Blue Pencil no. 18—Some history about Arial

I have moved the third portion of Matthew Carter’s email to me regarding Just My Type (see Blue Pencil no. 17—Correction) to a separate post since it was not a correction but a further elucidation of a commment I made. And I have paired it with Rod McDonald’s follow-up email (formerly Blue Pencil no. 17—Addendum).

Matthew Carter: Somewhere there must be a proper account of the beginnings of Arial, but at the risk of repeating myself or somebody else, here goes. In the late ’70s or 1980 (I’m not sure of the exact date) Xerox and IBM released the first laser-xerographic printers, the Xerox 9700 (300 dpi resolution), and the IBM 3800 (240 dpi resolution). Xerox made an agreement with Mergenthaler to license bitmaps of Times Roman and Helvetica for the 9700. IBM went to Monotype (the only real alternative to Linotype) to license the same faces (in addition to versions of the monospaced fonts they had used in the previous generation of impact printers). Monotype had rights to Times Roman, of course, but not to Helvetica. The contract with IBM was worth a colossal amount of money and Monotype, in one of their periodic financial difficulties, proposed to make what amounted to a Helvetica clone, based ostensibly on their Grots 215 and 216. I was a consultant to IBM’s Printer Planning Division at the time and had the job of going through print-outs of all the Monotype bitmaps to make necessary corrections with red and green pencils. Arial was originally called Sonoran Sans during its development but I believe that IBM used the name Arial by the time it was released.

At a later time Microsoft acquired the rights of access to Monotype’s type library. This was in return for guaranteeing a loan to Monotype (again in financial trouble), a deal brokered by Robert Norton at Microsoft. Through this deal Microsoft picked up Arial. One point I’m not clear about—but should be given my job as consultant—is whether IBM’s Sonoran/Arial had exactly the same set widths as Helvetica or whether that was a refinement introduced by Microsoft.

A footnote. Xerox’s choice of Times and Helvetica as the indispensable pair of “typographic” fonts to replace the typewriter-like impact printer fonts may have had further repercussions. Warnock and Geschke worked at Xerox Parc before founding Adobe. The inclusion of Times and Helvetica as the primary PostScript fonts to replace the typewriter may simply have been suggested by the Xerox/Mergenthaler deal.

Matthew’s account of the origins of Arial seems to fit with that found on Wikipedia, though he is hazy on the exact year (Wikipedia says 1982). Matthew says Monotype did not have rights to Helvetica, but Wikipedia says it had sub-licensed the face from Linotype. This is supported by Lawrence W. Wallis’ chronology of the Monotype Corporation which says that Helvetica was made available on Monotype machines in 1972.

Wallis’ chronology, which was originally published as part of One Hundred Years of Type Making 1897–1997, a special centenary issue of The Monotype Recorder (New Series No. 10, 1997) under the title “Monotype Time Check” (pp. 46–55). The chronology does not mention Arial or Sonoran Sans. But Arial is briefly, and a bit coyly, discussed in two other contributions to the centenary issue. David Saunders, in “Two decades of change 1965–1986” (pp. 26–35), writes, “It was apparent to both Robin Nicholas and Patricia Saunders, another staff designer trained in the Monotype TDO [Type Drawing Office], that a more humanist approach to type was developing in the 80s, and they incorporated this into their design. The result is a typeface [Arial] that is more rounded than its rival, Helvetica.” He dates Arial, a “somewhat impersonal” sans serif, to 1982 but says nothing about IBM or Microsoft. The differences between Arial and Helvetica are then enumerated—with an emphasis on the bowed leg of the R as being closer to Gill Sans than to either Helvetica or earlier grotesques such as Monotype Grotesque 215.

In “New technology, new developments: 1986–1997” (pp. 36–45), Andrew Boag writes, “Following the supply of the 13 core fonts for Microsoft’s Windows 3.1 software… Microsoft commissioned a further set of 22 fonts to make up a ‘plus’ set, intended to provide Windows users with a set of fonts suitable for a range of document production tasks.… This project called for both new designs, and modifications to existing designs.” The designs that he lists are Century Gothic, Bookman Old Style and Corsiva. He says that René Kerfante saw potential—at some unspecfied date prior to its contract with Microsoft—for Monotype to provide core fonts “…in which the original Times New Roman design is matched to the widths of core-font versions of Times.” Boag continues, “Arial’s widths were also matched…. Constraints on space in the ROMS of early desktop printers had resulted in the ugly electronically condensed core versions of Helvetica (Helvetica Narrow): Kerfante developed properly drawn Arial Narrow variants with compatible widths.”

This story does not appear on the Monotype Imaging website. The only place where the origins of Arial are touched upon is in the biography of Robin Nicholas: “In 1982, Nicholas drew a contemporary sans serif typeface for low-resolution output devices–this design would eventually evolve into the Arial® typeface family. He worked with Monotype’s Patricia Saunders to shape the Arial design into a full family. Microsoft later selected the Arial design as a core font for the Windows® 3.1 operating system. Nicholas and his Monotype colleagues have further expanded the Arial family over the years. As one of the standard fonts in the Windows operating system, the Arial design is one of the most used typeface families in the world.” There is also a reproduction of a drawing of the Arial a dated August 20, 1987. There, the site expands a little on this story (without mentioning Sonoran Sans), “Arial started out as a bitmap font designed for IBM in the early 1980s. The typeface was redrawn a few years later to capitalize on the popularity of PC-based desktop publishing. Arial’s forms were based in part on Monotype Grotesque [215] and then molded into the industrial sans serif that is so visible today.”

