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Helvetica, Arial, and All the Shit in Between

Friday, October 7, 2011

Seems like my almost-a-week-old tweets created quite a disturbance in a fraction of the local design world. Understandable, I’m not exactly the guy who opted for a more diplomatic language in my tweets, that’s just me. And also understandable that while many are called designers, not everyone was privileged (nor have the will to) study history of the field they’re working in. Hence this post as my explanation.

The tweet started as a response of the new Kereta Api Indonesia logo, a result of a logo contest (I am against these types of contests, but this is open for discussion in some other time). A friend asked me how would I responded in the new logo. I was outside, with only my phone, I Googled it, and this article came up as the top result that day:

KAI

The logo was set in Arial. I loathe Arial, not because of its looks, but because of its history and conception (I will get in to this later on). In response to a question my friend asked, I tweeted this:

Logo KAI baru menurut gue: Lumayan, itu juga kalo ngga pake Arial. Desainer tolol mana ini yang milih Arial as a first choice?

This tweet resulted in my other two tweets, which I will also explain later in this article. Note that the following two tweets doesn’t exactly relate. After a while, another friend of mine told me that the real one wasn’t set in Arial, as he explained in his tweet:

This is definitely Arial, like pointed out by @bellamy. But, I think it could be the vendor’s mistake. You know.

And yes, it was apparently set in Gill Sans as it is now available on their website, which in turn affected my first tweet. I wanted to set the record straight and found out many hours afterwards that the tweet in question is posted in draft. I cynically thanked my mobile provider. The tweet was this:

Apparently the KAI logo was actually set in Gill Sans. The trophy messed it. My apologies. But this doesn’t change the other two tweets.

It seemed that reposting this wasn’t relevant that day, and yes, that was my mistake, and I should’ve posted it to correct my observation despite the irrelevant time gap. Some people criticized me for not researching it thoroughly before tweeting. Fine, that’s your opinion, I respect that.

There we have it, about my first tweet. Now on to the second and third tweets.

The Typeface Called Arial

As a response to my first tweet, and as a reminder to fellow designers (that hopefully understands what I’m tweeting about), my second and third tweets were these:

Kalo pilihan type pertama desainer itu Arial, berarti: Dia seleranya rendah, serendah PC yang dipakenya & pengetahuan tipografinya cetek.

Gue ngerti sih kalo orang awam milih Arial. Tapi kalo loe ngaku desainer, ya mungkin baiknya loe sekolah lagi, atau ganti profesi.

Arial & HelveticaHarsh? Hey, I never said that I wasn’t, again, that’s just me, and I don’t think people that know me are surprised either. But do I hate Arial? Yes, I do. But I don’t hate things without a reason. For example, I hate that current local Japanese cars are getting lower in terms of build quality. I don’t hate the actual Japanese brand, but I’m disappointed when they could do better, they opted for a lazy “solution for the masses”. Being a designer, I’m educationally trained to be critical, to be precise, to be thorough, and to provide the BEST solutions for my clients. I didn’t say that I can do all of those 100% every single time, but that is what I aimed for. And personally as a designer, I believe that a good typeface is the key to good communication. This is exactly why, I read the history behind the world’s most ubiquitous typefaces. This includes Helvetica, Futura, Garamond, and of course, Arial, among others. And they didn’t have this book around for nothing.

Some regarded me as a Helvetica fanboy. While everybody’s entitled to their opinion, that is an assumption. I never said that. If I were a Helvetica fanboy, I wouldn’t be using DIN for this website’s wordmark, or a custom typeface for Neuro-Designs‘ logo. In fact, I rarely use Helvetica nowadays because there are always a thousand other different typefaces to pick from. So, I’m a Helvetica fanboy? Besides, being a fanboy for a single typeface is ridiculous. A typeface has its own character, and you can’t simply replace Garamond with Frutiger and get away with the same result.

In the case of Arial, I thoroughly understand that Arial is now more ubiquitous than Helvetica itself. Add the fact that piracy thrives in Indonesia, and you probably doubled that chance. Everybody uses Windows (pirated or not), everybody doesn’t know Helvetica, everybody knows Arial instead, and it became everyone’s favorite sans-serif typeface.

