are not something many of us think about – the design of the typefaces we use at work, on our blogs, and the ones we read in newspapers, books and reports. I usually stick with Ariel at work, preferring a sans-serif typeface in general. Although I have used Times New Roman in the past. The twidly bits (circled) are the serifs which are said to make them easier to read. Now I am learning InDesign I am learning lots more about the appearance of text and it is very interesting.

TImes New Roman v Ariel

What is Gill?

Come in Eric Gill (pronounced like a fish gill).

Eric Gill was a marvellous sculptor, illustrator and designer, and you can see his work, free of charge, all over London. The first image, below, is just one of several sculptures which adorn the headquarters of Transport for London. I have had the privilege of spending time inside this amazing Grade 1 listed Art Deco building known as “London’s first sky scraper”, 55 Broadway (St James tube station) many times. My son Gus worked there until recently; we are developing some TfL land for social housing; and I mentor a senior officer in the British Transport police who is also based here. The offices and lifts are amazing, but like many beautiful old offices it is not really fit for the future. It seems likely that it will be sold at some point. Gill also worked on the BBC building, and you will be greeted by his “Mankind” if you walk into the sculpture gallery at the V&A. Nick loves this sculpture (and says it looks like me, ha ha!).



Eric was amazingly talented and I have a great fondness for his work. He converted to Catholicism, but he was a pedophile. I mention this as there is a tendency sometimes to judge the artists rather than the art, and there are some who call for these works of art to be broken and removed. I am appalled by the desecration of art but some would boycott or ban anything that offends them. Not me. I intend to use his gorgeous font. Let’s have a look at it.

In my InDesign course I have been using this font and learning how to make a “drop cap”. It looks really nice, doesn’t it? Not for my book specifically but just to learn.

Using InDesign Gill Sans
InDesign exercise


Here is a nice blog post if you would like to know more.


18 Responses

  1. Maria

    What a coincidence I was just looking at the same picture of 55 The Broadway for a PQQ submission last week. My husbands firm did some work to this listed TFL building and it is sad to know it may not be suitable for future use.
    Didn’t know it was London’s first sky scraper and sculptured by Gill. Interesting bit of info.
    Good luck with your book.

  2. eimear greaney

    I am a bit of a font novice, I do have preferences but nothing in anyway academic, James (husband) used work in graphic design with a friend of his, and whenever they used talk font…… to say I was bewildered is an understatement. I do like your choice of font (I used work for habitat and they developed their own font)

  3. Jenny l

    I love typefaces and Gill Sans is perfect. Many years ago I taught touch typing, then word processing, then desk top publishing and IT and I used to design ‘newspaper pages’ for my students. It was much more difficult to do the layout in the early days and gave you a real sense of achievement when placing dropped caps. When I first used a computer it wasn’t WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) and you had to work on a screen of text only and then go to ‘print view’ to see what it would look like. So much easier now. A common mistake is to use too many fonts in a piece and the wrong colours. Red text is such a difficult colour to read and dark backgrounds make it painful on the eye.

    • fabrickated

      Thank you for this interesting story dear Jenny. You obviously have lots of practical knowledge of this. Even after a six week course I am not sure I would be able to make a newsletter without help. But I will practice.

    • fabrickated

      Thank you for bringing this font to my attention. I know there are some fonts and approaches that work well for people who are partially sighted. Myself I can’t cope with the smaller fonts anymore and often increase the size for easy reading. If I am giving a talk I always go for 14 points. My grandson may be dyslexic so this is very useful information. I don’t think you will dissuade me from Gill Sans, but it is a good challenge dear Ruth

  4. Judy

    Thanks Kate. This has made me look at fonts with much more respect. Always enjoy your posts and good luck with the book.

  5. Jenny

    I love this type face. It comes across as fresh and modern but still mainstream.

    But to open a can of worms while in theory I agree we should judge the art not the artist, if Gill were alive today and had just been convicted of his sexual crimes I would imagine there would be a great deal of angst about displaying/removing his works of art. I think modern day thinking, at least for some, would mean his art would be tainted and I suspect no organisation would be giving him commissions. Does the years’ passing soften our approach making us more able to separate the art from the artist?

    • Fabrickated

      A thoughtful response to Gil, Jenny, thank you. It is always hard and possibly dangerous to read the sensibilities and norms of one era back into another one. Gill whole experience, upbringing and cultural context helped to enable behaviours that would be illegal and unacceptable to all today. Rolf Harris, part of my growing up, made jokes about 13 year old grils that were “acceptable” at the time, and I remember watching Till Death us Do Part and laughing. I would be appalled now.

      • talliswoman

        I also think that there is a difference between continuing to support the career of a living artist who has behaved badly, and probably still is, and retrospectively boycotting the work of people who are long dead. I’m not very keen on the argument that the ‘Great Artist’ should be allowed a different standard of behaviour to mere mortals, and I do think that we need to at least think about the way in which the beliefs of the artist might be subtly conveyed in their works. But it’s hard to see how a font could be subliminally supporting paedophilia, so I think you go for it! Nice to see you acknowledge it as an issue though.

  6. Sue

    In theory fonts “lead the eye” and are usually medium specific. I believe that the serif font is better for really high resolution work, such as a high quality printed document as the shape is sharper and our brain recognises it faster. However, where the resolution is poorer (such as in an online medium) the sans-serif is easier to read as it isn’t such a complex shape and doesn’t become blurred with the fewer pixels. The sans-serif is a much more modern and appealing font, I think. I agree, the Gill Sans is a lovely font and I really enjoyed your post giving its history. Thank you!

    • fabrickated

      And thank you for explaining the difference between the sans serif and the serif. Our lefter and righter wing newspapers take the opposing views too! (Like everything else font have significance way beyond just conveying the written word!!)

  7. ceci

    Since first reading this I have been thinking and reading and learning about fonts – very interesting and I didn’t need to do all that other stuff I would have done instead anyway.


  8. Janet

    Sadly it’s not available on iPlayer at the moment, but there was a great programme on BBC4 last year about the Johnston and Gill Sans typefaces. If it ever comes back on there it’s worth a watch. It was called Two Types: The Faces of Britain.

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