Arial is a child of the licensing restriction “wars” of the 1980s. Adobe had the very popular Helvetica under a Type-1 format and were not sharing at the level others wanted. So, Arial was created by Monotype (a font foundry) as an alternative and easy substitute because it was the same width as Helvetica[1]. Visually, Arial and Helvetica are similar, but there are some differences when compared closely. Arial has bigger counters (the white space in the round parts of letter, like the O or the R), softer curves, and angled cuts on several letters including the top of the lowercase t and tail of the uppercase R and the C (for more information see “How to Spot Arial,” “Arial versus Helvetica,” or Wikipedia).

Microsoft added Arial in 1992 to their operating system and since the typeface has been used as a default sans serif. As such, it has the same overuse problems as Times New Roman. In addition, many typographers or typography lovers see Arial as a Helvetica poser (or a “shameless impostor” in “The Scourge of Arial”) and/or dislike the face. Arial became a system typeface on Macs, and some Macs users are aware of the Helvetica and Arial divide and are very pro-Helvetica. Thus, due to overuse, the typographers’’ dislike, and Macs users anti-Arial, I recommend limited use of Arial.


Category of the typeface[2]: Sans Serif

Serifs: Sans (no serifs)

X-heights[3]: Tall, high-ratio

Width and weight[4]: Medium width, narrow compared to many Sans Serif faces like Verdana and Century Gothic, but wider than Franklin Gothic Book and Calibri.

Structure[5]: No thick/thin transitions. Smooth, even strokes and rounded letters. Could be made from pipes. Arial is one of the plainer Sans Serif faces and thus works as a default. The face is softer and more open than many of its closest  Sans Serif faces.

Legibility and Readability[6]: High legibility; words can be quickly recognized. Good readability, but not as good as many Old Style and Transitional typefaces for print, as it does not have serifs. However, better readability online due to the lack of serifs.

Voice-over and ethos[7]: Clean, practical, modern, technical, and somewhat masculine and stiff. It is a generic and rather bland Sans Serif. Like Times New Roman, it is both boring and invisible due to overuse. It has the voice of a PC using technology business person. Ethos is high for technology uses, both print and onscreen/online. Low ethos for those familiar with Helvetica (such as typographers and graphic designers and Mac users) and those annoyed by its overuse.

Typefaces that contrast well with it[8]: Serif typefaces including Times New Roman (a common contrast typeface for Arial), Georgia, Garamond, Palatino, Elephant, Book Antiqua, and Bookman.

Typefaces that provide conflict[9]: Sans Serif typefaces including Helvetica (especially as they are so similar), Verdana, Tahoma, Century Gothic, Calibri, and Bell Gothic.

Likely audiences and uses of the typeface: Audiences include technical audiences, audiences of all ages, and European audiences (as they tend to use more Sans Serif typefaces). Uses include technical manuals and reports, posters, signs, anything that needs to be recognized quickly—like road signs, and websites.



[1] History info gathered from “Arial.” (Wikipedia. and “The Scourge of Arial” (Mark Simonson Studios.

[2] See

[3] X-heights: the height of the lowercase x compared to the uppercase letters. The higher the height of the lowercase x, the more readable the typeface. Ideally shoot for more than 50% for print and higher for online readability.

[4] Width and weight: Widths is how wide the letters in the typeface are. Weight is how heavy the typeface appears on a page the thickness of the strokes of the letters. A heavy typeface will look black and make the overall page darker, a light typeface will look lighter and make the overall page a shade of gray.

[5] Structure: how the face is built including thick/thin transitions, types of strokes, and more. If you were building the typeface out of materials, what would you use? Pipes? Fences? Thread?

[6] Legibility: the ability to make out/recognize small amounts of text such as a word or letters. Readability: the ease of reading a long body of text, such as paragraphs

[7] Voice-over and ethos: Voice over is the voice of the typeface or the style of the typeface. What style does the typeface suggest. If the typeface could talk, what would it sound like? Is it loud? Sassy? Quite? Formal? Would it be a valley girl or a New Your City business woman? Ethos refers to the authority of the text. When would this typeface be appropriate?

[8] Contrast: For good design you want to use typefaces that contrast. Clearly distinct faces contrast and create a strong design. If the faces are similar neither will “pop” and the similarities may look like a mistake and not intentional. Good contrasts are serif typefaces and sans serif typefaces.

[9] Conflict: The opposite of contrast. Two typefaces (or other elements) that are so similar they are disturbing (they “conflict”) and not contrasting, thus creating a weak design. Example: Times New Roman & Garamond.

Typefaces of the Week Resources:

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