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May 04, 2006

"The Scourge of Arial"

In the entire history of my blog (all 130 days or so), I probably haven't written an entry of less general interest than what you're about to read.

"The Scourge of Arial" is a fascinating explanation of the creation of the Arial font. I had no idea that fonts could have such a "story." I'm going to convert The World's Shortest Marketing Plan, version 2.0  to Helvetica. :-)

Thank you Zubin for pointing this article out and thank you Mark Simonson for writing it.

A concerned blogger,

Guy

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Comments

Hardly irrelevant. There's a story behind every typeface design.
http://www.briansooyco.com/Featured.asp?ID=61

To paraphrase Rudolf Koch: "We are type designers.. from conviction and with passion, not because we are insufficiently talented for other, higher things, but because to us the highest things stand in closest kinship to our own crafts.

This entry is bringing down the average of the blog. It's a irrelevant, pointless aregument that has nothing to do with Guy's core expertise. Even worse, as J# said well, it makes the wrong side of the argument. Luckly this is the exception - most of his content is very high quality.

Walter, I think Univers remains a popular typeface family, though I agree it was a bit more prevalent not too long ago.

This is a famous web page in typography, Guy, and I thank you for posting it.
¶ Some commenters below have not taken kindly to it, and wonder why this article even matters.
¶ For starters, the impression we get from typefaces is subliminal. While in a generation, the ugliness of Arial won’t matter, for a lot of people who have been exposed to media in the pre-Arial days the typeface might look incongruous.
¶ Yes, it’s legible, practical and the like, but the fact remains that it is a grotesque sans serif with the metrics of a Swiss one. That’s kind of like taking a picture of Cindy Crawford, horizontally scaling it by 200 per cent, and calling it a picture of a big lady.
¶ Sure, technically it fulfils that requirement, but it doesn’t look right. Thus, it is the same with Arial, which to its credit is original, but doesn’t follow the notions of the Swiss sans serifs.
¶ The argument perhaps ultimately only matters to purists and most people won’t care, but it doesn’t invalidate Mr Simonson’s viewpoints.

Interesting stuff. Here's some more trivia: Know how Helvetica got its name? It's the old roman name of the country where it was invented - Switzerland, aka in Roman times as Confederatio Helveticae or Helvetic Confederation.

I'm a little surprised that Guy didn't already know this, he certainly was around when MS started using Arial. Its common knowledge (at least it was 10 years ago) that Arial was MS's "close enough" version of Helvetica.

I see font creation as an art and I envy people who created at least one. Scott Adams converted his handwriting into a very nice for-his-own-use-only font.

Guy - What about poor Universe. It was popular and to the masses resembled Helvetica. Well like so many things in life it had its 15 minutes of fame, then pulled by the networks. Typefaces and TV, newsmedia for that matter sure have a lot in common.

I find those hilarious who care not for the past and then turn around and wonder why the world is messed up. How things were done don't matter -- they just work! That is of course, equivalent to "I don't care how things are done now, just make them work!" Interesting article, nonetheless. It doesn't surprise me that Microsoft aided and abetted font copying and exploitation. It is characteristic.

I feel this article illustrates perfectly the idea of mature companies not being able to see and react to the ramifications of technological change. Here we have established font foundries which professional typesetters must pay significant liciensing fees to. There are relatively few of these (relative to the number of pople doing any kind of quality document preparation) so it makes sense to make the licensing expensive. It also keeps the bar high so that it is easy to differentiate work done by professionals (who can afford an expensive variety of fonts) and that done by hacks (people like you and me). These font foundaries and professional typesetters are all motherhood and apple pie with statements like "Typography exists to honor content." and "Letters have a life and dignity of their own." (shamelessly copied from a previous post). Suddenly the technology becomes available to allow the unwashed masses to perform a large part of the work previously done by professionals. Except the economic model for fonts doesn't support this but instead of reacting to this by changing their fee structure, the font foundaries resist and instead the world is flooded with cheap, inferior clones of fonts that the new, huge market is more than happy to leverage (because they don't know the difference). Now, these classic fonts are relegated to second-class status as the market demands the use of these cheap fonts because that is what they are familiar with. Large, established companies in mature markets, unable to grasp and capitalize on the radical change new, cheaper technology is enabling. Sound familiar?