For more on Arial and Helvetica see the following sites: I Love Typography, Mark Simonson Studio and Shinntype. I Love Typography compares the two typefaces visually and then concludes, “What it’s wrong to do is criticize Arial as a clone or rip-off of Helvetica. 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. The whole rip-off debate is a rather pointless one, I feel. Every face should be considered on its own merit. (We don’t criticize a daughter for looking like her mother). And, if you want to criticize Arial (it certainly has its faults), then do so, not because everyone else does, but do so with your own critical eye.”

The case for Arial as a clone is made by Simonson who compares it to both Helvetica and Monotype Grotesque 215. In “The Scourge of Arial” he speculates on the odd relationship of Arial and Helvetica: “What is really strange about Arial is that it appears that Monotype was uncomfortable about doing a direct copy of Helvetica. They could very easily have done that and gotten away with it. Many type manufacturers in the past have done knock-offs of Helvetica that were indistinguishable or nearly so. For better or worse, in many countries—particularly the U.S.—while typeface names can be protected legally, typeface designs themselves are difficult to protect. So, if you wanted to buy a typesetting machine and wanted the real Helvetica, you had to buy Linotype. If you opted to purchase Compugraphic, AM, or Alphatype typesetting equipment, you couldn’t get Helvetica. Instead you got Triumvirate, or Helios, or Megaron, or Newton, or whatever. Every typesetting manufacturer had its own Helvetica look-alike. It’s quite possible that most of the‘Helvetica’ seen in the ’70s was actually not Helvetica.” He continues, “Now, Monotype was a respected type foundry with a glorious past and perhaps the idea of being associated with these “pirates” was unacceptable. So, instead, they found a loophole and devised an “original” design that just happens to share exactly the same proportions and weight as another typeface. (See “Monotype’s Other ‘Arials’”) This, to my mind, is almost worse than an outright copy. A copy, it could be said, pays homage (if not license fees) to the original by its very existence. Arial, on the other hand, pretends to be different. It says, in effect “I’m not Helvetica. I don’t even look like Helvetica!”, but gladly steps into the same shoes. In fact, it has no other role.”

Nick Shinn’s diatribe is not about Arial specifically but about “modernist” sans serifs as a group. It is an impassioned argument for designers to use contemporary sans serif designs rather than those of the past. “Today,” Shinn declaims, “the preferred fonts are traditional, conformist, utilitarian, boring and banal—in short, a fascist aesthetic. What dupes we have become, to believe that ‘timeless and neutral’ is a virtue in a typeface! It is time to retire Helvetica and its cohorts, designed long ago and far away, and once again make typography expressive of local culture, here and now.” (It includes a fascinating 19th century gothic that eerily anticipates Helvetica.)

Shinn, Simonson and the others cited here provide more light on the issue of copied, pirated and cloned typefaces than that found in Garfield’s chapter on the subject. Yet, none of them make a clear distinction among these different terms. I would suggest that the first two are the same and apply to typefaces that look closely, if not indistinguishably, like another typeface; and that the latter applies to a typeface that shares the metrics of another typeface as well as a close appearance. This is where Matthew Carter’s question about who was responsible for the matching set widths between Arial and Helvetica comes in.

The story of Arial has been shrouded in mystery and invective. Recently, Canadian type designer Rod McDonald sent me this email as his contribution to my attempt above to clear the air.


Rod McDonald: I have mixed feelings about wading into the story of Arial, but I’m just completing a major reworking of the Grotesque series for Monotype that over the last three years has daily brought me face-to-face with Arial. I’ve managed to gather a few bits and pieces of the Arial story, although I really think you should contact Robin Nicholas directly. Obviously he has source material not available to many others. I’ve always found Robin to be both open and candid about the various stories surrounding Arial. >P> Arial was definitely based on the Monotype Grotesques. They of course were based on Berthold’s Ideal Grotesk, which as far as Robin and I have been able to find, was in turn based on Venus (at least in the light weight). One step that is always missed is that the Drawing Office also used a face called ‘New Grotesque’ that was begun in 1956 as an update of the original Grotesque series. Because of changing technologies New Grotesque was eventually shelved, but it was used as a model in the initial development of Arial.

In 1992 the TrueType version of Arial was licensed to Microsoft as one of the core fonts for use on their new Windows 3.1 OS. At that time a great deal of work was put into the development of Arial TrueType. As to the widespread notion that Microsoft did not want to pay licensing fees, Allan Haley has publicly stated, more than once, that the amount of money Microsoft paid over the years for the development of Arial could finance a small country. Matthew Carter’s point about the periodic financial woes of Monotype certainly applies here.

In the development of the new Grotesque series for Monotype I can attest that one of the problems I faced was periodically straying too close to Arial. The design similarities between the Monotype Grotesques and Arial are that close, however, I never once found myself in danger of producing a variation on Helvetica.

I have come to see the ‘Arial Story’ as a case of too many people with too little knowledge running with a story they imagine has greater meaning than it actually has. On a personal level I find these stories even more disturbing because they often smack of ‘political correctness’, with the kind of exaggerated sense of morality that so often accompanies that line of thinking. For designers it also brings up the issue of judging a design while ignoring all the business and technological aspects that also go into producing a product. The development of Arial is as much a business and technology story as it is a design story.


Rod makes an excellent point in his last sentence. It is high time for someone to write the definitive account of this typeface, taking into account these various entangled factors.