One of my clients recently decided Arial would be one of their brand fonts because “everyone has it.” They’re not the only ones that use that rationale. I get it. Sometimes it’s easier to just stick with what you know than to see what else is out there. But if your brand is in a relationship with the Arial typeface, you should break up. You can do better.
There’s nothing like a great typeface to help you craft a message. Fonts are like facial expressions—there’s a whole conversation contained in the way a font appears, before you ever read a word. As a reader, you react to type whether you know it or not, experiencing emotions, crafting perceptions.
The effect is easiest seen in a comparison:
Authoritative vs. innovative. Established vs. trendy. The subjective impressions we experience can be hard to nail down in words, but they’re real and powerful. And until the past few years, that power wasn’t readily available to interface designers. (and like almost every other designer, I was a little bitter about it.) These days, with the widespread support of web fonts, all that raw emotion is at your brand’s fingertips.
So, let’s talk about why Arial is just no good for you.
Arial Is Ubiquitous
Think about the implications of that. Until a few years ago, every site on the Internet used some combination of Arial, Times New Roman, and all the other “web-safe” fonts that came packed into the native OS of both Apple and Windows. That was the only choice, so they were everywhere.
If you want your website or application (and by extension, your brand) to look unique and differentiated—you must use fonts that haven’t made their way into everyone else’s site.
Arial Is Dated
Arial (and those other usual suspects) are as iconic to the 1990s as Vanilla Ice. When you use it in an interface, you’re opening a time capsule on your users’ screens, sending them back 20 years.
If you want your website or application to look sophisticated and current—you must use fonts that don’t carry as much historical baggage.
Arial Is Limited
You get two choices with Arial: bold and regular. Not much to choose from. Contrast that with the Source Sans font family from Adobe: it has quite a few more weights available: extra light, light, regular, semi-bold, bold, black… with italic versions of each of these. Adobe’s site says that in the brief for development of the Source Sans font, it was specifically designed “to be both legible in short UI labels, as well as being comfortable to read in longer passages of text on screen and in print.” Sounds good to me.
If you want to establish levels of hierarchy in text content, improve legibility, and finesse/polish appearance, you must choose a typeface flexible enough to meet your needs.
(Adobe’s Source Sans font.)
Arial Is Swiss-ish
Well, the Helvetica and Akzidenz Grotesk fonts are Swiss, anyway. And Arial is extremely similar in character. Now I don’t have anything against the Swiss—beautiful country, nice people. But Arial embodies the neutrality and efficiency of that country. Maybe that’s what you need in your brand or design, maybe not.
If you want your design to evoke something meaningful, you must choose a font with qualities that encapsulate what you want to convey.
Beyond pointing out the faults of the Arial font, there are a couple of attractive points about web fonts in general to keep in mind:
Web Fonts Are Inexpensive (or Free!)
The kind of flexibility described above is usually only available in typefaces that are extraordinarily expensive to purchase or license for the web (try pricing the Gotham font by Hoefler & co.). Source Sans, along with Open Sans, Lato, Roboto, and a number of others have multiple weights and are free to use online and in print, distributed by Google. Font Squirrel is another good free source. Typekit is extremely affordable, as are other pay-per-use vendors.
If you’re concerned about the ROI of your branding/marketing expenses (who isn’t?), you won’t find a better return than the brand-image value you get out of high-quality typefaces that also happen to be free or cheap.
Web Fonts Are Almost Universally Supported
Almost all browsers—even (partially) the usual thorn in a developer’s side, IE8—support the use of web fonts. They’ve been around long enough now that the newest versions, and in most cases several previous versions, can handle them.
If you’re concerned about providing a consistent experience, regardless of platform, you can feel good about relying on web fonts.
The Most Important Design Choice You’ll Make
If you’re a designer or brand manager trying to convince your stakeholders that Arial is the wrong way to go, I hope this helps. If you are that stakeholder, I hope you’re still reading. Regardless of your role, I hope you have success in choosing a typeface that meets the needs of your brand or interface. Don’t write it off as insignificant—I think it’s more important than any other design choice you’ll make.