by Emma Christine Hall
As a young woman this has been an incredibly trying—albeit exciting—year for me. I have been voraciously consuming any news I can about the Women’s March, #metoo, and Time’s Up. The solidarity these movements represent has been overwhelming, and I can honestly say that I never expected something on this scale to happen in my lifetime. But I’m glad that it has. And I am excited to see what changes come of it.
I feel fortunate at this period in time to own and run a company with a partner who is not only an amazing collaborator, but also a thoughtful and self-reflective ally.
Work at The Frontispiece is never just work. It is a constant discussion. Every book we accept presents a set of ethical questions. Every author, a series of choices. Some of these are much harder than others, and a few bring in to question our personal values.
I could write a much larger article about all of these choices, but for the sake of time and the love of type I would like to discuss an ongoing debate, not yet resolved at The Frontispiece, about a very commonly used typeface.
In every industry there are monstrous men who create beautiful things. Claire Dederer of the Paris Review writes a thoughtful piece on some of the most notorious here. Directors and actors, whose personal and professional lives continually face public scrutiny, are easier to point out and have been the focus of most media attention. But as Time’s Up Now has pointed out, the entertainment industry is not anomalous in this problem, they are just better illuminated for us to see.
In the world of book design these figures are far less discernible. In type design, even less so. The average person cannot tell you who designed typefaces like Minion or Univers, let alone what these designers personal lives were like (they were designed by Robert Slimbach and Adrian Frutiger, respectively, in case you were worried, and I don’t know anything about their personal lives either).
However, as designers who work intimately with type, and obsess over its history and the relevance to each book, it is our business to know these things—to understand who designed each typeface, what they were influenced by, what their historical context was, and what they intended its use to be.
When you examine any industry this closely you can expect to turn up men who have benefitted from a world without consequence. What you might not expect is for such a man to have confessed to these actions, for those actions to be way worse than you are even imagining, and for him to still have a typeface named after him.
And if that surprises you then you are going to need to sit down for this next part. You have probably used this typeface. And if you haven’t, you easily could. Open up Microsoft Word, Google Docs, or Pages, and click on the font drop down menu and it will be there, between Garamond and Helvetica—also typefaces designed by white men, but who’s counting (I am. That’s four so far).
Meet Gill Sans—the typeface.
Benign enough in appearance, it is a highly-legible, sophisticated humanist sans serif. If you’ve used it before, I wouldn’t blame you.
Gills Sans was originally designed in 1927 based on Gill's mentor Edward Johnston's typography for the London Underground. And now it’s used everywhere:
"Why change a good thing?" I can think of at least one really good reason why:
Meet Eric Gill—the designer.
Eric Gill is a highly celebrated English typographer and sculptor—he is considered one of the founders of the Arts and Crafts movement. He was awarded the highest distinction a designer could receive during his career from the Royal Society of Arts, one which he still holds.
He designed multiple typefaces including Gills Sans, Perpetua, Joanna and Jubilee. But he was also known to have been an accomplished sculptor, wood engraver, and printer.
Meet Eric Gill—the person.
Most of what we know about Eric Gill comes directly from his personal journals. Gill founded and lived in a Catholic arts-and-crafts community, which, as an American, I can only compare to the Amish—low tech, high nostalgia. Gill wore wool stocking and a belted smock, and hand crafted pretty much everything. This image of Gill and his artistic accomplishments has been widely accepted by all.
What is often avoided in describing Gill is his habits—a word chosen to indicate frequency—of sexual abuse, incest, and paedophilia. When biographers do address these issues they fail to name them for what they are.
The amount of times the word “experiment” is used in reference to acts like molesting his daughters, penetrating his dog, making his secretary measure his penis, or exposing himself to small children is absurd. The language used to describe his artistic genius seems to have overflowed into what I am only able to understand as sexual misconduct.
If you feel the need to understand Gill’s beliefs and actions further, Fiona MacCarthy has written the most transparent biography that currently exists of Eric Gill, which can be found here.
So what does all of this mean? Eric Gill was a shitty human being who should have faced consequences for what he did and he didn’t. He also is the creator of many amazing and beautiful things that are still in use today, and are more accessible than ever. What do we as consumers of type and design do with this information? Can we ignore the terrible person for the sake of their beautiful creations?
We’re all asking these question, and honestly I don’t know better than any of the rest of us what we should do with Gill Sans and Eric Gill, or men like him.
I do know that even if you can’t separate a man from his work, you can separate from his distinctions and awards. And you can try to find a suitable replacement for his work whenever possible. Especially when your message and the type designer’s beliefs tend to clash, or add a disturbing layer of meaning.
The debate on Eric Gill is not a new one. We have known for almost 30 years about the assaults described in his own journals. Gill Sans has only been added to the Microsoft library in the last two. Fiona McCarthy published her revealing biography in 1989 and the BBC chose to use Gill Sans for their logo in 1997.
We claim that public outrage and bad press toward a person will provide consequences enough, and then we immortalize those people as geniuses through their work.
Something about that seems wrong to me when there are so many underrepresented groups in design. Especially when it comes to type design. Our familiarity with a typeface is dependant on exposure. By choosing to type from POC, female, and LGBTQI designers we create a platform for distributing their work. If the choice is between that and celebrating a terrible dead white guy, I honestly don’t feel I have much of a choice.
Here are some replacements for Gill Sans by designers who are not white men:
You need your font to feel really British:
Transport (by Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinneir)
You want a humanist sans serif:
Myriad Pro (by Carol Twombly and Robert Slimbach)
You’re limited to the Microsoft Word font library:
Montserrat (by Julieta Ulanovsky)
You want to completely and totally avoid any association with Gill Sans so you want a serif font by a female and/or non-white designer:
Want to add to this list? Email me your favorite typeface designed by a person of color, LGBTQI, or female designer and I’ll feature them in my next article.
Cooke, Rachel. "Eric Gill: can we separate the artist from the abuser?" The Guardian, Apr 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/apr/09/eric-gill-the-body-ditchling-exhibition-rachel-cooke
Lawrence, Ben. "Eric Gill's Vile perversions have ruined his reputation – and his family – for good. But they shouldn't ruin his art." The Telegraph, Apr 2017. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/art/artists/eric-gills-vile-perversions-have-ruined-reputation-and-family/
Williams, James. "Eric Gill's Fall From Grace." Apollo Magazine, Apr 2017. https://www.apollo-magazine.com/eric-gills-fall-from-grace/