But have you read the actual history behind the conception of Arial?

Here is an article I found that explains the history about Arial in an easily and digestable way. It is 10 years old, but still relevant to this day. And here is another one that is newer, and it is as relevant as the first one, although it is written from a different angle and I don’t agree all the way with his opinion that Helvetica is a rip-off of Akzidenz Grotesk. Go ahead, spend some time reading those articles, and process it.

Now, is Arial actually a rip-off of Helvetica? In the essence of all things design, no. But why do I call it a second-grade Helvetica copy? Because in the essence of its historical past, you can say that it is. This is the reason not many know about.

Arial was born under the condition that Microsoft needed a typeface that is as ubiquitous as Helvetica (which was used by the Macintosh at that time), but without the licensing fee. To get around that, they turned to Monotype to have a similar typeface designed. It is true that parts of Arial was based on Monotype Grotesque, but instead of Monotype Grotesque, the glyph widths are nearly identical to Helvetica. Why? Why not just make an entirely new typeface? Well if so then you can’t simply replace all Helvetica-based documents with Arial and get away with it. To be a perfect type replacement, it needs to be in a similar glyph width with the one it replaces.

If Arial is bad for being a clone of Helvetica, shouldn’t Helvetica be bad for being developed to compete with Akzidenz Grotesk? No. The key difference here is that Helvetica was developed as a competitor to Akzidenz Grotesk, but Arial was born just to avoid licensing fees. This issue has been long discussed, and you can find references on this in Wikipedia, in various articles (like the ones above), in the Helvetica documentary movie (which you can see the clip below), and in Erik Spiekermann’s blog (he is one of the greatest type designers, in case you don’t know).


Clip of Erik Spiekermann’s interview on Arial, in the Helvetica documentary. Jump to around 3:56 to specifically see that part.

This is why I think that Arial is such a low-esteemed typeface with low taste. Not entirely from a design standpoint, but more from of a historical standpoint. I’m sure you designers don’t like the feeling when someone plagiarizes your work without credit.

But why do I have to call the (so-called) “designers” to have such a low taste when using Arial? Because designers should know better. If you use typography to reflect your work, then study it, know the history, appreciate the type designers, and appreciate what they intended those typefaces to be. If we are designers, the entities who are supposed to be the solution-giver to people’s problems, the ones who are supposed to upscale the design of their clients, then why do we settle for a typeface that has a long shady history? Is this how we supposed to give solutions to clients that trusted you to give them a bang for every single penny they pay you with? If so, then apparently all designers are assholes, because with that logic, there are no difference between designers and fake Tag Heuer manufacturers. We simply brought our clients along as victims in a cloud of mediocre design decisions. As a good friend of mine said:

Understanding typography is not about always having the ‘superior’ face, but understanding of not opting for the ‘inferior’ one.

And I think he nailed that description better than I do. Besides, everyone’s entitled to their own opinion. You can mock me behind my back, hey, whatever makes you happy, as I can also mock you behind your back. Then we can call it even.

PS: You might imagine why my site is rendered in Arial in your PC. I set the default body type to just “sans-serif”. Too bad then, apparently that’s your PC’s default sans serif typeface, not mine. I could use @font-face for that, but then you’ll probably complain it’s slower to load. Accessibility rules suck, don’t they? Maybe.

PPS: And no, this is not why my Twitter account is now protected. You simply assume too much and thought that all of my actions are related to the things you said. And no, I don’t have to share the reason to you.

Image credit: Inilah.com and Wikipedia

Update

As promised before, I wanted to post the update on this matter. For the past few days, I’ve been discussing with Dwi Sasongko (and Farid Stevy as well, indirectly), Dimas, and Singgih about this matter. And I want to clear them up. Sorry that the update couldn’t be any sooner than this.

First of all, regarding Farid’s logo. Dwi stated in his email that the reason everyone’s outraged is because of my poor choice of words. “TOLOL”, to be exact. I must admit, that is not the best word I have, and Dwi said it hits him because Farid is a close friend, he designed the logo, and well, you know the rest. So here’s his email, and my reply to him, which he wanted me to put in public domain:

Hi Bellamy,

Let me clarify this.

