The Scourge of Arial – Revisited

Grapes Hill photograph showing the use of Arial Vs Helvetica

​Back in 2001 typeface designer Mark Simonsen wrote an article about 'The scourge of Arial', about how Arial was Helvetica's impostor.

The typeface Arial was designed in 1982 by a team led by Robin Nicholas and Patricia Saunders for the type foundry Monotype. It was adopted by IBM for use on some of their printers in the early 1980’s. In 1990 a version of the typeface was licensed to Microsoft, then in 1992 Microsoft chose Arial to be one of its four core TrueType fonts in its Windows 3.1 operating system, announcing the font as an “alternative to Helvetica”. Apple started to include Arial in OSX, but their default sans-serif typeface remained Helvetica. Arial is controversial because it has many similar features to Helvetica and in many designers eyes it is inferior. It is rumored that Arial was adopted because it was less expensive to license than Helvetica.

Mark Simonsen on Arial:
‘It has what you might call a “low-end stigma.” The few cases that I have heard of where a designer has intentionally used Arial were because the client insisted on it. Why? The client wanted to be able to produce materials in-house that matched their corporate look and they already had Arial, because it’s included with Windows. True to its heritage, Arial gets chosen because it’s cheap, not because it’s a great typeface.’

‘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. I can almost hear young designers now saying, “Helvetica? That’s that font that looks kinda like Arial, right?”

The reason I write this article is because on my way to work I pass a block of flats at the bottom of Grapes Hill here in the city of Norwich. Probably what you would call a contemporary design – metal, glass and brick – it has modernist aspirations. The name of the flats is placed on a sign using, not the de facto modernist typeface Helvetica, but Arial.

Helvetica? That’s that font that looks kinda like Arial, right?

Scott Poulson