It happens enough that I should mention it. I berate Arial and praise Helvetica. And someone asks how I tell them apart. I usually have an unhelpful answer.
But, it’s a fair question. How does a non-designer tell the difference from Arial and Helvetica? And why do designers so frequently laud Helvetica and disparage Arial?
I’ll make no attempt to answer the question of why designers tend to like Helvetica more than Arial, as I think that will become self-evident by answering the former question.
The non-designers guide to distinguishing Arial from Helvetica
The two typefaces are admittedly similar. Indeed, if the only word you see is LOW, set in all caps, most people—even experts—may have a problem distinguishing. However, if Helvetica really is so much better, there must be objective ways to visually distinguish it.
I have heard precious little about what the actual differences are without going a bit overboard with computer font licensing history and designer-speak. So this is my attempt to show the important differences in a way that anyone can understand (I’m trying to not use terms like counters, tittles, ascenders and such).
Whenever I see text that is set in one of these fonts, I can usually discern Arial or Helvetica by using one of three tests. I call them the (1) subjective beauty test, (2) the character test and the (3) the horizontal movement test.
The subjective beauty test
This one is fairly simple, and probably the least valuable. Look at the two words below. Which one is ugly? That’s Arial.
The character test
The character test is probably the most precise of the three. But it requires recognizing specific characteristics of each typeface and remembering which one is which. So it can be tricky for someone who doesn’t look at typefaces day in and day out. Some obvious ones to me are the upper-case R, the lower-case t, and the upper case G.
Helvetica’s uppercase R has an elegant junction. The upper half of the R seems to follow the curves of the uppercase B. Arial’s, by contrast, is a bit weird.
The uppercase G in Helvetica has a down stroke.
The lowercase t in Arial has an angled ascender (top part). Helvetica does not have an angled, well, anything.
Which leads me to…
The horizontal movement test
The last test is probably the most important and the easiest. This is what really differentiates the two typefaces. Helvetica has very strong horizontal lines. The terminals (end of the strokes) are almost all on either a horizontal or vertical line. This gives Helvetical a more geometric “feel.” Arial’s strokes typically end with angles, creating less horizontal movement.
That is not to say that all typefaces with these characteristics are bad. But this is a major reason why Helvetica is admired by typographers and designers, and Arial is not. This is why Helvetica works so often when Arial doesn’t. This is why they make feature-length documentaries about Helvetica, and not Arial.
In any case, it’s best observed in illustration below.
And that, is the best way I know to tell the two typefaces apart.