How We Built Britain… With Arial!?

Last week The Art Of The Title Sequence featured the opening sequence for How We Built Britain, the landmark BBC One show that aired over June and July 2007. The six-part television series was written and presented by David Dimbleby, and gave a revealing insight into the British character through the extraordinary landscape of Britain’s buildings.

Travelling around the country to the different regions, David told the dramatic stories of how one particular period of architecture gave each region its unique character. In the course of the series, he explored the buildings that define a nation, which grew out of the experiences and beliefs of the British people – from the half-timbered villages of Shakespeare’s England to the dramatic mills and mansions of the Victorian North, and the cathedrals and manor houses of medieval East Anglia.

The quality of the opening sequence on YouTube is quite low, so I recommend you view the version on The Art Of The Title Sequence.
The title sequence recreates a journey through Britain in 30 seconds, inserting imaginary letter shaped buildings in the landscape. Each letter represents a different architectural style, and are combined to form the word “Britain” in the final title card. It is a beautiful and very convincing production, were it not for one major flaw – why on earth did they use Arial!? Fair enough, it was designed by Robin Nichols and Patricia Saunders for Monotype, so technically it is British, but the roots of this poor man’s Helvetica are undeniably Swiss. I wish they had gone for a quintessential British typeface like Gill Sans, whose Heavy or Extra Bold weight do exactly what Arial does, but so much more elegantly. P22 Underground/ITC Johnston are also potential candidates, yet they have no sufficiently heavy weights to accommodate the volumes of the buildings. Now that limp leg on the R sadly mars the sequence, and that is a real shame.

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  1. I think it’s Frutiger in boldface, not Arial, but it’s hard to tell.

    Posted by Conrado on Dec. 5, 2009
  2. I’m pretty sure it’s Arial, but even if it were Frutiger it would’ve been a better type design, but still the wrong origin, as Frutiger is about the Swissiest typeface there is.

    Top to bottom: Arial Black, Frutiger 75 Black, Frutiger 95 Ultra Black
    Top to bottom: Arial Black, Frutiger 75 Black, Frutiger 95 Ultra Black

    Posted by Yves Peters on Dec. 6, 2009
  3. For the most part, I like sans-serif uppercase ‘R’s but arial’s is just ugly. The leg starts off narrow, then forces itself wider. Particularly for a show on buildings with quite an epic score I slightly more solid R would be nicer.

    Just read over the article and I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks the arial R is weak.

    Gill or even something as simple as Transport?

    Posted by Youssef Sarhan on Dec. 6, 2009
  4. Sometimes I just can’t believe that in the big places (bureaus, studios, whatever) where that kind of stuff is made there’s nobody able to give some advice in typography. And I’m not talking about little mistakes, but huge ones. E.G, the 1930s newspapers with titles set in Verdana in Pixar’s Up. C’mon, there’s all kind of geeks in there, but not a single type-geek?

    Posted by Matias on Dec. 6, 2009
  5. do you find the cap R on meta a bit weak too? it’s one of the only things i don’t like about it. yet in meta serif it looks wonderful!

    Posted by Simon Robertson on Dec. 7, 2009
  6. I find this post and the comments a bit elitist. Isn’t it enough that the project overall is actually quite lovely, and very well crafted? What is gained by this continued Arial-bashing?

    I mean, it’s not like they used Curlz, or Comic Sans. Jeez.

    Posted by Luc on Dec. 7, 2009
  7. It’s not elitist, Arial is crap, a rip off, a spurious version of Helvetica. And I think that’s what should bother, regardless of the “non-british” origin of Arial. Is there a way to convey the spirit of a nation in a typeface? I don’t think so. Abstract forms can’t do that.

    Posted by Conrado on Dec. 7, 2009
  8. Ha! To the comment posted by Conrado above: If you reveal such pathetically ignorant claims like those, please be prepared to deal with some nasty responses down the road that put you in your place and shut you down successfully with ease. Sorry, design professional and all, you still have a lot to learn (or at least let go of).

    Oh, and by the way, I read into the project slightly differently, possibly less myopically. While I think Arial may not have been the best choice, the point was not necessarily to match British architecture and construction with a uniquely British typeface, rather it was to juxtapose classical and vernacular architecture with modernity and forward-movement (think the final image of a car driving along an open road). Choosing any well-designed contemporary, ubiquitous typeface would do the job, so long as it portrays strength and success. While graphically there are other fonts that could have been better suited, Arial black was a good choice in that it definitely represents ubiquity and success. A slightly narrow crotch on the “R” is barely important in this case.


    Posted by DHD on Dec. 7, 2009
  9. Hey, come on! It’s just my opinion – which I consider “less myope” as well. You say Arial represent success? Well, I say it doesn’t. Who is right? You can’t be so assertive, typography doesn’t allow it.

    Posted by Conrado on Dec. 8, 2009
  10. Luc, I wouldn’t say we are elitist, this is a font blog, it’s normal to talk shop.

    Posted by Youssef Sarhan on Jan. 1, 2010
  11. dhd is an arse of course.
    an awful choice of fonting. that r looks more like an embarrassed p forced to play even though he had a note from his swiss mum.
    great execution of the idea for the title sequence though.

    Posted by sahman papa on Jan. 4, 2010
  12. Just wanted to let readers know that we updated our “How We Built Britain” piece yesterday with an interview with designer Gareth Edwards.

    Full interview here:

    Posted by Ian Albinson on Jan. 5, 2010

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