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The Scourge of Arial

Arial is everywhere. If you don't know what it is, you don't use a modern personal computer. Arial is a font that is familiar to anyone who uses Microsoft products, whether on a PC or a Mac. It has spread like a virus through the typographic landscape and illustrates the pervasiveness of Microsoft's influence in the world.

Arial's ubiquity is not due to its beauty. It's actually rather homely. Not that homeliness is necessarily a bad thing for a typeface. With typefaces, character and history are just as important. Arial, however, has a rather dubious history and not much character. In fact, Arial is little more than a shameless impostor.

Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, one of the most popular typefaces in the western world was Helvetica. It was developed by the Haas Foundry of Switzerland in the 1950s. Later, Haas merged with Linotype and Helvetica was heavily promoted. More weights were added and it really began to catch on.

An icon of the Swiss school of typography, Helvetica swept through the design world in the '60s and became synonymous with modern, progressive, cosmopolitan attitudes. With its friendly, cheerful appearance and clean lines, it was universally embraced for a time by both the corporate and design worlds as a nearly perfect typeface to be used for anything and everything. "When in doubt, use Helvetica" was a common rule.

As it spread into the mainstream in the '70s, many designers tired of it and moved on to other typographic fashions, but by then it had become a staple of everyday design and printing. So in the early '80s when Adobe developed the PostScript page description language, it was no surprise that they chose Helvetica as one of the basic four fonts to be included with every PostScript interpreter they licensed (along with Times, Courier, and Symbol). Adobe licensed its fonts from the original foundries, demonstrating their respect and appreciation for the integrity of type, type foundries and designers. They perhaps realized that if they had used knock-offs of popular typefaces, the professional graphic arts industry—a key market—would not accept them.

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