The Mesopotamia cuneiform script is thought to be the first writing created – it is dated to about 3200 BC. Over the years, writing has changed drastically. From typefaces and printing presses to today’s digital fonts. Even though Arial isn’t thousands of years old, it has been around since 1982. The font is a very popular sans serif style font. If you’ve read anything online, you’ve likely come across Arial font a time or two hundred. You likely have even used Arial font from time to time, even if you hate yourself for it now because it’s so…well…predictable.
The Arial font type was first created by a team of 10 different designers for Monotype Typography. Leading the team was Robin Nicholas and Patricia Saunders. The idea behind Arial was that it would metrically match Helvetica to a T. The characters in Arial match the width of the characters in Helvetica exactly. This font is typically packaged with Microsoft apps.
It is essentially a variation of Monotype’s Grotesque series and was specifically created with the thought that it would be used with the modern computer. When Microsoft began using TrueType technology with Windows 3.1, Arial began shipping with the software. Today, Windows comes with Arial Unicode MS, which includes some international characters that weren’t initially available with earlier versions of this font. So, if you’ve heard that Arial is just a copy of Helvetica font, that would be partially correct. Yet the fonts do not match exactly.
What Does the Font Imply
Arial is a more contemporary sans serif font than some of the older ones on the books, but it is a good, solid font that can be used for everything from printed materials to web design. People seem to either love or hate the font. Some have called it a “scourge” on fonts and said it is homely. These people basically feel that Arial is a copy of Helvetica, which was developed in the 1950s.
However, by the 1980s, desktop publishing was taking shape. The issue that cropped up was that there were two different types of postscripts and they didn’t work well with one another. This spurred copycat fonts as companies worked to break the code for Type 1 fonts, which had a clearer outputs. Adobe, who had controlled the Type 1 fonts finally released their secrets to the higher quality fonts. Those who love this font feel that it is a good solid font that works across many types of situations – formal or informal.
There is a reason Helvetica was so popular. It looks good on computer screens. Arial does as well. It is seen as a contemporary font, having been widely used during the last part of the 20th century. However, it has been so overused that people have come to realize it is a pretty boring font without a lot of pizazz. Because it is so familiar, it doesn’t help your brand stand out from the crowd in any way.
Mechanics of Arial
Even though Arial font is very similar to Helvetica, they aren’t exact, of course. For example, the lower case “a” in Helvetica features a slight tail while Arial does not have a tail. The top of the “t” is slightly slanted. The initial description within OpenType of the font is that it has curves that make it softer and fuller and less industrial. The appearance is less mechanical than terminal strokes that are cut horizontal. Arial is cut on the diagonal. The variants of Arial include:
- Unicode MS
- And many variations within those types as well
In fact, in many letters in Arial, the letters are cut at an angle rather than horizontal. Most of the letters do not have a tail. Even though people often say Arial is a copycat font of Helvetica, it more closely resembles Grotesque in some ways.
Alternatives to Arial
If you like the look of Arial, but think you might like to use something a bit less common, here are some other fonts to try.
- Adagio Sans: The look of this font is close, but there is a slight embellishment on some letters, such as the bottom line on the letter “D” or the accent on top of the letter “G.” Adagio Sans has a more modern feel than Arial and works for most types of businesses.
- Cartogothic: This font has a bit wider footprint than Arial and works well in headings. The spacing between the letters is a touch broader, and the letters have a lower height than Arial does, which gives the font a look of strength. This font might work well for a construction company or gym.
- Open Sans: This web font alternative has a similar profile to Arial, but features a lighter footprint that doesn’t have the boldness of Arial. It works well for body text, but also meshes with most browsers, so it appears the same for any user who visits your site.
Arial is common because it pairs well with other fonts, such as Savate, Times New Roman, Galliard and Source Sans Pro. For those times when you want to stand out from the millions of other sites using Arial by default, one of the fonts above gives you a similar look.
Where It’s Commonly Found/Used
Arial font is all over the place. You’ve probably read text in it several times today and didn’t even realize. Twitter and Google both use Arial font in most of their text. Huffington Post uses Arial font on the front page of their magazine as well. You’ll also find the font used in publications quite often. By switching to Arial instead of Helvetica, businesses avoided licensing fees. This can make a big difference to small businesses or independent artists who might have a small budget to create new products or put out marketing materials.
One of the best ways to see the uses for this font is by seeing how others have used the type in their publications. Here are some examples from which you can learn. Moon Technolabs uses what looks to be Arial on most of their page. Note the clean lines without serifs or decorations and the letters having a bit heavier weight than you’d see from some of the thinner fonts. The headline is bold, and the text just under is a standard font. In this case, they use white on a darker background, but further down the page, they shift to black on white.
The contrast between the background and the text allows the font to pop. rTraction uses an Arial-looking font on their landing page. The headline text is not Arial, since it has some serif features, but the text in the navigation has an Arial look without any serifs. The text on the call-to-action buttons also appears to be Arial or something similar. The font meshes well with serif fonts and decorative elements because it’s such a simple, straightforward look. Creative9 uses Arial on their page.
