Runaway Success

Do fonts have stories?!  I didn’t think so.  At least, not until I came across “The Scourge of Arial” :

Arial is everywhere. If you don’t know what it is, you don’t use a modern personal computer. It has spread like a virus through the typographic landscape and illustrates the pervasiveness of Microsoft’s influence in the world.

Arial, however, has a rather dubious history and not much character. In fact, Arial is little more than a shameless impostor.

What follows is a rather interesting storyline that details the dominance of Helvetica throughout the typographic world, and traces the evolution of various font styles and of the business empires that popularised them…

An icon of the Swiss school of typography, Helvetica swept through the design world in the ’60s and became synonymous with modern, progressive, cosmopolitan attitudes. 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.

Eventually, you learn about the motivation behind the entire range of ‘me-too’ clones of Helvetica, that attempted to reduce dependence on Adobe PostScript.  Some, like Arial, made the most of the opportunity by creating a “new design” that fit in the old bottle…

Arial appears to be a loose adaptation of Monotype’s venerable Grotesque series, redrawn to match the proportions and weight of Helvetica. At a glance, it looks like Helvetica, but up close it’s different in dozens of seemingly arbitrary ways. Because it matched Helvetica’s proportions, it was possible to automatically substitute Arial when Helvetica was specified in a document printed on a PostScript clone output device.

The situation today is that Arial has displaced Helvetica as the standard font in practically everything done by nonprofessionals in print, on television, and on the Web, where it’s become a standard font, mostly because of Microsoft bundling it with everything—even for Macs, which already come with Helvetica.

In this case, at least, imitation may not have been the sincerest form of flattery!

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