The major 20th century sans-serif types created by English designers fall under the category eventually labeled "humanist." The first of these English humanist sans types was based on letters designed by Edward Johnston (1872-1944) for the London Underground in 1916. Johnston's letters still appear on London subway signs.
Johnston's pupil, Eric Gill (1882-1940), who worked on the Underground letters, was commissioned by the Monotype Corporation to revise the design into a commercially available type. Gill Sans was released in the early 1930s and became phenomenally successful, particularly though not exclusively in England.
Gill Sans came to be promoted as an answer to the German sans-serifs like Futura. Like them, Gill's typeface had a stripped-down, contemporary feel, but it retained more connections to older forms in its proportions and details. In promoting Gill Sans, the English stressed the inhumanity and coldness of German type, and conversely the humanity, warmth and respect for tradition that was touted as distinctively English.
Gill came to type design from sculpture and inscription carving. His best known works before his fateful association with Johnston on the Underground project were the relief sculptures of the Stations of the Cross he carved for Westminster Cathedral. His inscriptional work caught the eye of Stanley Morison, influential type advisor to the Monotype Corporation. Morison commissioned a serif type from Gill, which came to be known as Perpetua. With work on Perpetua underway, Morison asked Gill to design a modern sans-serif for Monotype. The corporation foresaw a demand for work-a-day sans-serif fonts that announced their modernity rather than paying homage to type traditions like the existing Monotype faces.
Gill Sans was unapologetically a typeface for an industrialized world, a fact underscored by its universal use by its first major client, the London and North Eastern Railway. The association with modern industry of Gill's most successful type design complicated Gill's established position as an outspoken critic of industrialization. A zealous religious convert and passionate defender of craft traditions, Gill hand-printed books and continued sculpting in communal workshops based on pre-industrial models, well outside of the modern bustle of Monotype's headquarters in London. Gill's Essay on Typography (first self-published in 1931) describes the conflict he faced: "monstrous" industry threatens the human world of craft, but cannot simply be wished away.1
Though Gill Sans forgoes the serifs of more traditional types, it does preserve some details from them that argued for its inclusion in a classification that was new in the 20th century: the humanist sans. Compared to earlier sans-serif designs, Gill's type shows much more variation in capital widths. Compared to contemporary geometric sans-serif faces, Gill Sans has shapes that imply writing more strongly. Futura's lowercase "b", for example, seems like a ball and a stick compared to the noncircular sweep of Gill's bowl. Or consider the lowercase "u", which, in contrast to Futura, has a small tail to the stem. This seemingly small detail is significant, for it implies that the letter, unlike its German counterpart, was constructed with two strokes in the manner of old scripts. Gill's two-story lowercase "a" and "g" are also more traditional than the corresponding Futura letterforms. Lastly, diagonal lines appear in Gill Sans details that hint at the strokes of a broad-nibbed pen, the writing implement of humanist scribes: see the tail of capital"Q" and details on lowercase "a", "r", and "t".
These "humanist" touches connected Gill's design - modern as it was — to earlier types and even to the humanist manuscript tradition of Renaissance Europe. Commentary has sometimes made this contrast to other modern sans typefaces in national terms. One such critic argued that Gill Sans "brought a warmth of grace and feeling to the rather cold industrial faces coming largely from the German type foundries."2 Robert Harling, writing just after World War II, explained about the Germans: "The types they designed were always novel, frequently improbable and occasionally frightening... Against the efforts of this lively band, Gill's type designs have an almost strange simplicity and sanity."3
— Craig Eliason
1Eric Gill, An Essay on Typography (Reprint, Boston: David R. Godine, 1988), 7.
2William R. Holman, “Eric Gill, Master of Letter Forms,” The Library Chronicle of the University of Texas at Austin no. 2 (November 1970): 25.
3Robert Harling, “The Type Designs of Eric Gill,” Alphabet and Image 6 (January 1948): 58.
Carter, Sebastian. "Eric Gill." In Twentieth Century Type Designers, 72-81. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995.
Gill, Eric. An Essay on Typography. Reprint, Boston: David R. Godine, 1988.
McCarthy, Fiona. Eric Gill. London: Faber & Faber, 2003.