*Warning bells ringing in my head*

That's always my initial reaction when I see evidence of professional dismissal of something based on weak arguments.

So what if the Arial font is a blatant copy of Helvetica? It's a readable, clear font. It works. It's rather popular. People with bad sight and reading problems thend to like it. Why would an entire industry scorn it, loathe it and dismiss it just because of it's history. Where is the sense in that? I am not O.K. with professional elitism which imposes bullish arguments and views on the customers - particularly when the argument is founded in pride and puritanism.

Personally I don't care whether someone uses the Arial font or the Helvetica font. Arial, however, has more penetration and is more videly supported so I would really take offence if I hired a professional designer only to find out that he had willingly excluded a font because of how it came into being. Who cares? In this case - not me - and I'm the one who is paying the designer...

My two cents.
J#

Great to know you liked the viewpoint Guy, and now you know why everybody who creates professional documents as a part of his/her job and wants to stand out from the crowd doesn't use Arial :)

Other typefaces people tend to stay away from are "Times New Roman" and "Comic Sans" - but that's another story :)

If you're interested in typography for business, the Information Agency I used to work for earlier created a nice whitepaper on the subject, available here: http://www.informationmatters.in/downloads/typography.zip

Font design is a suprisingly interesting area, see my post on cognition and font design:
http://brentblog.typepad.com/brentblog/2005/11/cognition_and_f.html

I don't agree with the conclusion drawn by that article.

OK, so Arial has exactly the same metrics as Helvetica. He seems to think that's duplicitous; I'd interpret it as "not outright stealing". As creating something new, rather then ripping off somebody else's hard work.

Now, given the choice between Arial and Helvetica, I'll take Helvetica - it's a nicer looking font then Arial. But just because I think it looks better doesn't make Arial any less of a font.

Anyway, a friend of mine forwarded this to me in a fit of outrage once, and all I could say was "meh". Arial's got a long way to go before I label it "scourge".

Guy, since you enjoyed that article and tidbit of history, you might find Robert Bringhursts' book The Elements of Typographic Style interesting. Some of the fascinating advice for font goes like this:

"Typography exists to honor content."

"Letters have a life and dignity of their own."

"Make the visible relationship between the text and other elements a reflection of their relationship."

He also wrote a seminal book of Haida translated classical myths called A Story Sharp as a Knife.

Cheers,
Candy

Fonts have always been subject of hot debate; you should see some of the sites raving on about 'comic sans'

http://bancomicsans.com/

Guy - Remember all those Adobe CD's that had all the fonts on them but you had to phone in to get that day's unlock code?

On that CD is a history of most typefaces and if you're into that sort of thing (I am... I've had a love/love relationship with fonts over the years) then this particular part fo the CD is really a gold mine of typeface history. I don't know if it's still around but U&lc (yes, it stands for "upper and lower case") was and maybe still is the best ever newsletter on fonts... except for maybe some of the Emigre newsletter/posters I loved getting in college.

So, any time you want to divert into less-than-general-interest postings... by all means do so! It's not like it costs you postage or anything.

Happily contributing to your Technorati ranking! :)

Gerald in Tulsa

This rant would be better if it explained why Helvetica is nicer than Arial.

It would have been better if it told me why helvetica went out of fashion.

It would have been better if it explained why Adobe wants to charge so so darned much for the Helvetica font family.

Yes Arial is a drop in replacement for Helvetica, but why is that wrong. In the rest of my world that is called backward compatability, and is a "good thing!"

Typography. I hated that class in college.

Leading. Kerning. Serif. Monospace. etc. etc. and so on.

Hated it. But it has turned out to be one of the most useful classes in regards to my career, even as I do less and less design work personally.

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