To the Ministry's main lobby The Ministry Blog
concert setlists

12 June, 2005

What's wrong with Arial?

If you fancy a little Sunday afternoon amusement, have a look at this gloriously snobby article about 'The Scourge of Arial'.

The author acknowledges that the font is entirely suitable for its purpose: a standard, readable typeface for routine, not especially decorative, use.  However, he goes on to make essentially empty criticisms.

Arial is a near-clone of Helvetica. So long as it's not absolute plagiarism (and no-one has been sued, so...), so what? Who, apart from an excessively precious font historian, cares that a pre-existing typeface was subtlely modified for wider availability? It's not even as if the pristine purity of Helvetica itself had been maintained – the author himself reports that within twenty years of its invention in the 1950s, the version in use differed from the original; a further twenty years later, when Arial was devised in about 1989, Helvetica was a range of variants under the same name rather than one definitive original. Why does one more variant, which didn't even 'borrow' the same name, matter?

The author provides a 'How to Spot Arial' guide, illustrating just how trivial some differences are (e.g. in Arial the top of the 't' terminates at an angle; in Helvetica it is cut off straight – try spotting that at 10pt on 72dpi), yet how distinct others are (the capital 'R' is quite distinct – other fonts mimic Helvetica closer, and personally, not just being perverse, I prefer the straighter line of Arial's version).

Interestingly, Arial is described as "actually rather homely", whilst simultaneously being a "shameless impostor" of Helvetica's "friendly, cheerful appearance and clean lines". Anyone notice the self-contradiction of prejudice?

By the author's own admission, Arial seems to be:

"a loose adaptation of Monotype's venerable Grotesque series [from decades before the invention of Helvetica] redrawn to match the proportions and weight of Helvetica. At a glance, it looks like Helvetica, but up close it's different in dozens of seemingly arbitrary ways."
So it was a substitute for Helvetica, not a copy. That's fine, then. What's the problem?
"This, to my mind, is almost worse than an outright copy. A copy, it could be said, pays homage (if not license fees) to the original by its very existence. Arial, on the other hand, pretends to be different. It says, in effect "I'm not Helvetica. I don't even look like Helvetica!", but gladly steps into the same shoes."
Don't be so stupid. That's saying that in the situations where Helvetica would be used, only Helvetica may be used; no rivals may intrude and all text must look identical.
"The situation today is that Arial has displaced Helvetica as the standard font in practically everything done by nonprofessionals in print, on television, and on the Web, where it's become a standard font, mostly because of Microsoft bundling it with everything."
That seems to be a rarified definition of 'professional'. Presumably a 'true professional' (who would apparently never use Arial unless a client insisted) is someone who regards Helvetica as all-holy, and everyone else, irrespective of talent, qualifications or experience, is a 'nonprofessional', even if using professional skills in a professional context.
"Helvetica became popular on its own merits. Arial owes its very existence to that success but is little more than a parasite – and it looks like it's the kind that eventually destroys the host."
If we're going to use biological metaphors: evolution relies on a slight shift in an organism's characteristics, so that it and its offspring are better adapted to their environment than the species from which they mutated. If the cause of the font mutation was the avoidance (not evasion!) of royalties, that's fine with me. Whatever the cause, it worked, and Helvetica has simply been out-competed in the environment of the free market.

I was going to say 'So Helvetica's dead. I won't miss it.' However, that's buying into the whole ludicrous concept that it's one or the other, and I reject that. Arial is currently ubiquitous, and I don't see any reason to regret that, but Helvetica still exists, for those who want something a little different or who wish a frissance of self-superiority.


who wish a frissance of self-superiority

OK, I'll bite...

My hatred of Arial stems from the amount of Postscript errors we used to get every time we ran something through our RIP that had it in. It was (and OK, so I suppose you could apply the 'self-superiority' to me here) always considered a typeface used by people who didn't actually understand what typography was.

Not because of it's origins, but because of its sloppy implementation across countless basic installations of Windows.

It wasn't that it's a bad typeface - it's what it says about the user that's telling - it says "here's someone who doesn't quite know what they're doing"

Of course, I'm a complete hypocrite, as I use it in every single webpage that I do.

But that's only because Helvetica (or better still, Helvetica Neue, with its vastly superior weights) isn't automatically installed on every box in the world.

Posted by Siobhan Curran at June 12, 2005 11:00 PM

"... hatred..." &ndash Really?

If there was (emphasis on 'was', as I presume it's been resolved) a historical reason to dislike Arial's technical implementation, that makes a lot more sense, and if people used it without realising the problems they were causing, it's understandable that those who did know felt, well, superior.

However, I have to suspect that any lingering prejudice against Arial and its users is just that.

Besides, your entirely reasonable point about implementation wasn't made in the article I still think the author's complaint, that 'Arial's bad because it's almost, but not, Helvetica', is empty.

Posted by NRT at June 13, 2005 12:36 AM

Yeah, fair point. And I suppose also I don't mean "hatred" I mean "frustration" - but Holy Wars like Arial/Helvetica, Mac/Win, Little Endianness/Big Endianness bring out the passion in people's language eh? ;)

Posted by Siobhan Curran at June 13, 2005 08:48 AM
Site Home Tull Tour History Annotated Passion Play
Day in the life... Page design and original graphics © NRT, 2003