Helvetica vs Arial

From an article by Martin Silvertant, B.A.

Some designers mistaking less uniformity for lesser quality, consider Arial to be a cheap knockoff of Helvetica because Arial is not only based on Helvetica, its metrics are copied from Helvetica to be metrically compatible. As such, Arial is often considered a rip-off of Helvetica.

Because most designers don’t actually have a good understanding of typography, and therefore tend to have bad reasons for disliking Arial; I would argue that most designers dislike Arial based on cultural influence rather than typographic principles.

Knockoff

Microsoft ordered Arial to be similar to Helvetica, both in design and in particular the metrics, so that Arial could be used on the same printing machines, and Microsoft could avoid having to pay license fees for the use of Helvetica. It was a smart move of Microsoft to design a proprietary typeface that is metrically compatible with Helvetica, but the fact that a typeface was designed to avoid license fees tends to make people look at Arial in a less favourable way.

With this act, Arial is seen within the context of a bad emulation of Helvetica, rather than an original typeface. Arial is seen as a rip-off or cheap knockoff of Helvetica. But if you hold this claim to be true, then on the same basis Helvetica is a rip-off of Akzidenz-Grotesk, as Helvetica was based on Akzidenz-Grotesk in order to compete with its popularity. You see, the notion of a rip-off is quite ambiguous and complex in the type industry.

In the image above you can see Akzidenz-Grotesk, Helvetica, Arial, and Univers.

Uniformity

One of the foremost reasons why Helvetica was such a sensation is that it is a very uniform and “neutral” typeface. This is achieved in the following ways:

  • Low weight contrast — Helvetica has a fairly consistent stroke width, meaning there is little contrast between thick and thin strokes.
  • Emphasis on horizontals & verticals — As you can see the end stroke of the ‘e’ (the so-called terminal ending) is cut horizontally in Helvetica, whereas it is diagonal in Akzidenz-Grotesk and Arial. As such, there is a greater emphasis on verticals and horizontals in Helvetica, rather than diagonals.
  • Repeating elements — The terminal endings of ‘c’ are also cut horizontally in Helvetica. Whereas in Akzidenz-Grotesk you can see that the angle of the terminal cut differs per letter, in Helvetica they are all the same. Note also that the apex of ‘t’ is cut diagonally in Arial and Univers, but is cut horizontally in Akzidenz-Grotesk and Helvetica. The diagonal cut makes the ‘t’ more distinguished from the others, thus improving legibility, but sacrificing uniformity.

I think it’s a combination of the clean, mono-linear stroke of Helvetica and the emphasis on verticals and horizontals which tends to please designers, and people in general. Compared to Helvetica, then, Arial indeed looks like a cheap knockoff, because the diagonals make the typeface more unruly.

Hard to appreciate

Due to its uniformity Helvetica is probably easier to appreciate than Akzidenz-Grotesk for example, and due to its neutrality it is easier to implement in a design; because Helvetica isn’t very outspoken, it can in principle be used for a myriad of things. And so it was. In the ’70s countless companies started using Helvetica for their brand logos, as it was seen as the epitome of modernity.

Arial is not like this. It tries to compete with Helvetica, but due to the changes Arial has become a different animal. Both Helvetica and Arial are grotesk typefaces, but Helvetica works better as a display typeface, while Arial works better as a text typeface.

Helvetica sucks

Legibility is the differentiation between letters. As you can see in the image below (provided by Erik Spiekermann), at small sizes some of the letter combinations of Helvetica become disastrous both in terms of legibility and readability.

Image credit: Erik Spiekermann

Clearly, Helvetica is not a great typeface for body text. In fact, with its closed aperture (closed letter forms), it’s quite a horrendous choice for body text, and as you can see Arial performs marginally better even in the case presented in the image above.

Conclusion

Many designers consider Helvetica to be the better typeface due to its uniformity. Arial is less pleasing to the eye in comparison, but it has its application—albeit fairly limited. The notion of a cheap knockoff doesn’t hold much relevance here, though I can understand that Arial is harder to appreciate, and would almost inevitably be considered the lesser typeface because of it. Of course, the motivation for its creation doesn’t really help when it comes to appreciating the typeface.

But hey! Don’t blame the typeface, but the people who ordered its design. I would argue Arial gets a bad reputation in part due to the marketing success of Helvetica and Apple. There are probably many good reasons not to use Arial, but it being a knockoff of Helvetica I think is the least valid reason.