Birddog

The Other Face of Gill Sans

By Scot McKeeScot McKee

Adultery, incest and bestiality combined with a hypocritical life of religious piety. Eric Gill, the creator of the Gill Sans typeface certainly left his mark on the world of sculpture, art and design. But what will he be remembered for? Designing one of the most iconic typefaces of the 20th Century, or shagging his dog?

Wednesday 23rd December, 2015

I confess to not knowing until recently about Eric Gill's interest in literally and metaphorically giving his dog a bone. I was equally and blissfully unaware that what he was doing to his dog, he was also doing to his sister. From an early age he maintained an incestuous relationship with his younger sister that lasted for their entire adult lives.

This isn't hearsay or rumour. Gill was relatively open in conversation and writings about his beliefs and behaviours. He kept journals and diaries for many years, which recorded his activities in alarming detail. And yet the public remained unaware of, or chose to ignore, his lifestyle choices until quite recently. The first biography of Gill, for example, was written in 1966 by Robert Speaight and didn't mention a word of Gill’s more extreme tendencies. It wasn't until Fiona MacCarthy wrote a subsequent biography in 1989 that the revelations started to be explored more fully.

Up to the time that he died in 1940, he was just the guy who designed Gill Sans – the most iconic and popular of all British typefaces. He was a notable sculptor too of course - his work ‘Ariel and Prospero’ can still be seen outside the BBC's Broadcasting House in London. In fact, the BBC also adopted the Gill Sans font for its rebranding in the 1990s. But it was his exploration of the dark side that time will remember.

So what do we think of Eric Gill now – in the light of his questionable life choices? Gill is an easy man to despise. He’s easy to hate, easy to ridicule and if he were alive today he’d be easy to arrest. Do we like him or his work less for knowing (because the knowing surely affects the viewing)?

As you start to answer that question in your own mind, try to apply the logic of your answer to your own B2B marketing choices. Just think for a moment about the agencies you select, the work you approve, the creativity you allow or disallow and the challenges to the perceived marketing wisdom of the day you accept or reject. It’s easy to say, ‘no’ isn’t it? – For decades, B2B marketing strategy has been built on the word no.

Fiona MacCarthy believes that while his behavior was reprehensible, Eric Gill should still be celebrated for his artistic and intellectual vigour in an age of encroaching triviality – “We need to see him whole.” I’m inclined to agree. We are all faced with daily decisions and choices that we measure and assess against criteria such as ‘safe,’ ‘easy,’ ‘expected,’ ‘normal.’

Most of the time we conform, or concede, or capitulate. I said ‘we’ there. I meant ‘you’. You may call your work thought leadership, but when the retrospectives are written about your actions and their outcomes, ‘ordinary’ will probably be the best you can hope for. Ordinary will be all you have offered your customer. Ordinary is what you, your products and your services will be remembered for. Except ordinary is never remembered.

Extraordinary outcomes require more. You need, ‘to see him whole.’

For the avoidance of doubt, that doesn’t mean I condone the wider actions of Eric Gill. Or that you should shag your sister. Or your dog. Or any pet or other family member for that matter. But if there’s an opportunity to reassess what creative marketing really means in your B2B strategy, I encourage you to take it. Preferably with your clothes on.

 

Scot McKee
Managing Director
Birddog

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Article by Scot McKee