London Underground's iconic Johnston Sans typeface is 100 years old

Looking back on the centenary of the font that for many means 'London'.

There are many icons of London – Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye – but equal to these is the Johnston typeface. The font permeats the city's transport networks – and is also a core part of the branding of the Mayor of London, so is used on projects that sell the city to the rest of the world. It synonymous with London to those who live here and those who've never visited.

While it's been tweaked many times and digitised since it was originally drawn by Edward Johnson for use on the Underground, its design has remained true to the clear, clean lettershapes of its initial forms.

The typeface was commissioned to be distinctly different from the lettering used in advertisments of the era – to help passengers navigate around the network more easily. It still serves that purpose (as Transport for London's head of design Jon Hunter tells us in this recent interview), though the scope of its use has grown to include buses, trams, boats, the Dangleway, cyclepaths and general wayfinding during the 2012 Olympics.

Edward Johnston (seen here) was commissioned by Frank Pick, commercial manager for the London Underground Railway, in 1913. For the next three years, he worked on the typeface from his home in Ditchling, near Brighton – only delayed slightly by the First World War.

To celebrate this, the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft has put on an exhibition about Johnson, which opened on Saturday and runs until September 11.

The exhibition will provide insight into the typographic design process behind the font's creation – and will include two of Johnston's hand-drawings of the alphabet, which have been loaned by the V&A.

Other exhibits have been borrowed from the Crafts Study Centre, the London Transport Museum and private collections.

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Johnston's font was originally just called Underground. It was later renamed as Johnston's Railway Type, and then Johnston. It was redesigned in 1979 by Eiichi Kono to add more weights – so it could be used for a greater number of purposes, for example in smaller point sizes.

In the early 1990s, it was digitised – then redigitised by Monotype in 2002, when italics were added. In 2008, further minor changes were made to bring it back to be more in line with Johnston's original designs.

Johnston's version of the typeface included two weights, Heavy and Ordinary. The former is an all-caps font.