Arial vs. Helvetica: a cheat sheet

Stoking the flames of the ongoing (mixed-metaphor) battle between Arial and Helvetica comes this cheat sheet courtesy of the ragbag. (Found via swissmiss via… wait for it… Daring Fireball, surprise!)

This guide hits all of the key differences I go by (the capital R and G; the lowercase a), and a few I hadn’t previously noticed.

Arial vs. Helvetica

The best part of the whole thing, though, is something I discovered in a comment on the swissmiss post: Helvetica, the Shirt. Sweet. Every one of these is bound to piss someone off, albeit for a different reason: the one actually in Helvetica will enrage those who hate Helvetica on principle (it’s overused, it’s not really neutral, it is really neutral, etc. etc.), while the one in Arial will piss off the Helvetica lovers (including myself), if they bother to look closely enough to see the differences.

The one in Cooper Black… well, I don’t know; for me that font will always be associated with Garfield in the early ’80s. I actually like Cooper Black in a cheesy, retro sort of way. But I think the point is probably that Helvetica is so neutral, or at least aspires to be, whereas Cooper Black is the epitome of a font with a personality of its own. (Well, OK, that title probably really belongs to Rosewood, but Cooper is at least a somewhat versatile.)

And then, of course, there’s the one in Comic Sans, which we will never speak of again.

Arial vs. Helvetica, Part II

Here we have another exhibit in the battle of Arial and Helvetica: two signs posted side by side, and obviously designed with some intention of consistency. Sort of. Their sizes are different, their shapes are different, and, of course, one is in Helvetica (the left) and one is in Arial (the right). But someone was clearly trying to make them match, to the best of their limited abilities.

This photo was taken this evening in the west parking garage of the Mall of America, near the Best Buy entrance.

Any guesses on which sign came first? I don’t know myself, but I have a hunch it’s the one on the left. The rounded corners and use of Helvetica suggest the work of a trained designer; the shortcut copycat approach of the sign on the right — sharp corners and Arial, seems characteristic.

I’m pretty sure the No Smoking sign would precede the Authorized Parking Only sign chronologically for logical reasons as well: the concern about misplaced smoking existed long before the concern about misplaced parking at MOA, the latter only becoming a serious issue within the last five years as both IKEA and light rail transit have considerably increased non-mall traffic to the area.

Arial vs. Helvetica at the Mall of America parking garage

The only thing worse than Arial is a careless mix of Arial and Helvetica

I snapped these photos yesterday in the parking lot of the Lyndale Rose Garden in Minneapolis. Why, at a garden with huge displays of flowers, fountains, sculptures and more, would I bother taking not just one but multiple photos of the pay machine in a parking lot?


In particular, ever since I saw the documentary Helvetica, I’ve been observing instances of the use of Arial — that abomination of a Helvetica knockoff Microsoft foisted upon the world by being too cheap to license Helvetica for Windows — on public signage. In days gone by, the default, almost ubiquitous, font on all sorts of public signs was Helvetica. But in the modern PC era, these signs often use Arial, the readily available not-quite-lookalike, instead.

But this pay machine is something else entirely. It displays a schizophrenic mix of Arial and Helvetica.

'PAY HERE' and taped-on sign in Arial
The most readily distinguishable difference between Arial and Helvetica, as I’ve noted before, is the capital R. So this pay machine immediately caught my attention with the giant “PAY HERE” sign at its top, immediately recognizable as Arial. I also noticed that the taped-on “ATTENTION” sign (which frustratingly informed me that the credit card function was not working) was in Arial as well.

Dymo labels in Helvetica
Next I noticed the pasted-on Dymo labels below the change slot, which were printed in Helvetica.

Machine instructions in Helvetica
The instructions printed on the machine, presumably by the manufacturer, are in Helvetica, albeit an ugly, artificially compressed version. So it would appear that the “PAY HERE” sign was a Minneapolis add-on and not part of the original unit.

The R’s have it… “It” being the most distinguishable difference between Helvetica and Arial

The R’s have itWhether or not my aesthetic sense and artistic ability really warrant the appellation “designer,” design has been a part of what I do for my entire career, and I’ve had the eye for detail (minutiae?) since I was a kid. It follows naturally that I have an unhealthy fixation on fonts. Just ask anyone how I feel about Verdana to erase all doubts on that point.

My obsessions seem slightly less unhealthy working in the publishing field, and they’re downright validated at moments like last Friday, when the recent documentary honoring the 50th anniversary of Helvetica was screened in our boardroom over lunch. I loved it.

While I unequivocally loathe Verdana (unless, that is, it’s displayed at such a small point size that it’s hard to tell what it is), I hold Helvetica in high regard. It’s rather plain, I’ll admit, but it’s just such a perfectly realized vision that in its relatively short lifetime it has become the norm. Helvetica is just how letters should look, and any other font’s uniqueness is judged most clearly by how it differs from that norm.

Unfortunately, on-screen type is a world of its own. Although with the advent of Mac OS X, system-wide anti-aliasing has made smooth font rendering possible, most computer systems still look better when fonts are specially tooled for the low-resolution environment of a CRT or LCD display. And for the most part, Helvetica has never really fared too well in such an environment.

So when, in the mid-’90s, Microsoft made what might have been their single most thoroughly positive contribution to the world by releasing a set of standard fonts to be used on web pages that look (reasonably) good on computer screens, I embraced them wholeheartedly (Verdana notwithstanding).

The closest counterpart to Helvetica in this set of fonts is Arial. Many people hate Arial, for reasons generally too arcane even for me to appreciate, but ultimately, for me, the fact that it doesn’t quite hit the mark of being a pure Helvetica clone, it tends to render much better on-screen than Helvetica does, and it’s become my own personal standard (along with another of the Microsoft web fonts, Georgia) for web design.

But this Helvetica movie has turned my world on its ear. For the last week I’ve been hyper-sensitive to fonts, noticing Helvetica everywhere I turn all day long, and becoming acutely aware of every slight difference between Helvetica and its web font doppelgänger, Arial. I think I’ve hit upon the most easily identifiable difference between the two fonts: the right “foot” of the capital R.

To be honest, I don’t really like the capital R in Helvetica. That wavy little foot seems too jaunty, too incongruously immoderate next to its supremely efficient and utilitarian siblings. But if anything is worse than the capital R in Helvetica, it’s the capital R in Arial! What the heck is that? It’s almost enough to make me want to give Verdana another chance. (After all, it’s even used on the Helvetica site.)