For this week’s post, I’m moving away from talking about languages and foreign cultures and back to my favourite topic of them all: life in Britain. Specifically, I wanted to talk about seeing Britishness, not in the way that people dress, not in the architecture, not in the grays and browns of the landscape… but on signs. Like, road signs and stuff like that.
This is something I noticed a few years ago but has been niggling the back of my mind since I returned in October. How do I describe it? I noticed that no matter where I am in the country, at NHS clinics, at train stations, on roads, at airports, on transport, at the post office, all the information on the signs looks really similar. I don’t mean what’s written, but the font itself.
I think I was really struck by this twice within the last month or so. One was when I was walking through an NHS-run hospital, and while looking at the directional signs I had the vague feeling that maybe I should really be at Heathrow waiting for a flight instead. The other, much more recently, was when I stepped into Manchester Airport on the way back from Madrid. I saw the directional signs, with their distinctly British font, and thought, “That’s it, I’m back in England.”
I was talking about this to Ivan while we were laying in bed the other night and I’m pretty sure he thought I was a little bit crazy. I was convinced that I’m right, so to test out my theory that all official signs in Britain are actually in the same font, I went online did some research. (oh Internet, what would I do without you?)
The initial problem I ran into was figuring out the right search terms to use on Google. “British font” only brought up “Ye Olde English”-style stuff. “Heathrow sign font” was more successful. I then realised that the actual word for “font” that all the cool people use is actually “typeface,” and suddenly I found what I was looking for.
As it turns out, not all the typefaces around Britain are the same, but you would have to be pretty observant (read: nerdy) to actually notice the differences between all of them. (Bear with me here, there really is a point in mentioning all this.)
For example: Heathrow signage is called in a typeface called Frutiger, which, it turns out, is also used on all signage instated by the NHS since the late 1990s. Moment to feel validated, please! I wasn’t crazy! Below are examples Frutiger on an NHS sign and at Heathrow Airport.
Pre-90s, the NHS used a typeface called Rail Alphabet instead of Frutiger. They always seem to mooch off of the transportation industries somehow, because, as you may have guessed, Rail Alphabet was designed for and used by British Rail (and the British Airport Association, for a time) until the railways were nationalised in the 1994. Yet even after each of the various units became privatised, some stuck with Rail Alphabet for station signage anyway, and Helvetica is now used nationwide on safety notices inside trains.
Speaking of transportation, all road signs in Britain also use a specially designed font called Transport Typeface. Two types exist, and they are the only ones that are legally allowed on road signs across the UK. There’s a picture of this particular font in action up above. Are you beginning to notice some similarities?
Okay, so that takes care of airports, railways, road signs and hospitals… but what about one of the most famous of all British institutions, the London Underground? As it turns out, the tube has its own typeface, New Johnston, which is still in use today.
Johnston is actually so recognisable that it’s carefully guarded by Transport for London, which owns all design rights and copyrights for it, and is now completely unavailable to the public.
The list could go on and on. Royal Mail? Looks kinda the same. British Airways? Still kinda the same. Dealing with the Home Office? It feels like it’s all the same.
Johnston, Rail Alphabet, Transport Typeface, Helvetica, Frutiger… who cares right? What is my point in mentioning all these specific examples?
What I really want to point out is that they’re all actually really similar. (Did you get that yet?) They’re mostly filled with straight, clean lines, delicate tasteful curves at the ends only where necessary, and an overwhelming simplicity.
Now, feel free to disagree with me on this, but I highly doubt you’ll ever find this level of relative homogeneity in somewhere like the United States, where sticking out from the crowd is really the goal of most large corporations and organisations. While individualism is prized in America, no one, not companies, not people, no one tries too hard to stick out here in Britain. Companies, even when they’re competing, tend to favour that classic British simplicity in the hopes of igniting some nostalgia for real Britishness.
To some extent I think this totally works: Britain is, visually, a very unique country, from its old brown brick semi-detatched houses to its grey skies and rolling green hills. Companies that somehow decide to be individual, yet still sort of the same, with their choices of typeface that reflect that old charm, only add to that visual identity.
Who would have thought something as small as a font could reflect so much? It’s a bit strange, but it’s one of the things that consistently reminds me on a daily basis that I really am living and working in England. And maybe I also feel a little British because of it.
It was perhaps BBC’s documentary on British Airways that summed up this idea the best: how do you describe what is British? Polished, simple, functional, charming… very British, indeed.