Wherefore art thou Arial

These days, everyone knows what Arial is. It’s that typeface in Windows, right? Right. Others know it as Microsoft’s version of Helvetica, right? Wrong. Very wrong.

Arial was designed by Monotype in 1982. It’s not the same as Helvetica but Arial is so similar that I wonder if Monotype commissioned it because they wanted Helvetica and weren’t willing to pay, but were too proud to simply clone it under a different name. Arial hit the big-time when Microsoft licensed it for Windows 3.1 in 1992. I absolutely believe that Microsoft included Arial because Helvetica was more expensive.

I’m not surprised, but I’m disappointed because I prefer Helvetica over Arial. There’s no contest. And to those who suggest that they’re the same, I suggest that you’re either blind, or you’ve only seen them at 10 point. Take a look at these samples:

Sample 1:

Sample 2:

They do look very similar, don’t they? When I first formatted these two samples, I thought to myself, “They’re damn-near identical. Maybe I’m just a Helvetica snob!” I’ll admit to being a Helvetica snob, but looking at them more closely reveals all kinds of differences. In fact, of the ten characters presented above, I see clear differences in six. There may be differences in the other four, but I either haven’t noticed them, or can’t see them at this size.

The unveiling: Sample 1 is Helvetica. Sample 2 is Arial. Let me share the differences I see.

  • The end of the strokes in Helvetica are almost always exactly horizontal. When they’re not horizontal, the end of the strokes are exactly vertical. In contrast, the end of every curved stroke in Arial angles with the curve. The e, c, t, a, and ? display this trait. Part of the appeal of Helvetica is the simplicity and lack of quirks in the majority of the characters. These angled ends stick out as quirks, and there are a lot of them. Even worse, it gives Arial a distinctly unfinished look compared to Helvetica’s clean and finely honed appearance.
  • The top of the Helvetica t is flat while the Arial t shows a significant angle. I have no dislike of the t being angled in this way. I absolutely adore how this same angled top integrates the left arm with the top of the stem of the Gill Sans t. There it fits beautifully into the typeface, while here it sticks out as an aberration.
  • The Helvetica a has a tail. The Arial counterpart does not.
  • The bowl of the Helvetica a intersects the stem with an upward sweep, showing a smooth integration of the two strokes. The bowl of the Arial a more or less smashes straight into the stem.

And these are only ten characters. There are many more differences when you consider the entire character set.

Helvetica and Arial are not the same.

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