Quarter Life Crisis

The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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Helvetica vs. Arial

567 words

I’m as much a type-snob as the next person. Some people even claim that I’m more of a type-snob than the next person (usually they mean that as an insult, but so far I managed to take it as a compliment). And the old Helvetica vs. Arial rip-off story certainly has come up at one stage or another. The irony here is that I am not a particularly big fan of Helvetica as a typeface. I can appreciate how well-constructed it is and how it’s very good at doing its job. Yet, I think it’s a bit bit on the dull side. Let’s say I’m more an Optima kind of person…

Ironically, the rise of Arial made me appreciate Helvetica a bit more. While the differences between both fonts aren’t dramatic they do two things: First, they highlight how well thought out Helvetica’s design is and, second, by dropping all those nice details and the consistency from Helvetica, they show the poor taste that lives in Arial.

Comparing the R, 1 and G glyphs of Helvetica and Arial

When seeing the Helvetica film last summer I was amused by people like Erik Spiekermann expressing how appalled they are by the mere existence of Arial (and its bad consequences both for both their type creation business and smooth workflows in publishing). And, while it seemed a bit overdone, I could also see the point Paula Scher made there on how Helvetica stands for authority and war by the way it has been used.

And once you start looking around you there may be more to that than she meant to indicate and the bottom line is that Helvetica is used by the guys who tend to do bad things. Big government and big corporations use Helvetica because it gives them a neutral and legitimate look and because their design is done by professionals who just wouldn’t use Arial. In a way that means that Helvetica has come to stand for the big guys from Lufthansa to American Apparel to Nestlé. Which makes the typeface equivalent CO2 emissions, exploitation and killing kids respectively. What a shame.

In a way, the split between Helvetica and Arial is that between professionals and non-professionals. Sometimes this can be seen easily, if the ‘professionals’ did a poor job and the people who actually have to use their design had to amend it to make it useful. It appears that this was the case at a local shopping centre where the main signage had been done in Helvetica but later on bigger, more cleverly positioned, signs were added so people can find the correct place in the parking lot again,

Helvetica G on proper, poorly positioned sign and Arial G on bigger and easy to see sticker

And thus, Arial – while being a disgrace for a certain point of view – is also the ‘mostly harmless’ typface. Everybody who’s uses a Windows computer and is clueful enough to not use Comic Sans will be using Arial. The odd note explaining how to use the photocopier will be in Arial, the invitation to the christmas party will be in Arial, and of course people looking for their lost cats will be using Arial:

Sign saying that a cat named Carlo has gone missing. Includes a cat photo

And thus, while not wanting to be apologetic for that font, it appears that right now that the good guys are using Arial. Let’s see how long it takes the advertisers and consultants to pick up on that and we’ll see the first corporations intentionally use that atrocity of a font because it’s both cheap and looks harmless…

February 25, 2008, 17:05

Tagged as arial, helvetica.

Comments

Comment by Dave2: User icon

Poor Carlo! I hope they find him. :-(

I use Helvetica Neue, but prefer Futura when a Sans Serif typeface is called for. And now there are a number of nifty fonts that are kind of intermediary between the two which is a “safe” way of moving away from Helvetica, but still keeping the classic (boring?) look that some clients sometimes demand.

February 26, 2008, 1:00

Comment by d.w.: User icon

Of course, if the default font in Windows applications was Brush Script, that’s what most non-professional signs would use. People are oblivious.

February 26, 2008, 20:42

Comment by PRW: User icon

And what do you make of DejaVu Sans, the free Unicode variant of Bitstream Vera Sans ?

February 28, 2008, 3:45

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