The History Behind Arial: Helvetica Ripoff or Inspired Design?

History, in general, is full of facts that are subject to personal interpretation and not always solely based on concrete data.  The same can be said for the history of Arial; ripoff or inspired design?  We decided to take a look at this debate and share what we’ve learned.

If you are a designer or typographer chances are you have developed your own opinions.  For the professional the answer may seem obvious, Arial is a knockoff of Helvetica.  But at a closer glance, the nuances of Arial typeface do set it apart. [caption id="attachment_4453" align="aligncenter" width="400"]Helvetica vs Arial Typeface It's the Battle of the Fonts Today on[/caption]

Helvetica vs Arial

Birth of Helvetica

Helvetica typeface was designed in 1957 by Max Miedinger.  Miedinger based his design on that of Akzidenz Grotesk 1896 which was classified as Grotesque san serif face.

With its friendly, cheerful appearance and clean lines, it was universally embraced for a time by both the corporate and design worlds as a nearly perfect typeface to be used for anything and everything. “When in doubt, use Helvetica” was a common rule.  Mark Simonson

 Birth of Arial

In 1982 Robin Nicholas and Patricia Saunders created the Arial typeface for Monotype and labeled it Neo Grotesque. Essentially it’s an “original” design that just happens to share exactly the same proportions and weight as another typeface, as stated by Mark Simonson.  In other words, it’s a copy with very few differences to be able to call it a unique typeface.

 Arial is everywhere!

Some say that Arial was created by Microsoft for their Windows 3.1 so that they could avoid paying licensing fees and save money.  Whatever you choose to believe, you most likely use Arial everyday without thinking about it much. The popularity of Windows 3.1 has made Arial a household name.  Microsoft understood that the average person could not tell the difference between Helvitica and Arial and -more importantly-  they would not care.  It seems they were right in their thinking.  Today Arial font can be seen everywhere, from academic papers to advertising design, and has knocked Helvetica out of the top spot for the last 30 years. The Arial vs Helvetica debate is still strong amongst those in the typography industry and font historians. (Also among designers and Type lovers!)  The best way to get a sense of the similarities and differences is to place the typefaces side by side.  Only individual tastes can say which font reigns supreme.

The Differences: Under the microscope!

Let’s take a look at the lower case “a” side by side.  What do we see?  In Helvetica, the lowercase “a” has a tail unlike the Arial version which does not. If we put capital C’s side by side, we can see that in Helvetica the ends of the strokes of letters like “C” are perfectly horizontal.  In the case of Arial, the ends of the “C” are cut at a slight angle.

The differences are subtle, but they are apparent.  Some may say that, if Arial is a rip-off of Helvetica, then Helvetica is a rip-off of Akzidenz Grotesk; or we could simply say that they are both rip-offs of earlier Grotesque faces.   As in most areas of life, there are very few originals just adaptations.  After all, imitation is the best form of flattery.  Right?

Ripoff or inspired design?

The choice is really yours, we just had fun presenting it to you!

 Do tell us, which typeface would you choose for your print designs? Our curious minds want to know!


David Castillo Dominici/

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