Re-post : previous essay about typography

(for this post, English only)

The Trend of Helvetica and Arial Under Globalisation
originally written 22 Nov.2004

It would be a little bit strange for common-ones for what is “Helvetica”. Nevertheless everyone nowadays must have seen the word “Arial”, in your Microsoft Word Font type tray everyday. Arial, as a substitute of another font called Helvetica, become one of the most popular typeface over the world. You may try to deny it, but try to look for any typography around on your street, your belongings, and even the words you are looking, they are Arial. It is definitely a consequence of its constructive development with its unique pluses under the phenomenon of Globalisation (which is defined as a phenomenon of something grows “to a global or worldwide scale” (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 2000). In this essay, I would like to discuss this phenomenon with its history, factors and nowadays situations.

The Rise of Helvetica and Arial

Since 19th century there was a rise of Sans-Serif (which means “no Serifs” in French) fonts called “Grotesques”. One of them was a German product called “Akzidenz Grotesk” designed in late 1900s.
http://cis1.western.tec.wi.us/halee/type/face_history.html 17/11/2004). From 1920s the trend grew up with the German Bauhaus movement (1919-1933) suggesting a new principle of function design, which means “forms of design follows functionality and expression, but not ornament (Andrew 17/11/2004) The Sans-Serif typography trend that preferred geometric elements was defined as a reflection of the industrial revolution. However the fonts are not yet well developed because of their painful readability in text type (http://cis1.western.tec.wi.us/halee/type/face_history.html , 17/11/2004)

In 1956, Edouard Hoffmann, a typographer of Switzerland, worked with Max Miedinger, redrew the font “Akzidenz Grotesk” for further improvement. The new, rewritten font ready for new century use was called “Neue Haas Grotesk”. Afterwards, in 1961, this new font was renamed as “Helvetica” that meant Switzerland in Latin and started on sale in Germany, as the font represented “the middle of the Swiss design movement ──a style of design that said design be an objective communication of ideas and not an artistic expression.” (
http://cis1.western.tec.wi.us/halee/type/face_history.html , 17/11/2004)

In 1964, an American company, Linotype defined Helvetica as the standard logotype on its all equipment, illustrated to the design industry all over the world Helvetica was “the font that reflected the industrial times”. The font was further developed and more weights and alignments were introduced in next few years by numerous designers. (
http://cis1.western.tec.wi.us/halee/type/face_history.html , 17/11/2004)

Since 1970s, Helvetica had become a mainstream typographic element of everyday design and printing. To make the publishing and design industry become more effective, in early 1980s, Adobe company developed the PostScript page description language, and Helvetica was chosen to be one of the basic four fonts ( while the another three are Times, Courier and Symbol ) for the publishing industry systems. By the end of 1980s, the desktop computer publishing technology was introduced by the existence of Macintosh computers and the software Adobe PageMaker with PostScript page description language. The usage of Helvetica became even more common among worldwide publishing industry because of the spread of Macintosh. (
http://www.ms-studio.com/articles.html , 17/11/2004)

In 1989 there was a revolution. Under the competition between Adobe and Microsoft, Microsoft’s development on page description language technology caused the invention of a close substitute of Helvetica: the “Arial”. Microsoft afterwards defined Arial to be one of the standard font formats for its Windows 3.1 operation system instead of Helvetica because Arial is cheaper in its license fee and it was assumed that people generally didn’t care about the tiny difference between Arial and Helvetica. Since then, Arial became a well-known font in PC world as well as Macintosh systems, while Helvetica could only be found in Macintosh computers. With the outcome of PC became the most popular computer system over the world instead of the Macintosh, Arial was frequently appeared among every kind of media, while Helvetica was just a vocabulary of designers and typographers. “Arial is now everywhere, a side effect of Windows' success……True to its heritage, Arial gets chosen because it's cheap, not because it's a great typeface.” (
http://www.ms-studio.com/articles.html , 17/11/2004)

With the globalisation of printing and publishing industries, together with computer applications, the font are nowadays one of the best selling fonts over the world.

The nowadays identity of Arial and Helvetica

With its (Arial and Helvetica, which are generally defined as a same thing) long development history, it was “An icon of the Swiss school of typography……universally embraced for a time by both the corporate and design worlds as a nearly perfect typeface to be used for anything and everything.” (
http://www.ms-studio.com/articles.html , 17/11/2004)”It’s also……very linked to the image of Switzerland, it has the same straightforward, practical, useful, rigorous personality.” (Happypets 2001) With its high readability, legibility, simple curves and lines, Helvetica became the font generally defined as a form of practical, personal-stylish, high-technology, post-modernism and simplicity.

