Arial versus Helvetica

Every typeface, like every one of us, has its distinguishing features. You might be forgiven for thinking that some fonts are clones, or identical twins. However, closer inspection reveals subtle differences and nuances that simply escape casual perusal. Something that can really help to heighten our sensitivity to those differences is getting out our magnifying glasses and really taking a closer look. If you’ve forgotten to bring your magnifying glass, then don’t fear for the Fontometer is here (we’ll get to that in a moment).

Today we’re going to de-robe two popular typefaces, namely Arial and Helvetica — faces that are often confused, and often the subjects of mistaken identity. But first let me re-introduce you to these two popular faces:

Helvetica

Designed in 1957 by Max Miedinger, Helvetica’s design is based on that of Akzidenz Grotesk (1896), and classified as a Grotesque or Transitional san serif face. Originally it was called Neue Haas Grotesque; in 1960 it was revised and renamed Helvetica (Latin for Switzerland “Swiss”).

Arial

Designed in 1982 by Robin Nicholas and Patricia Saunders for Monotype (not Microsoft), it’s classified as Neo Grotesque, was originally called Sonoran San Serif, and was designed for IBM’s bitmap font laser printers. It was first supplied with Windows 3.1 (1992) and was one of the core fonts in all subsequent versions of Windows until Vista, when to all intents and purposes, it was replaced with Calibri.

I’ve read in several places that Arial is closer in appearance to Univers than Helvetica. I don’t think so. In How to Spot Arial, the type designer Mark Simonson looks at the similarities between Arial and Grotesque 215 (one of Arial’s true ancestors); and when you consider the details — for example, the flat versus angled finials (e.g. “t”) — then Arial does appear to be more closely related to Grotesque 215; however, the one thing that does stand out is the greater variation in stroke width of Grotesque 215. Arial and Helvetica share a more consistent, even stroke width. I guess it depends on whether one is looking at the form or the appearance. What do you think?

I can hear angels singing a heavenly chorus (I was tempted to include a sound track here) as I introduce to you the all new, shining, hopefully very useful Fontometer (sorry, but I couldn’t think of a better name) to compare the glyphs from Arial and Helvetica. In the grey corner (left), we have Arial; in the red corner, Helvetica. Simply drag the Arial glyph over the Helvetica version to compare (if the excitement of this is too much for you or your suffer from a heart condition, then take a short break between glyphs).

A number of the glyphs are almost identical, and even an expert would have difficulty telling them apart. However, there are a few that stand out as being quite different; namely “a”, “G”, “Q”, “R”, and “1”. Did you spot any other differences?

In fact if you wish to quickly differentiate any font from from another, it’s usually best to start off looking at letters like “J”, “Q” and “g”.

What it’s wrong to do is criticize Arial as a clone or rip-off of Helvetica. It’s not. If Arial is a rip-off of Helvetica, then Helvetica is a rip-off of Akzidenz Grotesk; or we could simply say that they are both rip-offs of earlier Grotesque faces. The whole rip-off debate is a rather pointless one, I feel. Every face should be considered on its own merit. (We don’t criticise a daughter for looking like her mother.)

If you don’t have some of the fonts mentioned in this article, then I will create some PDF sample sheets at large point sizes, so that you can have hours of fun comparing them. By the way, if the Fontometer crashes your browser, breaks up your marriage or has your kids asking, “daddy, daddy, why don’t you play with me more?”, I cannot be held responsible.


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