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John Pitson (1918–2010)

by Adrian Young

John Pitson, n.d.

John Pitson, n.d.

All over Australia, in offices, schools, writers' desks and printing companies, people have the government's Style Manual. When they want to know how to use proof readers' marks, how to address a letter to the Queen or just to check their grammar, it's the book to use.

The England-born typographer and director of typography of the Australian Government Publishing Service, John Pitson, left his legacy to his adopted country when he produced the first edition and moved information created by the Commonwealth government from the cramped, arcane and disordered into the modern era of readable layouts and the encouragement of plain English.

Pitson brought publications ideas he had learnt during 13 years in the layout section of Her Majesty's Stationery Office in London. There he developed a strong reforming passion and also an understanding of the need for clear purposeful decision making. 

John Edward Pitson was born on July 15, 1918, in Buckinghamshire. He was educated at Slough Secondary and Harrow County, where he matriculated with honours and then gained an apprenticeship in compositing at HMSO's Harrow Press. He joined the RAF in 1939 as a fitter/armourer and served in England and Western Europe during World War II. In 1943, he married Freda Instone.

After the war, he joined the HMSO design team and soon their work was recognised. He arrived in Australia in 1964 to become director of typography in the Government Printing Office in Canberra, where he was ''ringmaster in my own (antipodean) circus''. That November he was presented with an MBE for his work in Britain.

Pitson's task in Australia was to implement the recommendations of the joint select committee on parliamentary and government publications, chaired by Dudley Erwin MP. The committee produced recommendations covering all aspects of design, printing and distribution.

With the support of the government printer, Albert Arthur, Pitson took up the challenge. His first acts were to update the range of typefaces and to produce a handsome type book. He modernised the layout of parliamentary papers, then began the introduction of international paper sizes.

By 1966, Pitson, with fellow committee members, had produced the first edition of the Style Manual, which standardised Commonwealth publications. It was a slightly idiosyncratic book, with examples that used names taken from literary sources, including Proudie, Slope, Major James Bond, Phineas Finn and Abraham Haphazard, but it proved successful and was reprinted in 1968, then a second edition came out in 1972 and it was reprinted twice in 1974.

One of the authors of the latest edition, David Whitbread, says, ''When I was invited to be an author of the sixth edition [released in 2002], we went back to John's original edition to review its content and noted that, in subsequent editions, content had been lost that was now required again — so we reintroduced some of his topics and advice in the sixth edition.''

It is probable that Pitson's appointment also started the growth of the AGPS design section and prompted the development of the graphic design industry in Canberra. With his work, government departments soon became aware of the benefits of well-designed publications and freelance studios rapidly developed to supplement the work of AGPS and to service the growing sophistication of clients.

The demand for qualified staff brought designers from around Australia and overseas until graphic design courses offered at Canberra Institute of Technology and the University of Canberra were able to fill the gap. During this period, the ACT branch of the NSW Chapter of the Industrial Design Institute of Australia was formed and Pitson was among its early members.

Pitson retired in 1978 and then became a volunteer with the Australian Executive Service Overseas Program and worked in Samoa and Fiji.

Freda died in 1984 after a long illness, and in 1985 Pitson married Nancye Blakely, who also predeceased him.

John Pitson is survived by his children Liz and Bob, two grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Adrian Young, 'Pitson, John (1918–2010)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 April 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

John Pitson, n.d.

John Pitson, n.d.

Life Summary [details]


15 July, 1918
Farnham Common, Buckinghamshire, England


25 November, 2010 (aged 92)

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