That’s Arial Hot Shot: 5 Tricks for Spotting Helvetica in the Wild

by on 8th March 2012 with 17 Comments

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So you think you’re a pro at spotting typefaces eh? You’re a real type lover with at least one clever t-shirt dedicated to the cause of teaching the world to kern. You’ve seen the Helvetica documentary eight times and you love to walk around a crowded city with a superior smirk on your face, pointing out all the instances of Helvetica that you see.

The big problem with this, aside from the fact that you seem a little full of yourself, is that Helvetica can actually be pretty tricky to identify if you haven’t done your homework. I’m willing to bet that you’ve even pointed at Arial (gasp!) a time or two and boldly proclaimed it to be Helvetica! Save yourself the embarrassment and learn some great tricks for spotting the most ubiquitous font on the planet.

Don’t Believe Me?

The real pros are chuckling to themselves at this point. There’s no way that you could ever mistake Arial for Helvetica right? You’ve been a designer since before computers even came on the scene and you’re perfectly capable of telling two of the most popular sans-serifs apart. Well hold on to your descenders because this image may just prove you wrong.

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One of these is Helvetica and one is Arial. Can you confidently say which is which? If you’re that sure, leave a comment at the end of this article and let me know because I’m not telling!

Tip #1: The Straight Dope

Let’s start with what I find to be the most helpful initial giveaway that a typeface might or might not be Helvetica. Even when the letter shapes are largely identical, you can usually tell a lot from the end of the strokes, particularly the angularity.

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As you can see here, these two uppercase Cs look very different at this size. The curves and weights are very similar, but the way the letter comes to an end is telling you a lot about what you’re seeing. So which one is Helvetica?

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As you can see, Arial slants the end of its strokes while Helvetica keeps them straight. As I said above, this is going to be one of your greatest tools for Helvetica spotting. This will come in handy on several letters, especially those that are lowercase.

With this knowledge in mind, you should be able to instantly tell which of the samples below is Helvetica and which is Arial.

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Tip #2: What’s Up G?

I’ve made it easy on you so far, only comparing Helvetica to Arial. Arial isn’t the only sans-serif around that looks like Helvetica though. In many cases it’s not even the closest. Here’s a much trickier test, can you find Helvetica in here?

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The way to begin your search in this case is to check out the bottom right of the G. Many sans-serifs, such as Arial, have a single stroke that flows from the bottom of the curve up into a sharp angle. The Helvetica G though is comprised of what appears to be two separate strokes, with the right side of the G containing a vertical line that extends down to the letter’s baseline.

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Some typefaces, such as “Microsoft Sans Serif,” more closely mimic the shape of the Helvetica G. However, another thing to look for is the curve on the inside of the letter.

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Notice how Helvetica makes the transition with one smooth curve while MS Sans Serif has a hard angle. With these hints in mind we can easily spot Helvetica in the gaggle of Gs that we had before.

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Tip #3: The Tell Tail

If there is a Q available in your sample of type, then you’ve got another good potential hint for whether or not its Helvetica. Consider the following:

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As you can see, the tails on the Qs can differ pretty significantly even in otherwise similar fonts. Once again, we see Helvetica staying on the straight and narrow path, letting the others attempt to differentiate themselves with little quirks.

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Arial takes the squiggly approach while Verdana marches off on its own with a curvy tail that doesn’t encroach upon the counter of the Q.

Tip #4: A Pirate’s Favorite Letter

Let’s face it, Qs are hard to come by if you’re looking at random signage. Rs on the other hand, are quite plentiful and can be just as helpful in your Helvetica spotting journey. Check it out:

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Given what we’ve already learned about Helvetica typically utilizing straighter strokes, you might be tempted to think that the uppercase R on the right is Helvetica, but you’d be wrong. Helvetica is actually the typeface with the more pronounced curve this go around.

However, when we look at the lowercase r, the opposite is true. The bend at the shoulder of the Arial r is a bit more pronounced than that of the Helvetica r.

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The easy giveaway here that we already discussed is the end of the strokes. Notice how the Helvetica r ends with a straight line while the Arial r has a slant.

Tip #5: Fonzie’s Favorite Letter

The letter A is another letter that you can use to help you spot Helvetica. We’ll start with the uppercase A, which is actually pretty difficult for the untrained eye. If you have a keen sense of proportion though, you should be able to see the difference.

