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Most designers know Helvetica & Arial are not the same, but hard pressed to tell you what the differences are.

 

Comparing Rs between Helvetica and Arial

One of the most pronounced differences between Helvetica (shown in black) and Arial (shown in aqua) can be found in the cap R. You can also see Arial’s slightly higher waistline in this example.

So Here’s The Inside Story!

A Bit of History

Helvetica, one the most widely-used typefaces for decades, has a long history. It was originally designed in 1957 by Swiss typeface designer Max Miedinger for the Haas Type. It was commissioned by Eduard Hoffmann, managing director of the Swiss foundry, to compete with other popular sans serifs of the day, particularly Akzidenz Grotesk.

This new design was therefore named Neue Haas Grotesk (translation: New Haas Sans Serif) to reflect this lineage.

The name was changed to Helvetica (an adaptation of Helvetia, the Latin name for Switzerland) by the Stempel type foundry, the parent company of Haas, to reflect its Swiss heritage. Its popularity soared in the mid-1980s when it was included in the core fonts for the Apple operating system and laser printers, alongside Times Roman and Courier.

Over the years, the Helvetica family was expanded to encompass an extensive range of weights and width variants.

Arial, on the other hand, is often viewed as the “poor man’s” Helvetica by designers. Although designed to compete with (and therefore be similar to) Helvetica, it has its own individual history and backstory. Arial was designed in 1982 by Robin Nicholas and Patricia Saunders for Monotype.

Although created for use in an early IBM laser printer, its roots lie in the 1926 Monotype Grotesque design. In 1992, Microsoft licensed Arial to be included in the suite of fonts supplied with the Windows operating system.

The family has since been expanded beyond the original weights, and now includes 28 versions: six weights plus companion italics for the regular width, four condensed, four narrow, four rounded, and four monospaced versions.

What’s hot? What’s not? Learn more about the latest font trends by downloading our  Font and Typography Trends Report

Many of the differences between these two popular typefaces are related to their intended usage:  Helvetica was designed for print, while Arial was designed for laser printers and then adapted for use on computers, both being lower resolution environments than print.

Helvetica has sharper, crisper, and more stylish details, such as the leg of the cap R, more curvy diagonal spine on the numeral 2, and horizontal or vertical end strokes on many characters.

In addition, Helvetica has a slightly higher waistline and an overall less rounded appearance than Arial. Arial, on the other hand, has a less elegant, blander appearance, most likely so that it prints well on the laser printer it was intended for. These traits also make it better for other lower resolution environments, including the web and other pre-retina and other hi res display digital environments.

Arial has softer curves and fuller counters, as well as a characteristic diagonal terminal on the t, and a curved tail on the cap Q.

Other differences between the two typefaces are noted in the next three illustrations.

Other differences between the two typefaces are noted in the next three illustrations.

 

D.HelvArial

The differences between Helvetica and Arial are most noticeable in larger sizes, while they look fairly similar in smaller text. Excerpt from 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, By Charles C. Mann.

The differences between Helvetica and Arial are most noticeable in larger sizes, while they look fairly similar in smaller text. Excerpt from 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, By Charles C. Mann.

 

Helvetica and Neue Helvetica

In 1993, D. Stempel AG, Linotype’s daughter company, released a reworking of the original Helvetica entitled Neue (New) Helvetica.

This freshened up version includes the refinement of some characters, strengthened punctuation, cap and x-height adjustments, widened cross bars, and a new numerical system to identify the weights, similar to Univers and Frutiger. It also has additional weights: eight upright versions plus italics for the regular width, obliques for the expanded versions, as well as nine weights plus obliques for the condensed.

There is also a bold outline version for the regular width. The resulting total is 51 weights in all – many more than in the original family.

 

The differences between Helvetica and Neue Helvetica are subtle yet significant: wider rounded shapes, a wider arm on the r, extended crossbars, and larger punctuation.

The differences between Helvetica and Neue Helvetica are subtle yet significant: wider rounded shapes, a wider arm on the r, extended crossbars, and larger punctuation.

 

Two of the most popular new weights are Ultra Light and Thin, which are intended for display usage.

For this reason, the spacing of these weights is a lot tighter than the heavier weights. The problem arises when they are used for small text (which has become a common usage), where their tight spacing makes the text look very cramped and hard to read. The solution is to open the tracking as needed to give the text more “breathing” room.

This will expand the usable size range of this still extremely popular typeface.

One of the biggest problems with Helvetica Neue Ultra Light and Thin (heading and text, respectively) is their use for text and other smaller settings, due to their very tight spacing (upper). This can be improved by opening the tracking as needed: +50 for the heading set in Ultra Light, and +40 for the text set in Thin (lower) in this example.

One of the biggest problems with Helvetica Neue Ultra Light and Thin (heading and text, respectively) is their use for text and other smaller settings, due to their very tight spacing (upper). This can be improved by opening the tracking as needed: +50 for the heading set in Ultra Light, and +40 for the text set in Thin (lower) in this example.

Not ready to quit reading? Take your font expertise to the next level. Check out our recent blog post about Abbreviations in Font Names and crack the code to various font abbreviation mysteries.

For more information on font trends, check out our Font and Typography Trends Report and get up to speed on the latest typography trends.

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