To Bold and Back: Shortcut to Trouble

Certain keyboard shortcuts are universal across programs (and often platforms), and many of these have become second nature, just tripping off our fingers without a thought: Command/Ctrl-s to save, Command/Ctrl-c to copy, or Shift-Command-b (Mac) or Ctrl-b (Windows) to shift between bold and regular-weight faces. But while that automatic finger twitch produces predictable results for the first two of these, toggling into and out of bold can lead you to unexpected places.

When you’re using a “nuclear” font family—one consisting of just four members: roman, italic, bold roman, and bold italic—using keyboard commands to shift among them always works. But in “extended” families, all bets are off, especially when you use them to shift between weights. The problem is that there is no industry standard for defining what these commands mean—bold compared to what?—and their results vary from family to family and foundry to foundry. Should using the command on Light make the type Regular weight? Should using it on Semibold create Bold? How about switching between Bold and Extra Bold, or between Extra Bold and Black? There’s no way to know in advance how a particular family will behave.

How and when the bold and italic commands work depends on how a font manufacturer has defined the relationships among members of a font family, and these definitions are written into the code of every typeface in the family. These definitions dictate how bold and italic commands will affect type formatted with each family member. It’s quite conceivable, then, that two manufacturers can license the same type design from, say, ITC, and create font families whose members behave differently when the bold and italic commands are applied to them.

Figure 1 shows a situation typical in an extended but not extensive font family. Here, applying the bold command to non-Bold text—either Light or Regular—makes that text Bold.

Figure 1: Using the bold command—indicated here by (+B)—on either the Light or Regular weight of Monotype Gill Sans applies the Bold font to the type. Applying the same command to Bold text, though, does not act as a simple toggle: the text will be switched to Regular, even though it may have started out as Light before the bold command was first used on it.

As Figure 1 shows, the results of the command are dictated by the relationships among weights as defined in the fonts, not by any retained memory of how now-bold type once looked.

In addition, those weight relationships—what becomes what—often vary by no logic other than how vendors have packaged sets of fonts for sale together. For example, although they’re sold individually now, members of Monotype’s Gill Sans family have also been sold in subsets, and the weight relationships are often logical only within these sets. In addition to the six-member set shown in Figure 1, Monotype has also sold a four-face package of Gill Sans fonts consisting of Book and Heavy and their italics. Applying the bold command to Gill Sans Book yields Gill Sans Heavy and vice versa. How these fonts have been marketed, then, has had an influence on how the bold command works for individual faces, at the expense of a holistic approach that takes the entire family into consideration. Many fonts from large families that have been sold in partial-family subsets like this are prone to such inconsistencies.

Figure 2 shows another example of the unpredictability of the results of using the bold command. Here, two Adobe font families containing the same weights behave in two different ways.

Figure 2: Applying the bold command to Adobe Warnock gets you Warnock Bold, jumping over the semibold weight. But applying the same command to Adobe Garamond gives you Semibold.

Often, there simply aren’t any such prescribed links among some fonts within a single family. When using bold commands in these cases—such as applying bold to Warnock Semibold—nothing happens. This may be disappointing, but at least it’s not confusing. In many very large families, the bold command only works only to switch between regular (or text) and bold weights, and in other situations, it does nothing.

Problems arise when the toggling effect of this command are not symmetrical; that is, where applying the command twice to the same text does not have the effect of a simple “undo.” In certain families, this can become insanely complicated, as shown in Figure 3. Neue Helvetica is the only family I’ve found in which a simple switch to italic can also involve a weight change, or where a weight change can result in a switch from a condensed to a normal-width font. (Stickler’s note: Linotype’s official name for this family is Neue Helvetica, but it’s often identified as Helvetica Neue to make it show up in a more alphabetically appropriate position in your Font menus.)

Figure 3: The logic of how font-switching commands work when using Neue Helvetica may not be obvious at first glance. No matter what non-Bold font you start from, the bold command will always bring you to the Bold or Bold Italic version. If you start from the Bold Roman or Bold Italic font, you’ll always end up with a Regular weight version. Logical, perhaps; useful, perhaps not.

A principal danger in such situations is when asymmetrical font switching delivers a face that could easily be confused for another. Helvetica Regular and Helvetica Medium are a case in point. Particularly on screen, it would be easy to set one inadvertently instead of the other, relying on those well-trained fingers of yours to automatically make the quick “fix” to return bold to text weight. A classic deadline-crunch nightmare.

