FONTS: Looking back at Gill Sans

After much ado and delay, my website is finally ready to launch. Don’t worry, this post is not about me, but about an important decision I had to make during the web deign process, a dilemma most of us have faced at some point. I’m talking about font choice. The struggle to choose the perfect font almost feels like taking a personality quiz. Am I a serif or a sans sort of person? Am I simple, minimal, unadorned, light, heavy or possibly italic? The stress of discerning the subtleties between Garamond and Goudy or Baskerville and Bookman is not totally unlike that famous scene of the business card-obsessives in AMERICAN PSYCHO. But instead of sweating the competition around the board room Christian Bale-style, I sat alone in front of my computer screen, scrolling through my options. Futura is played out. Frutiger is awfully nice but it’s just not right for me. After hours I finally decided upon a venerable favorite, one I seldom get the opportunity to use on a regular basis, the streamlined yet friendly, direct yet inviting Gill Sans.

Gill Sans is a positively lovely font. It’s readable and clean. It looks good in upper and lower case and it has a nice ‘Q’ and ‘g’ – personal requirements founded on preference alone. But Eric Gill, the font’s designer, was not quite as lovely as his work would lead us to believe. Gill, who also designed the comely serifs Perpetua and Joanna, has little in common with their refinement, their understated elegance. I guess it probably doesn’t take a lot for a typographer to be considered controversial, but when I ultimately chose Gill Sans as “my” font, I had no idea just how controversial its maker really was (not that I’m at all inclined to alter my choice).

Throughout his life, Gill was well-known for his skill not only in typography, but in sculpture and masonry as well. He carved relief sculptures for several major buildings in London and Geneva and was named a Royal Designer for Industry, the highest British design award. His life, it would seems, was marked by a happy family life, a staunch devotion to the church, hard work and well-earned recognition. It wasn’t until Fiona MacCarthy’s biography on Gill was published nearly fifty years after his death that his hidden life was revealed. In Gill’s personal diaries, MacCarthy discovered a laundry list of outrageous sexual aberrations that include sexually abusing his children, an incestuous relationship with his sister as well as detailed accounts of sexual acts he performed on the family dog. These revelations, while shocking, by no means tarnished his reputation as an artist and typographer, and Gill is still universally acknowledged as one of the world’s leading designers. For those curious enough though, his diaries, which he kept from the age of fifteen on, are available for your perusal at the UCLA libraries.