George Ryan: The Gill Sans two-step

John Walters, of Eye magazine, interviews the design team behind the newly released Eric Gill Series typefaces. In this article get a behind the scenes look at the type design process from George Ryan, who designed the extended Gill Sans® Nova family.

John Walters: When did you first get to work on Gill Sans®? Have you been involved with any other versions before Gill Sans Nova?

George Ryan: The first time I worked on Gill Sans was at Bitstream. I ran the group that built the library at Bitstream and we added Gill Sans (Humanist 521) to the library back in the mid-1980s. Here at Monotype I updated custom versions of Gill Sans for a client that had me adding Cyrillic extension sets to their data.

How important was the problem-solving aspect of type design in producing Gill Sans Nova? Had there been much feedback about the usability of the Gill Sans in its earlier digital versions?

Gill Sans passed through a two-step process that sometimes changed what the designer, in this case Eric Gill, delivered. The first ‘step’ was the work done by the designer. The second ‘step’ came when the artwork was delivered to the Monotype Type Drawing Office and the staff made the design fit the technology of the time. The artwork effectively became draftings of machine parts. When I started working at Linotype in 1978 we practiced the same craft as the staff at Monotype. We worked at light tables, used French curves and T-squares and delivered, for example, twelve-point characters drawn in an ‘M’ that was more than ten inches tall.

What was the most challenging aspect of working on The Eric Gill Series?

Getting all those fonts up to the same character set was a bit challenging. And figuring out the ‘bdpq’ problem [the new family includes alternate versions for each of these characters] was also a ‘dropped glove’. The ‘bdpq’ issue had been talked about for a very long time, and OpenType features made for an easy solution. All fonts have both sets of the ‘bdpq’ designs.

And what was the most fun?

I enjoyed adding Greek and Cyrillic to the UltraBold. I remember thinking that I was having too much fun doing that – don’t ask me why!

Many believe there is an intrinsic ‘Britishness’ to Gill Sans. If it’s true, is it a bug or a feature?

Nothing wrong with Britishness. It adds a bit of class.

What do you think of Dan Rhatigan’s comments about the challenges of updating Gill Sans – that you cannot easily rationalize or impose a system on the typeface’s eccentricities?

I agree with Dan. Some issues we ‘fixed’ because we felt that if Gill saw them he’d want them changed. An example of that would be the accents that were added. They appeared light and mismatched in the heavier weights. We’ve adjusted them because the way they were could distract the reader’s eye.

 Find out more about Gill Sans Nova and buy the family