Lower-case ‘a’ in Helvetica font

This is an internet story and since the internet can change in the time it takes to refresh a web page, our conclusions may be obsolete by next Tuesday. Still, there is an interesting also-ran tale here so we shall thrust ourselves boldly into the breach, adjust the kerning as necessary, and let the serifs fall where they will, which in this case is entirely off the page because we are talking about two sans serif fonts. (Serifs are the tiny extensions at the ends of letter-strokes.)

Helvetica was designed by Max Miedinger at the Haas Type Foundry in 1957 to compete with a font called Akzidenz Grotesk, which sounds like a horrible car wreck but was in fact the leading sans serif typeface of its time. Miedinger’s new font, whose name derived from the Latin for “Swiss”, quickly became the go-to font for designers and page-setters seeking a progressive modernist appearance. The font’s clean lines, lack of pretense and staunch neutrality proved ideal for logos, signage, print media, the whole alphabetic works. For a while, it was everywhere.

And like everything that was ever everywhere before it, particularly in an aesthetic field like design, subject to changing tastes, the font eventually suffered for its ubiquity. It became boring, its vaunted neutrality reinterpreted by the public eye as a badge of corporate anonymity. By the late-70s, serifs were making a comeback.

But a funny thing happened to Helvetica on the way from ubiquity to irrelevance: the field of typesetting was transformed by the rise of the personal computer and desktop publishing.

At the forefront of that wave was a company you know and begrudge today for its sector-dominating Photoshop graphic design program. In the early 80s, Adobe was earning its bones, not to mention big bank, on a “page description language” called PostScript, a set of instructions used to tell a smart output device (like a laser printer) how to produce vector graphics (like a fancy font.)   Due to its prominence at the time, Helvetica was one of only four fonts included in Adobe’s original PostScript language, along with Times, Courier, and Symbol. To Adobe’s great credit, their practice was to license the use of fonts from the foundries that originally created them as opposed to creating their own copies, which many companies were doing without fear of legal reprisal under the loose protections afforded to typeface designs in the U.S.

Speaking of which.   In 1982, at the offices of Monotype Corporation in Woburn, MA, Robin Nicholas and Patricia Saunders were developing a new font meant to compete with Helvetica, the same way Helvetica was originally developed to compete with the horrible car wreck. Others will claim that Arial was less a competitor than a knock-off, and a poor one at that.   We do not have time or space here to get into the relative merits of Helvetica’s “well-defined spurs” and “straight terminal strokes” versus “the softness and fullness of Arial’s curves.”   And thank god for that, because if we seemed to be edging into design porn earlier in this entry, we are well into XXX territory now, which is the sort of place you are duty bound to ask a character whether that’s a serif on its stem or if it’s just happy to see you.


Arial and Helvetica fonts compared

Arial was designed for use on IBM bitmap laser printers. Partly for that reason, and partly because Microsoft sought to avoid paying license fees to the owners of Helvetica, Arial was bundled with early versions of Windows, the standard operating system on IBM PCs. In contrast, Apple elected to go with the Adobe PostScript fonts, including Helvetica, on its Macintosh OS where Aldus PageMaker was the dominant publishing software and the Laserwriter was the output device of choice.

Thus were their fates set.   With the much wider adoption of the PC over the Mac in the decades from the mid-80s to the mid-00s, Arial became a de facto sans serif standard for most non-professionals (which is to say, most computer users), a trend that continued into the early days of the internet.

Where Are They Now?

While it still bears a stigma in some quarters from its long reign at the top, Helvetica is generally regarded in heroic terms in the sweep of typographic history. Documentary films and museum exhibitions have been dedicated to the font, and in 2007 it was rated number one out of the 100 “Best Fonts of All Time” by a German design firm. Arial does not make the list.

Arial is by a large measure the most common sans serif font on the web. For anecdotal proof, take a look at the HTML source of the next ten pages you browse. You are much more likely to find the font specified as “arial, helvetica” (indicating, “first try arial and if you cannot render this page in that font, then try helvetica”) than the opposite.

Consolidation in the industry in the 90s pulled Helvetica under Monotype Imaging Holdings, the corporate parent of Arial. They are step-brothers!


Today, few in the professional design community speak highly of Arial. The differences between Arial and Helvetica were always minor, sometimes considered arbitrary, and are essentially invisible to the untrained eye. It is generally seen less as homage (virtuous, acceptable) than copycat (mercenary, shameful).

But this is no longer a matter for the experts. Most eyes are untrained these days and they are mostly viewing fonts not on the printed page but in the transitory and informal context of a computer monitor or a tablet or mobile device screen.   When desktop publishing transformed a precise artisanal construction – the typeset font – into a widget in the common office worker’s digital toolbox, the finer points of font design lost cachet, and what once may have been an interesting competition on nuanced aesthetic merits was subsumed into a technological standards struggle.

To that, some will say “who cares” and others will say “that’s really sad because we should care about fonts, they are in our face all day every day, they are important. And by not caring about what we see, don’t we cede a portion of our humanity?” Yes, we do. But we warned you this was an internet story, and that’s how all internet stories end.

Posted by Ray Agostinelli

Working and writing in Boulder, CO

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