Edward Johnston was born in 1872 in Uruguay of Scottish parents. He started to train as a medical student in Edinburgh in 1896 but abandoned his studies a year later. In 1899 he was invited to teach writing and illumination at the recently formed Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, by the principal, William Lethaby.
His students there included Harold Curwen, E.F. Detterer, Eric Gill, Noel Rooke, Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson and Anna Simons. The classes laid the foundation for a revival of formal writing and formed the basis of Writing, Illuminating and Lettering, first published in 1906 . Johnston also taught at the Royal College of Art from 1901 and from 1903 leased chambers in Lincoln's Inn for his design studio. Johnston gave up his class at the Central in 1912 but remained in close contact with ex-colleagues.
Edward Johnston worked for the Cranach (in Weimer), the Nonesuch and the Doves Presses (in Hammersmith) and from 1913 was co-editor of The Imprint with F Ernest Jackson and J.H.Mason. The typeface for The Imprint was specially cut by the Monotype Corporation.
World War I created many opportunities for Johnston and his generation to become involved in government-sponsored design projects. Johnson, Gill and Meynell all had a strong belief in the importance of good design in public places. Johnston Sans was the first typeface designed by a leading Arts and Crafts practitioner for a mass audience.
Johnston moved to Ditchling in 1912 , where Eric Gill already lived and an artistic community was forming. He moved in 1916 with Hilary Pepler and his family to Hallett's Farm on the edge of Ditchling Common. Commissioned by Frank Pick, advertising manager of the London Electric Railway he designed his famous block letter alphabet, Railway, for the London Underground in 1916 using a sanserif letterform which he popularised, and is still used today in a revised digitalised form. His typeface was used for station signs and for printed material. In 1931 when the British Institute of Industrial Art reported on The Art of Lettering and its use in divers crafts and trades, the London Electric Railways were commended for having brought fine lettering into everyday life.
He continued to teach, write and publish and was president of the Art and Crafts Exhibition Society from 1933-1936 and was made CBE in 1939 . A retrospective exhibition of his work was held at the V&A Museum in 1945 .