Notice the simplicity of the letters, even in the heading. It shifts the focus to the background images, which highlight what the design firm does best. The typography doesn’t take away from the other elements on the page, but complements them. If you have a strong hero image or interesting background, sticking with a simple font helps draw user attention to other features on the page.
Fun Facts About Arial
Some may classify Arial as a boring, outdated font, but there is some fun history surrounding this timeless classic. Font and printing professionals looked into sizing to see how small a font could be before readers would need to magnify it. For sans serif fonts like Arial, the determination was 6pt or 0.6mm+ — surprisingly, it is the same for serif. Differences may arise if the typeface is bolded or otherwise changed, increasing the clarity and letter distinctions in potentially smaller sizes.
Many also wonder what makes the most default fonts equal to fan favorites. Many love Times New Roman and Calibri alongside Arial, but why? Microsoft and Apple’s licensing agreements may have inadvertently caused hardware preferences to align with typeface preferences. Arial was the Microsoft core font for awhile until Calibri. Continued exposure to this font may be the reason behind everyone’s seemingly consistent preferences. Its similarities with Helvetica is another reason it is well-loved because they are hardly distinguishable unless you have a trained eye.
People associate fonts with moods and emotional gravitas. Sans serif fonts are associated with cleanness and modern design, and serif is reliable and familiar — consider how Times New Roman is the font used for most print books. Some people consider Arial and its sans serif friends “unemotional” fonts because of this, taking this connotation as an advantage for specific design intentions.
Another classification for fonts apart from serif versus sans serif is humanist versus old style. Arial is considered a humanist-style font, which explains a typeface inspired by more modern handwriting and calligraphic strokes. There are sans serif and serif humanist fonts, so the aesthetics vary slightly, but humanist fonts generally have these qualities:
- Greater emphasis on diagonal stresses
- Lower stroke contrast
- Larger, more open negative space in enclosed letters
Research on Arial as a Font
It seems preposterous to spend research time looking into how fonts impact people, but there is a lot of value with how much people spend reading and posting online content. When academia researches fonts, it is usually not about specific fonts, but rather the families. But, does this mean Arial is a part of any major research diving deep into the font world?
Many educational institutions recommend sans serif fonts like Arial for heightened reader accessibility. However, readability and accessibility is not limited to just the typeface as many wonder. Contrasting colors and complimentary or alternative text surrounding Arial will influence its level of accessibility. Some wonder if Arial has specific superpowers over other fonts of its type, but research is still minimal.
Despite the broader context of accessibility needing more research, there is some concerning how fonts impact people with dyslexia. Many argue fonts should not matter, as dyslexia is a neurological condition as opposed to a visual one. However, this has not stopped people from creating dyslexia-friendly fonts and testing them against sans serif fonts. Arial tested well for readability, and it is one of the leading recommendations for dyslexia-friendly typefaces if people do not choose one made for that specific purpose.
In 2017, a University of Mississippi paper analyzed how fonts impact learning retention. Test subjects needed to analyze the steps of routines and recipes in multiple fonts. Comparing Arial against a brush-style font had no impact on what the test subjects remembered, but it did impact speed. It also impacted confidence, as subjects who read in Arial believed recipes would be easier to accomplish compared to those reading in the brush-style font. The study concluded the font had an impact on their perception of the task more than their ability to remember steps in a specific order.
What Should It Be Used As
Most designers will tell you that Arial font has been overused to the point that they are sick of it. Because it was often a default font, it appeared often (Microsoft has changed their default to Calibri in more recent versions. It is seen as a low-end type font and designers simply don’t use it. To use it would be akin to using Comic Sans in a design.
At the same time, clients will sometimes request this font in their materials because they are familiar with the font and may want to be able to do additional edits on their own in-house. If a client requests it, designers can certainly point them to better alternatives. However, at the end of the day the client’s wishes should be met. Even though it might go against your design sensibilities, you can still create a beautiful end result even with Arial font.
Arial is a font that nearly everyone has heard of, both designer and non-designer. Even though there are many other options out there that designers prefer, don’t completely overlook Arial. It can be a viable alternative when you need a simple font that is easy for absolutely anyone to edit no matter what software they are using and what fonts they own, since it comes packaged with Windows. After all, a font does add some impact to your design, but a good designer should be able to make any font look professional.
The Font Series Guide: Introduction
Chapter 1: 15 Google Fonts You Should Be Using
Chapter 2: Times New Roman
Chapter 3: Roboto
Chapter 4: Georgia
Chapter 5: Verdana
Chapter 6: Helvetica
Chapter 7: Comic Sans
Chapter 8: Didot
Chapter 9: Arial
Chapter 10: Tahoma
Chapter 11: Garamond
Chapter 12: Century Gothic
Chapter 13: Brody
Chapter 14: Bromello
Chapter 15: Savoy
Chapter 16: Athene
Chapter 17: Calibri
Chapter 18: Proxima Nova
Chapter 19: Anders
Chapter 20: Monthoers
Chapter 21: Gotham
About The Author
Eleanor Hecks is the Editor-in-Chief of Designerly Magazine, an online publication dedicated to providing in-depth content from the design and marketing industries. When she's not designing or writing code, you can find her re-reading the Harry Potter series, burning calories at a local Zumba class, or hanging out with her dogs, Bear and Lucy.