A for Arial

Here’s one for Ripley’s Believe It or Not: Arial was once called Sonoran San Serif.

How different would the user experience of Microsoft Word been if the name had not been changed? Would we even have known about Arial if it hadn’t been one of the very first fonts on offer in the drop-down menu?

Princess Ariel and Sebastian (© Disney Corporation) probably prefer Helvetica

Arial was designed in 1982 by Robin Nicholas and Patricia Saunders for the type foundry Monotype. It was first packaged for the personal computer with Windows 3.1 in 1992 (along with a much more important feature: Minesweeper). As a sans serif font, it also described as “grotesque” (for a meandering discussion on why fonts without serifs are called grotesque you can read my post on “The Serif”). Today, Windows people, I am reliably informed, prefer Calibri. I have no idea about this because I came into some money a decade ago, and have been a Mac and Scrivener user since then. However, I just did a quick check, and can confirm that the default font in Pages is Helvetica. Curiouser and curiouser, dear reader, for as we will soon find out, this is no random occurrence.

Windows 3.1’s Minesweeper

The typographer Mark Simonson recounts the evolution of the typeface in a wonderful entry in his online journal titled “The Scourge of Arial”. Simonson argues that Arial’s ubiquitousness is not due to its aesthetic quality but a reflection on the all-pervasive influence of Microsoft. In his opinion, Arial is “little more than a shameless impostor”, a cheap-low rent fake designed to mimic Helvetica. Scandal, Mr. Darcy!

Helvetica is one of the most influential typefaces of this century (more on that when this series gets to H for Helvetica). It was the default font of choice for graphic designers and it encapsulates the ethos of the age (it is still used widely in the art and fashion industries). D. Stempel AG and Linotype re-designed and digitised Neue Helvetica and updated it into a cohesive font family, so that it could be used for the revolutionary new computer typesetting machines. The demand for the typeface was manic.

This naturally lead to Linotype’s competitors attempting to muscle into the market through clones. According to Simonson:

“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.”

One of these attempts, to get in on the Helvetica madness, was by Monotype adapting its sans serif ‘grotesque’ family to its competitors exact specifications with minor tweaks: by producing a typeface design called Arial.

In 1982, Monotype had the contract to produce bitmap fonts for IBM’s first in-office printing machines: the 240-DPI 3800–3 laserxerographic printer, and the 600-DPI 4250 electro-erosion laminate typesetter.

The 4250 included Helvetica, which Monotype sub-licensed from Linotype. However, for the 3800–3, Monotype replaced Helvetica with Arial.

The hand-drawn Arial artwork was completed by 1982 at Monotype by a 10-person team led by Robin Nicholas and Patricia Saunders and was digitised by Monotype at 240 DPI expressly for the 3800–3. IBM named the font Sonoran Sans Serif due to licensing restrictions and the manufacturing facility’s location (Tucson, Arizona, in the Sonoran Desert), and announced in early 1984 that the Sonoran Sans Serif family, “a functional equivalent of Monotype Arial”, would be available for licensed use in the 3800–3 by the fourth quarter of 1984. (Source: Wikipedia/Arial)

When desktop publishing kicked off as a phenomenon in the ‘80s, Helvetica was important enough to be included in Adobe’s first PostScript page description language (along with Times, Courier, and Symbol). Adobe obtained a license from the original foundries and this was a wise choice by Adobe. In fact, they had not just licensed the most iconic typefaces, they wanted to ensure a complete dominance of the high-end market for digital fonts by ensuring that designers could only access these products through their proprietary technology. They did so, as Simonson describes it, by providing a twin-speed system: Type 1 fonts were the premium typefaces from the best foundries that one could only license through Adobe. Independent developers and designers could only publish Type 3 fonts, which was an inferior format. Type design is, after all, a very sophisticated (read: anal) art. Designers do care about every curve, shape, and line weight of a typeface and are willing to pay top dollar for those that provide satisfying results. Adobe knew this.

In 1989, Monotype produced PostScript Type 1 outline versions of several Monotype fonts, but an official PostScript version of Arial was not available until 1991. In the meantime, a company called Birmy marketed a version of Arial in a Type 1-compatible format.

As a response to the format challenge, Apple and Microsoft created their own page description languages that worked cross-platform. These were called TrueType and TrueImage respectively; but Apple’s TrueType was compatible with Adobe’s PostScript system, and later adopted by Microsoft. Now the market for type design for officially open.

In 1990, Robin Nicholas, Patricia Saunders and Steve Matteson developed a TrueType outline version of Arial which was licensed to Microsoft. In 1992, Microsoft chose Arial to be one of the four core TrueType fonts in Windows 3.1, announcing the font as an “alternative to Helvetica”. (Source: Wikipedia/Arial)

Experts like Mark Simonson were not won over by Monotype passing off Linotype’s Helvetica as “Arial”:

“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.”

However, in one regard, he may not be entirely correct: Microsoft’s cheapness in choosing Arial as a way to save money and avoiding license fees. The obvious contrast, in this story, is Apple with the better design sense, and will to pay more to provide Helvetica to its users as default. Matthew Carter notes that the deal was complex and was a financial helpline for Monotype, which was in financial difficulties. Microsoft would later extensively fund the development of Arial as a font that supported many languages and scripts. Former employees of Monotype claim that the amount of money Microsoft paid for the development of Arial could fund a small country. It would have been cheaper for them to license Helvetica.

So there you have it, the story of Arial: another aesthetically challenged crap business decision by Bill Gates. But I’m not complaining. Windows 3.1 had Minesweeper.



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Neel Dozome

Neel Dozome


I write about type history and books culture, with a particular interest in graphic novels. Can almost do a hand stand.