I have no issue with that when I tweeted that the main reason of the “war” is the word “TOLOL”. I just simply tweet and you freely interpret the way you want, and assume that you were right. Well, that’s up to you. I don’t have to explain further.

I have read your blog post and have followed your conversation with Dimas. I do respect you as professional designer who have idealism and you do respect history and value it so very much. I also do respect your opinion on whatever subject.

Those are not my issue at all. Seems your blog post “just” to clarify that you are not font or typeface fanboy. Sure you aren’t.

People around me still think that you ran away after saying “TOLOL” to the designer who use Arial. That’s what people understand.

Are people too stupid? No. Do people ignore your explanation? Mostly yes. They do not care for further explanation. In this point, you are the joke.

For me personally, I felt insulted when you said that designer who choose Arial as a first choice is TOLOL. People will think “who do you think you are, Bellamy, to judge people like that?”

Farid and Dimas are my closest friend, at that time Aulia bashing about the process of creation of the logo to Farid, everyone felt insulted. Still the same, Who do you think you are?

FYI, Farid got the information that he won the contest back in the middle of August after very pertinent selection by judges from DKV ITB and professional designers. When it was announced, the logo has passed many steps to make it public legally. It has patent, it has certificate of originality, etcetera.

So, this information is known in our circle (farid,dimas,ckncp,me) and when you said that word, we laughed our asses off.

Dwi,

I think your response is fair enough, I respect that thoroughly. But there are some bits that I chose not to write in my blog:

First, I did say the designer was an idiot when I looked at that trophy photo I found in inilah.com. The logo itself were great, it is professionally made, I can see that, and by far it’s probably one of the best logos our government could have, thanks to Farid. The reason I bashed the “designer” because I thought that was it, I did not see the actual logo until Sigit pointed me that it was actually Gill Sans. Before that, I thought it could be just some guy in a printshop that coincidentally made a logo that good, called himself a designer, went away with Arial, and have it put on a trophy, and I certainly did not think it was Farid. That was my mistake, hence the apology tweet that did not get sent, whatever the reason.

Second, I do believe that Farid would take that logo to his professionalism level. So I have no doubt that it was his best intentions to make the logo as good as it is, with all the necessary steps and patenting process. But I do regret that the trophy maker destroyed his work with a wrong typeface. I find that unacceptable. But I do understand that happens all the time. Even some of the logos I made was butchered when it is passed to different “designers” by our clients. It seems that I am just a bit too pedantic on this matter.

In any case, I hold no grudge on when people are tweeting to support Arial and so forth. Of course I’ll take that as a joke :) But I felt I needed to clear up things with you, especially after seeing your tweet. If you’re insulted because I judge people, then I apologize, I certainly cannot expect everyone to feel the same way as I do. You have every right to do so.

So we both understand about the matter, as well as Farid. I certainly cannot expect everyone to take my tweets the way I think they do, so if anyone was offended by it, I apologize.

As for my discussion with Singgih, here’s the rundown. I initially took Singgih’s posts in Facebook and Twitter as a hostile act, but I decided to contact him personally and talk. Despite my initial judgement, to my surprise, Singgih is a very reasonable person. Too bad we have to get to know each other in bad circumstances, and not back then while we’re still in the same forum. Singgih, I think I owe you this one.

Singgih is upset because of practically the same reason with Dwi. But not because of Farid, but because of the entirety of designers that I called as “TOLOL”. Even if I say it’s not, that is what my tweets implied. Since we’re in the same industry, that’s the exact reason why he cannot accept my statement, because I called the others idiots. I can’t blame him for that. In fact, he is right. Long story short, I know why he’s upset and why he posted all those screenshots in Twitter and Facebook. And if anyone is offended because of my tweets with the same reason as Singgih, or even because of any reason, I apologize as well. I believe Singgih can clarify our previous late night conversation.

My tweets (or should I say, screenshots at this point) will always be there, I cannot take those back, because then I would be unfair to write all this without proof. It’s up to Singgih if he wants to take it down or not, he has every right to do so. If he decided not to take it down, then let that be a reminder for me. I hope this clears up everything.

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