When I look around the world that lies outside, I see many different things. One thing that stands out to me is signs. My eyes naturally scan the letters that are on the signs and, aside from just reading the words that they form, I also take note of the typeface that they use. Now there are thousands of different typefaces out there, so one can imagine how difficult it can be to pinpoint exactly which one they are looking at. What makes it even more difficult is the fact that many typefaces look the same; however, if one takes the time to notice and remember the slight differences between these typefaces, it will be easier to distinguish one from the other. One typeface may have longer ascenders than the other, or it might have a bigger x-height- whatever the difference is, it’s just a matter of knowing which characteristics to look for. For this post, I will compare the Arial typeface to Helvetica, and Gotham to Avenir.

For a more detailed look at terms and the anatomy of typography, please click here or here.

Helvetica was created by a Swiss typeface designer Max Miedinger in 1957. The motivation behind Helvetica, once called Neue Haas Grotesk, was to create a modern version of H. Berthold AG’s Akzidenz-Grotesk. The result is a typeface that is one of the most widely used today. From American Apparel to New York’s MTA, from Apple, Inc. to NASA, Helvetica has been used by a wide variety of well-known establishments in some way or form. Used for magazine ads to subway signs, Helvetica is seen by millions of people on an everyday basis. While it is praised for being the embodiment of simplicity and neutrality in a typeface, it is also often criticized for being over-used and bland. In the documentary Helvetica, graphic designer Wim Crouwel explains his liking for Helvetica:
“Helvetica was a real step from the 19th century typeface… We were impressed by that because it was more neutral, and neutralism was a word that we loved. It should be neutral. It shouldn’t have a meaning in itself. The meaning is in the content of the text and not in the typeface” (Wikipedia).

On the other hand, there are those like Bruno Maag, a type designer, who do not understand the hype: “…but if you start analysing it and going into the nitty gritty it is quite a horrendous font. It’s quite poorly crafted and has become completely overused. People go on about Arial and how awful it is, and Comic Sans, what an atrocity that is, why not the same about Helvetica? It’s often used wrongly too” (Creative Review).

Arial was created by a team of type designers led by Robin Nicholas and Patricia Saunders in 1982. It was created mainly for digital use but is also applicable to print: “Arial is an extremely versatile family of typefaces which can be used with equal success for text setting in reports, presentations, magazines etc, and for display use in newspapers, advertising and promotions” (Wikipedia).

Due to its striking similarity to Helvetica, most people often confuse the two or overlook the differences altogether. Because it looks so much like Helvetica, Arial is often looked-down upon as a knock-off version of it. The general consensus is, as Mark Simonson explains, that “Arial gets chosen because it’s cheap, not because it’s a great typeface.” Arial is used on many web sites as it is one the few web fonts available.

(The top characters are in Arial, and the bottom ones are in Helvetica)






The Gotham typeface is a rather new typeface. Commissioned by GQ in 2000 to make a sans-serif typeface, the American type foundry Hoefler & Frere-Jones looked to their surroundings for their source of inspiration. They paid attention to hand-made signs often seen in the city- from signs for cafes to names written on trucks. While the main emphasis of these signs was readability, Hoefler & Frere-Jones saw aesthetic features in them and incorporated it into the design for Gotham. Hand-made lettering is never quite the same, but Hoefler & Frere-Jones studied the signs they saw and picked out the underlying characteristics that the signs seemed to have. Through careful refinement of these characteristics, Gotham was born. As described by Hoefler & Frere-Jones, “From the lettering that inspired it, Gotham inherited an honest tone that’s assertive but never imposing, friendly but never folksy, confident but never aloof.”

Avenir was designed by Adrian Frutiger in 1988 as a geometric sans-serif typeface (Wikipedia). The inspiration stems from Futura and Erbar typefaces. Compared to Futura, Avenir has a softer appearance, is wider, and contains less angles. Commenting on his own creations, Frutiger writes, “Looking back on more than 40 years of concern with sans serif typefaces, I felt an obligation to design a linear style of sans serif, in the tradition of Erbar™, Futura®, and to a lesser extent Gill Sans®. These have purely constructed characters from which the element of a handwriting movement has been removed. Obviously this could not be an outstanding new creation, but I have tried to make use of the experience and stylistic developments of the 20th century in order to work out an independent alphabet meeting modern typographical needs.

Even though Avenir™ can be classified as a constructivist typeface, it does not have a purely geometric and linear drawing. The vertical stroke lengths have been reduced in order to make text setting more legible, on the well-established grounds that the human eye takes in horizontals more easily than verticals and tends to grasp the meaning of a line in a horizontal sweep.”

Avenir vs. Gotham:
(The top characters are in Avenir, and the bottom ones are in Gotham)