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As you can see, these two letters are extremely similar. There are some differences though. For starters, the one on the left has a slightly wider base. The thing that my eyes are always drawn to though is the fact that the apex of the Arial A is quite ugly. The little negative space triangle at the top extends just a tad too far, making it feel pinched when compared to the Helvetica version.

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While the uppercase As might be very similar, the lowercase versions are so different that even an amateur should be able to see where they vary.

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As you can see, there are quite a few points of interest here. The one on the left curves out at the bottom while the one on the right points downward. There are some other key differences as well, can you see them?

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Once again Arial is giving itself away with those slanted lines. Also of note is the smooth curve above the bowl in Helvetica where Arial has a sharp corner.

Conclusion

Congratulations! You are now qualified to be “that guy.” You know, the incredibly annoying one who goes around pointing out Helvetica while his friends roll their eyes and wish he would go back to his desk and continue to silently scoff at the use of Verdana in the IKEA catalog. I have given you incredible power, do everyone a favor and try to use it for good and not evil.

If you have any other great tricks for spotting Helvetica in the wild, we want to know! Leave a comment below and share your wisdom.

Comments & Discussion

17 Comments

Comments & Discussion

17 Comments

  1. Ejaz says:

    A very good article Joshua, In “HELLO” the 2nd one is Helvetica. Actually, this word is 99.9% identical but I think Helvetica is little bit thick.

  2. Dan says:

    The first HELLO is Arial. The O gives it away. Ever so slightly.

  3. Adonis Raul Raduca says:

    The First HELLO is Arial, The O and also te E, in the Arial case the last horizontal bar of the E is a little loger

  4. Paul says:

    In the Hello example I have to say I like Arial more than Helvetica :D

  5. Ryan says:

    What’s a helvetica?

  6. sedasa says:

    Great article! I’m one of those amateurs who always wonders, “Hmm this looks like it could be Helvetica…is it?” Really great pointers – thanks for sharing! :D

  7. Robin Cannon says:

    Great piece. As well as highlighting the differences, also highlights why it’s a little silly to get overly wedded to a typeface. The very fact that Helvetica is so difficult to identify demonstrates that being a “Helvetica fan boy” seems unproductive. When even experienced designers don’t always get it right, 99% of people won’t notice a great deal of difference in a design that uses Helvetica and another than uses Arial. That’s not to say that Helvetica isn’t a great font, and hugely influential, but I think there’s an excessive amount of Helvetic puritanism in the design industry.

  8. Cat says:

    Super awesome post! Perfect for designers like me who want to get super savvy with typography and fonts! I bet I’m gonna see Helvetica EVERYWHERE now…lol

  9. Ronald says:

    How could one one say 99% of people won’t notice the difference between just right and just wrong? Sure, many can’t tell when asked, but on the deeper level Helvetica brings up so much more symmetrics, aesthatics and shape value that it’s mindblowing. Don’t be that sloppy and just don’t think light about typography and it’s effects on your audience.

  10. Ander says:

    That guy?

    It’s really depressing to read articles about design or development that default people in this industry to male. I know it likely wasn’t intentional but the subconscious assumption of who you’re talking to is exactly what’s upsetting, and it’s a pretty prevalent thing on blogs like this.

    I can attest to the fact that there are annoying typophiles of all genders.

  11. Joshua Johnson says:

    Ander, some of the best designers I know are female… but sometimes you just have to pick a pronoun :)

  12. karthik says:

    great read, Joshua. thanks for sharing :)

  13. Nico says:

    Oh fantastic, thats cool!

  14. Jay Jay says:

    Great article, it would be wonderful if you could do one on Gill Sans and Futura.

  15. Su Hall says:

    This is quite an entertaining article! I really enjoyed it. While I haven’t really given the subject much thought before, it is intriguing.
    Thank you for a great read!

    Su

  16. Nice Article Well explained. But i have a question here and i need suggestion. I am a web developer in a team when i develop i do get feedback from designers that change the font from Arial to Verdana. Change the size from 10 to 12 and similar feedbacks. I also want to learn what difference does that make. One i understand may be readability but is there a document a writing which i could also read and understand to use proper fonts and styles in my project from the beginning.

  17. Mikey says:

    Negative space is also a good way to spot Helvetica. It’s very organic and balanced and has very few harsh angles.

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