Create in Arial and Helvetica set, overlapping

Arial or Helvetica – Do you spot the difference?

Among many designers one is loved the other one is despised. But is there really such a big difference between Arial and Helvetica? And does it really matter? I argue it does not and both are overused.

Arial, designed in 1982, has a rather bad reputation. It’s a typeface everybody knows, and it feels very default. Mostly because it’s the fallback sans-serif in Windows browsers. It also was the standard text typeface in MS Office until 2007. And when I studied graphic design in the mid 2000s, it had a bad reputation among my designer peers as being the “Helvetica copycat”.

Comparing the letters C, R, e, a written in Helvetica and Arial
Helvetica has a more rectangular appearance and horizontal stroke endings. Arial has more open shapes (C, e) and a diagonal leg at the r and the a has no tail.

Back then we did not go deeper, because Helvetica, the widely known and spread classic, that even has its own movie, was based on another typeface too. Designed in 1957, its mission was to reach the success of Akzidenz Grotesk (or AG), which was the first sans-serif typeface to be widely used and dates back to 1896 (imagine that!). The mission was accomplished, since many people don’t badmouth Helvetica as the “AG rip-off”.

Akzidenz Grotesk, the influence for the design of Helvetica has a lower x-height and more open shapes than Helvetica.

But do you see the difference between Helvetica and Arial? Is one good and the other one bad? Both have the same metrics, which means the characters need the same space, but Helvetica has a more rectangular feel to it, Arial is comparably a bit softer. Helvetica has some more stylish features (like the tail at the a) and horizontal stroke endings (like at the c) and Arial has more open shapes (which makes it easier to read in small sizes). These differences are more visible at larger sizes, in small sizes they kind of disappear.

Long text set in Helvetica and Arial
When Helvetica seems elegant in larger sizes, this feature kind of disappears in text sizes, the differences to Arial kind of disappear at text sizes.

Now knowing this, what does it help you with? Yes, you can impress your designer friends – which definitely has some value – but how does it help you to better convey your message, find a proper typeface for it? I’d argue it does not. Helvetica and Arial are both widely used, which is their downside. Since they are so ubiquitous, they feel like a default, feel undesigned, and the distinctness of your message gets lost with this. If you want to stay in the same style, my advice is to use a different typeface, like the more contemporary Aktiv Grotesk, or the much more legible Public Sans as a free alternative.

And there’s another thing. Akzidenz Grotesk was made for commercial prints like publicity, tickets and forms (anything except books) in the early 1900s. Helvetica was deigned for high resolution offset printing in den late 1950s, and Arial was designed for low resolution print and screen display int the early 1980s. They all had their purpose and time. So to ask if it’s a good or bad typeface would be wrong questions. You should ask yourself if it’s a good or bad typeface for your desired application. And then you should ask yourself if it’s a good typeface to make you stand out. The answer is Arial and Helvetica are not.

How do you feel about this? Leave it in the comments! And if you want to dive more into both typeface’s history, I recommend this article by Ilene Strizver.

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    1. Absolutely, Jair! It’s not Helvetica’s fault, Neo-grotesque typefaces perform badly as long reading text. Don’t know why so many still use it …

      1. Allegedly people started to use Sans for all texts when computers became their main choice to read these texts. Old monitors were incapable of showing serifs in a proper way and any sans was better than any serifs back then. I’m not sure how this has been dragged from the ancient times of 80x and 90x to 21 century. Probably because of some old farts that still think that sans looks more techy and computer-y. 🤷‍♂️

      2. I love your comment, Doctor. I absolutely discover this topic in some upcoming interviews with guests and will make a video about it. Why sans-serif seems to be the dominant style for screen display. So brace yourself for that.

  1. Loved this! I am impartial to both typefaces (mostly because Arial destroys all email newsletters, being the gmail sans default) but I did recently discover Aktiv Grotesk and quite like it. Mostly, I think if you’re trying to design something different and interesting then staying away from these two is a good idea like you say 🙂

  2. A few years ago I started doing some web design, following a photographic background working in Milan with some great art directors.

    A lot of the web “design” guys I meet are incredibly skilled with coding, but often lack any sense of graphic understanding. You see it in the way they don’t leave any breathing space on the page, choice of colours or poor quality photos, but it really shows when they choose Helvetica for almost every website regardless of the subject!

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Ashley! I quote Erik Spiermann here: “Most people who use Helvetica use it because it’s ubiquitous. It’s like going to McDonald’s instead of thinking about food. Because it’s there, it’s on every street corner. So let’s eat crap, because it’s on the corner.” 😉

  3. Great article. I just wish there is a central group/repo like ISO or github for fonts. There are way too many fonts out there and each OS has its own set (yes, you can install more but who want to do that for each device!?). Without a single place (or few places) to get fonts, there won’t be more progress beyond Arial and Helvetica. Even now, you cannot use custom fonts in email beyond the oldies, since some clients/sites don’t support it — Arial, Helvetica, Times New Roman, Courier.

  4. Looking at the above “pimp my type” examples it’s obvious that Helvetica is a far more readable and dare I say, elegant font. Arial is wonky by comparison. Helvetica is king.

  5. I wonder how long I’ve had this burning question (probably when I first had Arial μsofted on me and thought “wow that looks like Helvetica” with my first computer with a non-80-column monochrome display), maybe 1993 or so?
    I’m a little chagrinned that it took me 30 years to ask the Great Goog, and half a second to find this page, but then your page probably isn’t 30 years old… maybe I use the waybackmachine and see if there were answers back then?
    and hafta tell my friend AG about his font!

    1. Haha, thanks for sharing your thoughts! And you’re obviously way ahead of me, when this question came to you 30 years ago. I started playing around with Word Art at that time I guess 😉. At elementary school.

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