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In the beginning there was... Helvetica

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Website Design Victoria BC

Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, one of the most popular typefaces in the western world was Helvetica. 

It was designed in 1957 by Max Miedinger, Helvetica’s design is based on that of Akzidenz Grotesk (1896), and classified as a Grotesque or Transitional san serif face. Originally it was called Neue Haas Grotesque; in 1960 it was revised and renamed Helvetica (Latin for Switzerland “Swiss”).. Later, Haas merged with Linotype and Helvetica was heavily promoted. More weights were added and it really began to catch on.

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.

In 1983 Linotype released Helvetica Neue by redrawing the entire Helvetica family in a more structurally organized fashion.

Arial is Microsoft's Fault

When Microsoft made TrueType the standard font format for Windows 3.1, they opted to go with Arial rather than Helvetica, probably because it was cheaper and they knew most people wouldn’t know (or even care about) the difference. Apple also standardized on TrueType at the same time, but went with Helvetica, not Arial, and paid Linotype’s license fee. Of course, Windows 3.1 was a big hit. Thus, Arial is now everywhere, a side effect of Windows’ success, born out of the desire to avoid paying license fees.

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. This is not such a big deal since at the low resolution of a computer screen, it might as well be Helvetica. In any case, for fonts on the Web, Arial is one of the few choices available.

Despite its pervasiveness, a professional designer would rarely—at least for the moment—specify Arial. To professional designers, Arial is looked down on as a not-very-faithful imitation of a typeface that is no longer fashionable. It has what you might call a “low-end stigma.” The few cases that I have heard of where a designer has intentionally used Arial were because the client insisted on it. Why? The client wanted to be able to produce materials in-house that matched their corporate look and they already had Arial, because it’s included with Windows.

True to its heritage, Arial gets chosen because it’s cheap, not because it’s a great typeface.

Comments

This is not the first time this argument has cropped up. The print industry has discussed it a thousand times and now it seems history is repeating itself with the latest batch of website designers and their Web 2.0 bl$hit.

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