Arial and Helvetica are sans serif typefaces that are widely used. They are often confused with each other due to similarity in appearance.

Comparison chart

Arial versus Helvetica comparison chart
Edit this comparison chartArialHelvetica
Designed by Robin Nicholas and Patricia Saunders in 1982 Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmannin 1957
Based on Schelter-Grotesk Akzidenz Grotesk
Originally Called Sonoran San Serif Die Neue Haas Grotesk
Classified as Neo Grotesk Grotesk or Transitional
Variations Arial Bold, Black, Extra Bold, Rounded, Special, Narrow, Light, Condensed, Italic, Medium, Monospaced Helvetica Neue, Swiss 721 BT, Helvetica World

History of Arial and Helvetica fonts

Arial was originally known as Sonoran Sans Serif and became to be known as Arial after its inclusion in Windows by Microsoft. Versions 2.76 and later include Arabic (on non italic fonts) and Hebrew glyphs. Versions 5.00 support Latin C, Latin D, Greek Extended, Cyrillic supplement and Coptic characters. Monotype currently owns the copyright for the Arial font.

Helvetica was designed in 1957 by Swiss typeface designer Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmannas. It was a new sans serif typeface that could compete with Akzidenz-Grotesk in the Swiss market. Created based on Schelter-Grotesk it was originally known as Die Neue Haas Grotesk. Helvetica was a neutral typeface that had clarity and no intrinsic meaning in its form.

Differences in characters

The differences in the letters a, r, t, C, S, G and R in Arial and Helvetica
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The differences in the letters a, r, t, C, S, G and R in Arial and Helvetica

Helvetica and Arial share many similar characters but some characters are different. The x- height of both Arial and Helvetica are same, which is why they are often confused for each other. The Differences lie in small details.

The a in Helvetica has a tail while Arial does not. The bowl of "a" flows back into the stem like "s" in Helvetica, where as the bowl is intersected with a slight curve in Arial.

The top of "t" is cut off at angles in Arial whereas in Helvetica "t" has straight cuts. The end strokes of "S" and "C" are horizontal in Helvetica while in Arial they are at an angle.

"G" in Arial has no spur at bottom and curve meets the stem at an angle. The "G" in Helvetica has a spur at bottom of stem and the curve at bottom flows into the stem.

In Arial "R" the tail flows down and to right from center and straightens out at an angle to the end. The tail of "R" in Helvetica flows out from center, curves straight down and ends in a slight curve to the right.

Arial contains more humanist characteristics than Helvetica which is originally Grotesk. The overall treatment of curves is softer and fuller in Arial when compared to Helvetica. Arial has diagonal terminal strokes giving it a less mechanical appearance than Helvetica which has straight cuts.

Legibility

Arial and Helvetica are not the most legible typefaces because — like many sans serif typefaces — they have indistinguishable capital i and lower case L. One example cited by designer Viljami Salminen in his article Typography for User Interfaces is the word "illiterate".

The word "illiterate" is hard to read when in Helvetica compared with Source Sans Pro. Illustration by Viljami Salminen.
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The word "illiterate" is hard to read when in Helvetica compared with Source Sans Pro. Illustration by Viljami Salminen.

Salminen goes on to write that

Some people would also agree that Helvetica sucks for any type of UI work since it wasn’t really developed for use on screen displays. When Apple “momentarily” switched to using Helvetica as their main interface typeface, it caused real usability and readability issues for certain users.

Differences in Usage

Arial can be found in Microsoft Windows, other Microsoft software applications, Apple Mac OS, PostScript computer printers, Minitel/ Prestel teletext systems, hyper terminals etc.

Helvetica can be spotted in commercial wordmarks like 3M, American Airlines, American Apparel, AT&T, Jeep, BMW, Lufthansa, Microsoft, Toyota, Motorola etc. Helvetica is widely used in Mac OS X, iPhone OS and iPod. It is used by the U.S. government in federal income tax forms and NASA uses it on Space Shuttle orbiter. It is used in subway signs, and has been adopted as the official font signage since 1989.

Variants

Variants of Arial include Arial Bold, Rounded, Italic, Unicode MS, Black, Narrow, Special and many more. Arial Baltic, Arial CE, Arial Cyr, Arial Greek, Arial Tur are aliases created in the Font Substitutes section of WIN.INI by Windows. Monotype sells Arial in reduced character sets, such as Arial CE, Arial WGL, Arial Cyrillic, Arial Greek, Arial Hebrew, Arial Thai. Arial glyphs are also used in fonts developed for non-Latin environments, including Arabic Transparent, BrowalliaUPC, Cordia New, CordiaUPC, Miriam, Miriam Transparent, Monotype Hei, and Simplified Arabic.

Helvetica’s language variant includes Cyrillic version and Helvetica Greek. Other variants include Helvetica Light, Compressed, Textbook, Inserat, Rounded, Narrow, Neue Helvetica, Neue Helvetica W1G and Helvetica World.

References

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"Arial vs Helvetica." Diffen.com. Diffen LLC, n.d. Web. 3 Dec 2016. < >