Gill Sans. Where does it still feel authentic?

Jean Louis's picture

Ok, so Gill Sans is one of those great but overused fonts. How to avoid being one of the abusers? Where do you think Gill Sans still feels authentic? Would that be all things über-British (plus, premium and understated), period?

bojev's picture

Gill Sans is not IMO over used in the United States - we can use it for any project for which it fits.

Jean Louis's picture

Thanks, Bojev. Things are slightly different in Europe. Anything high-end with a sense of understatement has a chance of being branded with Gill Sans. The question is, how would you describe the context you consider most appropriate for Gill.

Thylacine's picture

I don't know what feeling authentic really means in this context. Gill Sans works wherever it works, which in my opinion isn't that often (never been a big fan of Gill Sans).

Jean Louis's picture

Thylacine, what I mean with "feeling authentic" is where Gill Sans works according to you. For instance, use it for McDonald's and it's probably not going to be very convincing.

kthomps5's picture

Have you checked out Fonts in Use?:

I've always considered Gill Sans one of those classic sans, on a par with Futura.

I just helped someone on the Font ID forum with a Futura identification, and he felt foolish (when he shouldn't have) for not recognizing it himself. But it had been used so elegantly, it seemed more up-to-date than something designed in the late 1920s/early 1930s.

I feel the same way about Gill Sans. Use it thoughtfully and well, and it can seem timeless. Its geometry does seem to lend itself, however, to products or services meant to evoke precision, craftsmanship, and/or style.

What I am tired of seeing, however, are "fashion" versions of Didot/Bodoni. Enough already.

bojev's picture

Gil Sans well set is very classy and elegant.

Jean Louis's picture

@kthomps5: Thanks for the fontsinuse suggestion. Quite useful, although the list deserves a few updates.

I'll have a look at your Futura post in the Font ID forum, you made me curious.

As for Gill Sans, I'd like to use it for a new logo, it fits the identity, but unfortunately the letters don't make the font stand out at its best. Too bad. Not like this one, I saw today

@bojev: You bet. See the link above!

PublishingMojo's picture

As you say, Gill Sans is so ubiquitous that it no longer evokes midcentury Britain for anyone except typophiles.

I still like and use Gill Sans, but might just be a habit formed in the early years of desktop publishing. There were few widely-available sans serifs then, and they tended to be either monotonous and sterile (Helvetica, Univers) or monotonous and mechanical (Futura, Avant Garde). The only sans serifs that were easy to find and looked like the work of a living, red-blooded human were Gill Sans and Optima. Optima was a little precious, so we used Gill Sans because it looked good, it worked well, and it was just eccentric enough to keep from being boring.

quadibloc's picture

I associate Gill Sans with the Merit chemistry set, and with a toy where a robot indicates with a pointer the answer to a question you had previously turned it to; I think it had "Magic" in its name...

Ah, yes. The toy was called "Magic Robot", and it was even made by Merit as well!

Bert Vanderveen's picture

If you like Gill Sans AND want to use it for its ‘feel’… why not use a proto-Gill Sans instead, eg Johnston or Underground. They have glyphs that have more character than GS.

There is a digital Johnston by ITC:
An open source version (Railway Sans):
Underground is a P22 gig:
The ‘official’ version of Underground is more of a modern take and exclusive to London Transport:

rs_donsata's picture

I find it works very well for educational institutions.

Grafiker's picture

works well for anything British or WW2/1930s related. Ase all caps with lots of kerning.

Nick Shinn's picture

As Victor notes, the feel of authenticity is entirely subjective.

For typographers, it’s a priority that the end-user-audience feel it, but there are many more audiences than that. One’s peers, for instance, who are better informed.

I was exposed to Gill Sans at an early age, younger than ten, in the text of the manuals that came with my Meccano. This would be in the UK, c.1960. I still have some of those, very technical, set in the Light weight.

My first exposure to practical typography came in 1969 when I inherited my grandfather’s small press, with four typefaces—Times, Bodoni Ultra, Palace Script and Gill Sans (Reg and Bold).

For me, as an antiquarian, Gill Sans has a very mid-century-non-modern look. The curve of the bowl of the /a, for instance, reminds me of such things as contemporary baby carriages.

donshottype's picture

There is also the use of Gill Sans in the current TV series Mad Men -- all caps, light weight. Fresh? Fresh for a US ad agency in the 1960s? Fresh for a present day TV production about US ad agency in the 1960s? Anachronistic? A debate explored by Mark Simonson

Martin Silvertant's picture

Thylacine, what I mean with "feeling authentic" is where Gill Sans works according to you. For instance, use it for McDonald's and it's probably not going to be very convincing.
I feel Gill Sans works very well in specific contexts but it's very easy to use it inappropriately. I think I might be overlooking Gill Sans at times when set in all-caps, but when lowercase letters are used I feel Gill Sans is so prolific you really have to be careful in how you use it.

