The design of Wayfarer

The city of Sheffield is geographically located 53°23'01" N, 1°28'01" W.

It’s surrounded by seven hills and is placed at the confluence of five rivers one of which, the River Sheaf, lends its name to the city. Sheffield has a long industrial heritage, most famously for steel production. Typographically it’s important as the home of the type foundry Stephenson Blake & Co [fig 1]. During its long history, Stephenson Blake acquired the types and stock of previous foundries as they closed. Expanding over many years, the company became synonymous in the 20th century as the place from which to obtain high quality founder’s type (type not restricted to the unit system of either Monotype or Linotype). The design of Wayfarer grew from a commission to create a typeface for Sheffield’s city centre wayfinding system, so it was obvious to look at Stephenson Blake for reference [fig 2].

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1. Stephenson Blake & Co, shown in the company catalogue of 1937

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2. One of the city centre signs for which Wayfarer was designed

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3. Stephenson Blakes’s Granby type, 1930

The primary inspiration for Wayfarer was Stephenson Blake’s Granby typeface [fig 3]. Granby was developed during the 1930s as Stephenson Blake’s contribution to the general cashing in of other foundries on the popularity of Monotype’s Gill Sans and the geometric sans serifs being introduced by the continental type foundries. This typeface is strongly influenced by Edward Johnston’s Underground Sans typeface of 1916, as can be seen from the design of several letters such as the a and i [figs 4–7]. Which isn’t that surprising as Stephenson Blake were involved in the production of the Johnston Sans wood letter used by London Underground.

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4. Granby a

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5. Johnston Sans a

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6. Granby i

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7. Johnston Sans i

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8. Early sketches for Wayfarer

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9. Granby Condensed

Wayfarer was designed as a condensed letter, though not as much as Granby Condensed [fig 9]. And, in recognition of both Granby and Johnston, retains the use of the diamond dot. The typographic references were, however, widened to include Stephenson Blake’s fantastic Grotesque series of types [fig 10]. These most idiosyncratic of designs are full of warmth and with an informal rhythm and vitality to their shapes, all of which help create interesting word patterns.

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10. Grotesque No. 8

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11. Six lines wide Grotesque

The Grotesque types are instantly recognisable and flaunt their style with bravado. The letter shapes possess a fullness to their curves and swing with individuality and quirky details, which all work together to make a unified expression. These types fell out of favour as designers looked to the cleaner and more standardised shapes of later interpretations of the idea of the grotesque type. The Swiss School in particular did much to launch such ‘neo-grotesque’ types into the ubiquity of use they still enjoy today.

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12. Development sketch with alignment notes showing the same height capitals, ascender and lining figures

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13. The different structures of b, p, d, q

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14. Different stroke terminal endings on capital S and lowercase s

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15. The variety of terminal endings

The use of a variety of terminal endings helps Wayfarer embody the informality of the Grotesques [fig 15]. For instance, the terminals of the capital S differ to those of the lowercase s [fig 14]. This slightly chaotic rhythm was maintained when the italic was designed, which closely matches the roman with only the a, e, f adopting a more specific cursive structure [figs 16, 17].

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16. Initial ideas for italic were for a more angular, boxy shape 

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17. Stage development of italic

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18. Superior small capitals cast in iron

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19. 3D superior small capitals

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20. Painted shop fascia with superior small capitals

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21. Raised superior small capitals

As a nod to a piece of period typography, Wayfarer includes a set of superior small capitals. These often appear in contractions on old street signs and company names [fig 18—21].

Further reading

Baines, Phil, and Dixon, Catherine. ‘Sense of place’, Eye, number 58, volume 15, 2005

—. Signs:lettering in the environment, Laurence King, 2003

Bartram, Alan. Street name lettering in the British Isles, Lund Humphries, 1978

—. The English lettering tradition from 1700 to the present day, Lund Humphries, 1978

Cosby, Theo, Fletcher, Alan, and Forbes, Colin. A sign systems manual, Studio Vista, 1970

Handover, P M. ‘Grotesque letters’, Monotype Newsletter, number 69, 1963

Howes, Justin. Johnston’s Underground type, Capital Transport, 2000

Lewis, John. Printed ephemera, Antique Collectors’ Club, 1962

Millington, Roy. Stephenson Blake the last of the old English typefounders, The British Library and Oak Knoll Press, 2002

Mosley, James. The nymph and the grot, Friends of the St Brides Printing Library, 1999

Sutton, James. Signs in action, Studio Vista, 1965

Twyman, Michael. Printing 1770–1970, Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1970

Printing types, Stephenson Blake & Co., 1937

Wood letter, Stephenson Blake & Co., 1962