The phenomenon and factors of the mass usage of Arial and Helvetica around the world

Nowadays in all western countries, together with Asian countries especially Hong Kong and Japan, the fonts are generally used in digital graphic and text publications, especially since the publishing and design industry became computerized with the operation systems installed with Helvetica or Arial. “The fact that Helvetica is currently a default Macintosh font probably means many designers will steer clear.” (Magee 2001) However, the situations and factors behind the situations in Western and Asian Cultures are different.

In Western, Helvetica is widely used in any kind of typographic products including banners, printed matters, multimedia and publications. It was also said that “When in doubt, use Helvetica” (
http://www.ms-studio.com/articles.html , 17/11/2004). Many companies and government departments use Helvetica as their official font, for example, NASA, the Government of Canada and RealNetworks.( IdN magazine, vol.8 no.6 2001, 002.8) Helvetica “does have the advantage of coming in a huge range of weights and widths, which makes it versatile, and its ubiquitous character makes it easy to match”. (002.6, IdN magazine, vol.8 no.6 2001) With its high readability, legibility and being-well-crafted (Karlsson 2001), Helvetica “generally always looks good on all types of work.” (Happypets 2001)

In Asian modern places, like Hong Kong and Japan, the font could be easily found in western-stylish items like digital graphic with English typography, logotypes and English publications. Helvetica plays an important role of typographic element in their design industry and is praised that “Helvetica family series has really been very well developed” (Kwan 2001). The less and late development and experiment of typography in their local design industries could be a main reason for the overuse of Helvetica. It is difficult to find a typographer in Asian countries. People in such societies are suffering from the “fast-food culture” that they too depend on pre-made fonts for their fast design productions. Furthermore they widely use English as an element in their society, suggesting that Western culture is more superior to their local culture. Helvetica, being a representative of innovation, simplicity, high-technology and post-modernism, with its advantages of high readability and availability in everyone’s computer, becomes the most suitable font for their daily lives.

The trend of overusing Arial and Helvetica

The phenomenon of overusing Arial and Helvetica is blamed by many. Most of the articles discussed about it concluded it is unhealthy. “I never use Helvetica. If I could eradicate it from my Mac system, I would.” (Magee 2001), even there was a group in IHateHelvetica.com shouting against the usage of Helvetica like “free yourself from this font” and “don’t buy Helvetica” (
http://www.ihatehelvetica.com , 17/11/2004). “Helvetica was the typeface of corporate modernism.” However in recent years, “after excessive overuse and rampant abuse, its quirkiness became simply irksome──something like the paisley of type faces──no longer fashionable, but not entirely obsolete either.” (Steven, 17/112004) “Once accepted formulaic and simplistic typographic structures have been re-examined in light of the complexities offered by a new information age and new systems of writing.”(Teal 2003) Helvetica becomes a side-effect of discouraging people from further typography development and experiment, and is going to be discarded from most typographers in future.

Generally say, the globalisation of computer usage led to the spread of Helvetica and Arial in these few ten years, together with their pluses and minuses. To my mind, we should seek for more typography experiments instead of being satisfied with Helvetica, though we should not discard it without any support from our basis of design. After all one of the design basis is “more in our hands means more possibilities”, to be sure.


Teal, T. 2003, The typographic experiment: radical innovation in contemporary type design, Thames & Hudson, London, p.25

‘History of the typeface’, Max Miedinger, History of Helvetica,
http://cis1.western.tec.wi.us/halee/type/face_history.html , 17/11/2004

Andrew M., ‘Culture and Design, Interface and Logo’, Design Aesthetics,
http://mdcm.arts.unsw.edu.au/S2-2002/3102/Lectures/Lec8Logo.html , 17/11/2004

‘The Scourge of Arial’, The Scourge of Arial,
http://www.ms-studio.com/articles.html , 17/11/2004

‘Get free from Helvetica: The world’s best known font’, I Hate Helvetica,
http://www.ihatehelvetica.com , 17/11/2004

Steven, H., ‘Crime Against Typography’, AIGA Journal of Design and Typography,
http://designforum.aiga.org/ , 17/11/2004

2001, ‘Helvetica issue:’, IdN magazine, 2001, 002.8

2001, ‘Helvetica issue:’, IdN magazine, 2001, 002.6

Karlsson, J., 2001, ‘Helvetica issue:’ IdN magazine, 2001, 002.13

Happypets, 2001, ‘Helvetica issue:’ IdN magazine, 2001, 002.16

Kwan, G., 2001, ‘Helvetica issue:’ IdN magazine, 2001, 002.23

Magee, J., 2001, ‘Helvetica issue:’ IdN magazine, 2001, 002.21

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 2000, 4th Ed, Houghton Mifflin Company

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