Initially I greatly disliked Gill Sans and I actually learned to love it. I suspect the initial dislike came from the over-expressive letter forms which look amazing in some contexts and horrendous in others. In the Netherlands Gill Sans is probably most prolific when it comes to this toy store called Bart Smit.

I think this is one of the ugliest logos I've ever seen and I'm greatly annoyed every time I see it. Their whole branding almost couldn't be more horrendous to me, but initially I was also angry at Gill Sans for featuring such small tittles in the darker weights and the black weight even has an /i with a bowl on top to hold the tittle in — I never understood that.

Thylacine's picture

Martin, you've touched on the reasons for my lack of enthusiasm for Gill Sans. The caps are mostly fine, but the wonky lowercase and the peculiar inconsistencies between weights have never appealed to me. This quirkiness might add up to character and personality for some, but to me, it's just sort of ugly.

The near-universal love of this type family has really puzzled me over the years, so there's apparently something that I'm just not getting.

Martin Silvertant's picture

As I mentioned, I learned to love Gill Sans. I will never like those small tittles, the tittle-bowls and why the tittles in the black weight are off-center, but I learned to appreciate the caricaturist contrast and the exaggeration of certain shapes in the lowercase. It's wrong, but in a good way. However that doesn't count for every letter. There are several inconsistencies I still don't understand. By the way, I never noticed that /b in the 4th weight before. I will have to add that to the list of inconsistencies I don't understand.

Cory, is there a wonky typeface in the vein of Gill Sans you do like, or is it the wonkiness you don't like?

PS: Why is 'wonkiness' not a word? And what about 'decorational'? I often feel the English language is missing words.

Thylacine's picture

Not liking Gill Sans is probably too strong. It's personality has just never matched up with what I've needed, so other than a time or two with the caps, I don't recall ever having used it.

Of course I could say the same thing about most typefaces with distinct personalities — they're useful mainly when their personalities fit the task at hand. Unlike most typefaces, however, Gill Sans enjoys the kind of widespread use most often associated with broader-purpose, more generic typefaces that tend to take on the qualities of their surroundings. It's puzzling to me why Gill Sans is used so often in instances where its personality doesn't complement the context in which its used — the Bart Smit logotype being a good example.

donshottype's picture

Before I saw Cory's multi-weight presentation I did not really appreciate how wonky some of the lower case letters are at the heavier weights. But if we exclude the light weight, they work great for a signature pirate expression

Works as well as comic book lettering!
But I will restrict my use of Gill Sans to the upper case, and if I do use the lower case, I will limit its use to the lighter weights.

Martin Silvertant's picture

I had no idea it was a separate typeface and now I understand the context and the purpose for which it was designed I suppose I can appreciate those tittles a bit more, although I still find them awkward. The branding for Schauspielhaus is really cool though.

The article "Eric Gill got it wrong; a re-evaluation of Gill Sans" is also rather fascinating. I never knew Gill Sans was made as an attempt to improve on Johnston. In that regard I feel it fails in some regards. The article almost seems to imply Gill was a student who didn't quite know what he was doing. What do you feel about that? It might be the case, but I feel Gill Sans does bring some unexpected and pleasurable results.

Thylacine's picture

Very interesting links riccard0. Thank you.

Simply being content to ignore Gill Sans, I'd never looked into its origins. I thought I was mostly alone in my questioning of Gill's peculiar decisions in this type family, but it seems others have noticed the same oddities.

As for the Ultra Bold / Kayo weight, the Schauspielhaus Zürich work really is surprisingly nice. I can honestly say now that I've seen at least one use of Kayo that actually builds upon its personality rather than being at odds with it. It reminds me of something Herb Lubalin might have done.

PublishingMojo's picture

In our century, Eric Gill is best remembered for his types, but he didn't consider typography his principal occupation. In his lifetime he was famous as a sculptor, and the inscription he chose for his headstone was:


I've always thought that his alphabets felt like they were made with a chisel rather than a pen, and I admire the alchemy by which he transformed the solidity of stone into the solidity of metal. In his own words, "Letters are things, not pictures of things."

Nick Shinn's picture

Erstwhile authenticity in Germany:

From an undated Monotype specimen (probably early 1950s), Belserdruck, Stuttgart.
"M 10, Serie 262-11, Durchschuß 2"
There is also Bold, but no Light shown.

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