Blue Pencil no. 18—Arial addendum no. 2

Nick Sherman has been avidly following my Arial postings and in a recent email had this to say:

In the post, you say: “A clone is not only a typeface that looks like another one but has nearly the same data. By this definition Arial is not a clone of Helvetica, even though it has muscled in on Helvetica’s commercial success.”

In some ways you are wrong. While the outlines of Arial are different from Helvetica, most of the spacing data is taken verbatim from Helvetica (see attached screenshots showing the identical advance width numbers from Arial and Helvetica).

This one fact alone makes it blatantly clear that Arial was developed as a Helvetica replacement. It seems odd that this fact doesn’t come up more often when the two are compared.

Having said that, I don’t think that adopting spacing data is wrong in itself. For instance, Ascender Serif has a totally different feeling than Times New Roman, even though it sits on the same metrics. Ascender were also quite clear in their marketing material that it was developed as a replacement.

These two issues are the ones where Monotype moves in to dark areas with Arial. Arial’s outlines are different than Helvetica’s, but the weight and color have clearly been mimicked. Also, they neglect to acknowledge any relationship to Helvetica, even if only in the spacing.

In fact, they actively deny any connection between the two. In the comments for a post I wrote about Ascender Sans on the MyFonts blog back in 2009, Allan Haley wrote “Arial is also not Helvetica’s evil twin. It’s not its twin—and it’s not evil.”

Helvetica vs. Arial metrics

Nick—like Mark Simonson—is tackling the issue that irritated people when Arial was first released: the intent behind Monotype’s development of Arial for Microsoft, regardless of the origins of the typeface. Nick’s complaint is not that Monotype and Microsoft planned to replace Helvetica with Arial but that they tried to hide their intentions (or at least denied them). It seems that this is what he and others find bothersome.

I would agree with Allan Haley that Arial is not evil. I don’t think a typeface can be evil. And the actions of Monotype and Microsoft were not evil—that is far too harsh a term—but they smacked of dishonesty.

I also agree with Nick that matching spacing data is not inherently wrong. It can be a boon to graphic designers. In the late 1980s Massimo Vignelli, with the help of Tom Carnase of the World Typeface Corporation, planned a series of typefaces that would match the set width of Helvetica. His goal was to have typefaces that he could swap for Helvetica in a design without having the text reflow. Although Vignelli conceived of these typefaces in what we now see as the beginning of the digital era, it was, from his perspective at the time, still the phototype era when designs were still made as mechanicals and paste-ups. Thus, being able to change typefaces without having to remake mechanicals was a big deal. The only face that Vignelli and Carnase completed was WTC Our Bodoni (1989), but there were plans for a Futura with Helvetica proportions in the works and, I assume, probably a Garamond, Century Oldstyle and Times Roman. Despite having similar proportions no one would ever claim that WTC Our Bodoni is a clone of Helvetica.