Gill Sans – arguably the most quintessentially British of all British typefaces, renowned for its simple, humanist aesthetic– conjures up images of bucolic shop fronts, quaint railway stations, national institutions and mid-century book covers. Yet the classical proportions of type designer Eric Gill’s most celebrated creation belie an unlikely penchant for comedy.
Once you look beyond the well-known members of the Gill Sans family – the austere and authoritative Regular and Medium, modelled on the ancient inscriptions of Trajan’s Column in Rome – and work your way towards the extremes of the now 43-font strong family (extensively updated by Monotype and released as Gill Sans Nova in 2015), soon enough you will stumble across the more obscure relatives — the charmingly chunky Gill Sans ExtraBold, and the frankly obese Gill Sans UltraBold.
The exaggerated forms of Gill Sans’ most extreme weights bear little resemblance to their slimmer counterparts. Gill’s own well-intentioned beginnings – to improve (or rip-off, depending who you talk to) his one-time mentor Edward Johnston’s celebrated Underground sans-serif, and create a ‘foolproof’ modern alphabet that could be faithfully and easily reproduced – soon slipped as Monotype commissioned more and more weights and styles to keep up with demand from printers and advertisers. As he laments in his 1931 Essay on Typography, each new face that Gill was asked to create was “thicker and fatter than the last because every advertisement has to try and shout down its neighbours”. A year later he’d begin work on Gill Sans UltraBold, the weightiest of them all.
To accommodate such heavy lines Gill had to increase the font’s x-height and drastically compromise some of the features of the family: stroke weight becomes wildly inconsistent, contrast increases noticeably in the curves, apertures become almost completely enveloped by the bulging strokes surrounding them, and the tittles (the dots on the lowercase ‘i’ and ‘j’) are squeezed to comically small proportions to fit the height of the metal letterpress block. In Gill’s working sketches he refers to the face as ‘Overbold’, or by the jocular ‘Double-elefans’. When it was eventually released in 1936 it was marketed as Gill Kayo, as in ‘K.O.’, the boxing term meaning ‘knockout’.
Studying UltraBold gives the distinct impression that with each glyph Gill was trying to squeeze a mattress into a shoebox — bending and squashing the lines until they’re bursting at their seams. And it is this tension between the letters and their invisible containers that gives Gill Sans’ heaviest weights such comedic value: they are awkward, over-the-top, full of energy and waiting to pop — key tenets of many a situational comedy. And thanks to their exuberant proportions, these two typefaces can be found anywhere a product or advertisement needs to be imbued with a sense of fun, hilarity or downright silliness. Nowhere is this more prominent than in cinema advertising.
The earliest Hollywood example that makes use of the typeface appears to be the 1983 Martin Scorsese flop, The King of Comedy, which incidentally was also the first to combine the typeface with the red-on-white colour palette which has itself become a visual shorthand for a particular brand of puerile comedy. Gill Sans hit the mainstream with Ferris Beuller’s Day Off (1986), which used a combination of both Extra- and UltraBold across the film’s posters and opening credits.
And following Bueller’s success Gill has since been the face of umpteen comedies and children’s favourites including Zoolander (2001, albeit with a modified ‘R’), Shallow Hal (2001), Bruce Almighty (2003) and Evan Almighty (2007), Toy Story (1995, 1999 and 2010), Finding Nemo (2003) and Finding Dory (2016), Rio (2011) and many more. Eighty-two years after Gill Sans UltraBold’s original release, almost every ad is still trying to “shout down its neighbours” – and in terms of pure attention-grabbing graphic heft, big red Gill Sans UltraBold is hard to beat. It will undoubtedly be louder than the poster next to it sporting Trajan (now a cliché of the dramatic blockbuster genre), Didot (Hollywood romance) or some charmingly hand-rendered lettering (Indie heart-warmer).
Of course, these typographic tropes risk becoming self-defeating — instead of shouting above the din, everybody is bellowing the same message and genre stereotypes become reinforced as each successful film spurs on an industry of copycats. And yet perhaps these stereotypes are fulfilling their purpose: signalling what audiences can expect from a film. Gill Sans UltraBold tells you in an instant that you’re looking at something funny. Pair that with a large photo of Jim Carrey – Me, Myself and Irene (2000), Bruce Almighty (2003), Mr. Popper’s b Penguins (2011) – and you instantly know what to expect. The exaggerated, over-the-top proportions of Gill’s letters perfectly reflect the extravagant, larger-than-life nature of Carrey’s performances. The same holds true for Eddie Murphy – Norbit (2007), Imagine That (2009) – where the overweight characters of Gill Sans UltraBold mirror Murphy’s over-the-top and often comically obese characters.
But Gill Sans isn’t the only typeface pushing letterforms to their limits. Futura’s Extra Bold is also vying for the heavyweight comedy title, and has been featured on plenty of posters including Wedding Crashers (2005), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) and Sausage Party (2016) to name just a few. Gill and Futura have always jostled for position — indeed, Gill Sans’ raison d’être was to compete with an influx of geometric sans from Europe (Futura and its imitators) which arrived in the late 1920s and took the British printing and advertising industries by storm, challenging Monotype’s authority in the process — but recent years have seen a newcomer in the form of Gotham, with its own Black and Ultra weights, as seen on Bridesmaids (2011), Ted (2012) and The Emoji Movie (2017).
Today, Gill Sans’ crown appears to be slipping in favour of Futura and Gotham’s equally chunky but slightly more conventional and better balanced letterforms. But for now at least, comedy posters aren’t straying far from the cliché of the overweight sans. It’s surprising that this style has persisted for so long, when as Gill himself noted in 1931, there are “as many different varieties of letters as there are different kinds of fools”.
Matthew Young is a designer for Penguin Books. He also creates websites, record covers and identities.