It would be more useful if the standard bold commands were not constructed in the traditional toggle or back-and-forth way. A superior system, I think, would be to have the bold command bump up the weight of the type by one degree within the font family. Text formatted in Light might become Regular the first time the command is applied; Semibold the second time; Bold the third time; and Extra Bold the fourth time. An alternate command would step you back in the opposite direction, weight by weight. If there were eight weights in the family, it would take seven applications of the command to step from one extreme to the other. You’d have to keep an eye on the tool bar to see exactly which weight you’d applied, but in the anarchic system that rules today, you have to do this anyway. Such a step-by-step system couldn’t be more confusing than the status quo.

Keyboard shortcuts are great time savers, but not if they’re going to introduce errors. So before embarking on any job, make sure you understand the behavior of the font families you plan to use. This is true even if you rely on applying styles for the lion’s share of your text formatting. During editing or revising, it’s all too easy to rely on your reflexes—double-click, Ctrl-B—instead of making the slower, safer trip to the tool bar to pick just the font you want.


Posted on: February 6, 2013

James Felici

James Felici has worked in the publishing industry—in both editorial and production—for more than 30 years. A veteran journalist and former managing editor of Publish magazine, he has set type by hand as well as on systems from IBM, Linotype, Compugraphic, CCI, and Magna. His books include The Complete Manual of Typography (Peachpit Press), The Desktop Style Guide (Bantam/ITC), How to Get Great Type Out of Your Computer (North Light), and contributions to The Macintosh Bible (Peachpit Press). He has written for numerous publications, including PC World, Macworld, and The Seybold Report, and has been a featured speaker at Seybold Seminars, Macworld Expo, and other events worldwide.

7 Comments on To Bold and Back: Shortcut to Trouble

  1. Hi Jim! Useful article!

    I understand your suggestion to make a multi-weight font jump up one thickness level when making it bold. However, I think the logic when they created those font families was that the next level up may not be “bold” enough to be visibly useful. Instead, they tend to jump two levels or more (depending on how many weights there are).

    Just a bit of explanation for you to chew on. 😉

  2. I find that in InDesign on my system (PC), CTRL+B will only toggle between Roman and bold. If I have selected a non-roman face, such as a light or demi, it does nothing. Ditto for italics. The upside being that I have been forced to get in the habit of selecting the font I want manually, rather than use shortcuts. For what it’s worth…

  3. All the foregoing is good reinforcement for using Character Styles instead of old direct formatting keyboard shortcuts. OTOH, I also wish the shortcut progressed more sensibly thru the family weights.

    Mike Witherell in Maryland

  4. Good article, but I don’t think local font overrides are necessarily the best method (‘the slower, safer trip to the tool bar’). I think setting up your own shortcuts to char and para styles is much more gooderer.

  5. I’ve always been told that using keyboard shortcuts for bolding, etc. is verboten by printers. They require actual font selection to achieve accurate results for the print order. E.Thomas

  6. I just got back from traveling to find all your comments waiting. It’s true that character and paragraph styles, when consicentiously applied, are the way to go to assure consistency and accuracy. But for those one-off or quick jobs, keyboard shortcuts are still useful. (Or possibly they’re just a very old habit I can’t kick.)
    The inconsistent results the shortcuts in these instances result are something we’ll just have to be aware of and live with. At least I can’t see a logical way out of the current situation. Even if the Bold command logically increased the weight of a typeface by one step (and some other related command reduced it, instead of relying on the toggle effect), what would happen if you didn’t have all the weights available within a family? Would the command call the next bolder weight into effect no matter what it was? Would it simply do nothing if the next heavier weight weren’t available? It’s a head-scratcher.
    The system was designed in a simpler time, and the point of the article was that while still handy, the Bold toggle command can produce problems when using large font families. Speaking of simpler times, this reminds me of a conversation with the product manager for Apple’s LaserWriter Plus back in the early 80s, with its half-dozen or so four-member font families built in. When I asked whether the printer would have memory for downloadiing additional fonts, he replied, puzzled, “Who would want more fonts than what’s already in there?”

  7. I am so annoyed at having to go to select the tiny font style menu from among the entire monitor of Illustrator tiny menus to simply make something Bold. It’s amazing to me that people that use Illustrator for text-intensive purposes, as I used to years ago, haven’t revolted.

    Great job laying out the challenges to keyboard bolding, there were some things there that I didn’t know. And I wish Adobe would implement your +1, -1 degree of bolding idea, that would be great. (Especially if you could set it to default to +2, -2, which is a more standard weight differential.)

    In the meantime, I wish that Cmnd-B would just jump it up two weights, as it once did, from whatever my base weight is. If there’s no such weight available, Adobe could ignore it instead of providing non-printable faux weights, or provide them but highlight them as invalid.

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