The Simple, Clean Design Of Arial Helped Font Conquer The Computer World

Millions of people today are familiar with the clean, basic design of Arial. It’s a font the computer age has made all-but ubiquitous and arguably the most recognized typeface in the world. But the story of a font that many consider “just a knock-off of Helvetica” is actually much more complex and fascinating.

The Father Of Arial

The saga of Arial begins with a British man, Robin Nichols, born in Kent in 1947. In 1965 he entered the offices of the Monotype Corporation, an engineering firm that manufactured the hot metal typesetting machines of the pre-computer era. It was a time when printing and publishing meant using ink to stamp words on paper.

Nichols trained in Montotype’s Type Drawing Office and remained there for his entire career, including managing the drawing office for 10 years. At the advent of the computer age, Monotype made the transition from creating fonts for metal printing plates to generating typefaces for the burgeoning electronic environment of computers.

IBM Comes Calling

The Arial project was launched in 1982 when IBM approached Monotype and asked them to develop a font for two new printers designed for the emerging in-office publishing market. One of the IMB printers was the then cutting-edge 240-DPI 3800-3 laser-xerographic printer. The other was a 600-DPI 4250 electro-erosion laminate typesetter.

Robin Nichols was tagged to head the project to create the new IBM font. He was joined by Patricia Saunders to co-direct a team of 10 design specialists. Saunders began her career at Monotype in 1951. The Nichols-Saunders team worked for about a year developing Arial.

The primary reason IBM wanted an all-new font was so that it could avoid paying a licensing fee for use of the established and extremely popular Helvetica. IBM’s new 3800-3 printer originally used Helvetica until Monotype helped them replace it with Arial.

Why or how the Nichols-Saunders team chose the name Arial is somewhat lost to history. However, it is known that Arial is a Hebrew name that means “lion of God.” Arial was also the name of the prankster spirit in Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest. It seems likely that this team of Brits gave a nod to their nation’s own great English playwright.


Image by WebDesignerDepot

Some industry observers say that Arial was inspired by, or was just a minor tweaking of Helvetica. After all, Helvetica was a proven commodity and had become a dominant force since it was brought out in 1957. But in an interview with Eye Magazine, Nichols said the starting point for Arial was actually Monotype Grotesque. But Helvetica itself was influenced by Grotesque styles. Also, there is no doubt that Arial is highly similar to Helvetica. Most people today readily confuse the two fonts for being one and the same. A lot of people can’t tell them apart, at least at first glance.

Helevetica had been widely embraced in the 1960s because of its enormous versatility. It was an excellent font for newspaper headlines, but also easy-on-the-eyes for reading columns of text. Advertisers loved it. A common saying in the publishing industry was, “When in doubt, use Helvetica.” Thus, it is not surprising that designers such as Nichols and Saunders were eager to improve upon that success. One might also say that Arial was developed as a “Helvetica substitute” — and certainly, that’s what IBM, and later Microsoft — wanted. Neither were willing to spend decades paying licensing fees for Helvetica.

Despite the enormous similarity to Helvetica, a close-up examination of Arial reveals literally dozens of structural differences – even though Arial is proportionally equivalent to Helvetica. Still, some industry observers today call Arial “a parasite of Helvetica.” A kinder way to put it might be that Arial is the “child of Helvetica.”

All Fonts Are Derivative

Keep in mind that most if not all fonts used today are derived from fonts that have come before them. Helvetica was derived from a class of fonts in the Grotesques family and the starting point for Arial was Monotype Grotesque. In case you’re wondering, this family of fonts does not derive its name from the common word “grotesque’ which means, “comically or repulsively ugly or distorted.” Rather, the name comes from a set of sans serif fonts developed in the early 1800s that are related to certain Gothic types of lettering.

So, Arial can be said to be a neo-Grotesque creation. Certainly, its design owes much to the early nineteenth-century class of sans-serifs types, including Gothic and Grotesque. It is more streamlined and smooth than these early examples of lettering modes, however. As such, Arial is more well adapted to modern times and computer environments because of its simplicity and continuous body design. Another advantage is how easily it lends itself to form an extended family of fonts that remain cohesive – such as Arial Black, Arial Narrow, Arial Bold, Arial Italic, Arial Rounded and more.

If Arial is bland – which it is – that was the intent, said Robin Nichols. The power of Arial is in its generic quality. In 1989 Monotype came out with a Postscript Type version of Arial. A Postscript Type is a font characterized by an outline version of the letters. In 1990 Nichols and Saunders teamed up with Steve Matteson to produce a TrueType iteration of Arial. TrueType fonts are critical because they can scale to all sizes on screen and printer. Monotype licensed Arial TrueType to Microsoft.

A Major Step For Arial

A significant moment for Arial came in 1992 when Microsoft selected Arial as one of its four core TrueType fonts for use in Windows 3.1. Microsoft made it known that Arial would be a bona fide alternative to Helvetica. This development had even broader implications for the Monotype Corporation – at the time is was struggling to stave off bankruptcy. The deal Microsoft made with Monotype included what was essentially a bailout of the financially troubled company.

In fact, the amount of money spent on Arial was huge. Alan Haley, Executive Vice President of the International Typeface Corporation, once remarked that the amount of money Microsoft spent on Arial could have “financed a small country.” All this so that Micrsoft could avoids paying licensing fees to Helvetica!

Arial has since gone on to become far more widely used than Helvetica – and many complain that Arial has become the most overused font in publishing today. Arial is everywhere, both in the Microsoft and Mac environments. Other platforms, such as Linux, routinely seek Arial “clones” because demand for the font is universal.

Even Robin Nichols agrees that the reputation of his most notable font creation has been tarnished by the fact that this simple, clean and highly versatile font has become too pervasive. Nichols told a reporter for Eye Magazine, “No one likes to see their typefaces badly used. I could do with seeing a little less of Arial.”

Nichols also added said that Arial was not so much his own creation but, “a product of its time.” He said it was a font that filled a company need. The veteran typeface man said the bottom line is, “Arial can look quite nice” if used properly”.

About the Author!

Craig, in addition to being the editor at Designrfix and writing about tech, web and graphic design among other subjects, he love “unplug” and be outdoors hiking and enjoying nature. If you can’t reach him, it’s probably because where he is at doesn’t have cell phone reception.

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