To Boldly Go . . . Or Is It Italically?


Your basic typeface family consists of four members: roman, italic, bold roman, and bold italic. They may go by other names (I’ll hash that out in a future column), but this foursome has become standard. You might wonder why roman type is always followed around by these three secondary faces. Part of the answer is emphasis. The other part is advertising. This column will look at how to use these secondary faces and tricks in setting them.
There have always been various styles of type, derived mainly from handwriting styles. The marriage of Roman (as in Julius Caesar) capitals with Carolingian (as in Charlemagne) minuscules yielded our present-day upper- and lowercase alphabet, and these shapes have proven to be very adaptable.
Figure 1. Although the following faces were all designed in the 20th century, they closely follow designs from 15th-century Venice (Bembo), 15th-century England (Cloister Black), 16th-century Rome (Arrighi), and 17th-century France (Gando). Arrighi, created in 1925 as a standalone italic, has now been assigned the role of complement to Bruce Rogers’s 1914 Centaur and is sometimes even identified at Centaur Italic.

The Italian Connection
When commercial printing first took off at the end of the 15th century, an inclined, cursive writing style was very popular, and it soon found its way into printing fonts. Credit for this goes to Manutius Aldus, who commissioned Francesco Griffo to design the first of the humanist cursive types that we now identify as italic, so-called at the time simply because it came from Italy.
Printers could set italic type more tightly than roman, which saved paper, so for both economic and stylistic reasons italics were all the rage until the mid-16th century. Then roman types made a comeback and italics were relegated to being used for emphasis, which is the principal role they play today.
Although italics are often used for stylistic contrast — in picture captions, for example — their main use is for providing emphasis and clarifying the meanings of certain typeset words. And conversely, when you want to create emphasis in a passage of italic type, switch to roman.
For those of you who remember typewriters, use italics for all that stuff you used to underline. When setting type, there is generally no need to use underlines, or underscores.
The principal uses of italics are as follows:
• Titles of books and periodicals
• Names of works of art and musical compositions
• Names of films, plays, and TV shows
• Unusual terms introduced for the first time in a manuscript
• Definitions within a sentence (“Using the stick as a weapon is called slashing.”)
• Proper names of ships and aircraft
• Single letters referred to as letters (“an oddly shaped a.”)
• Words used as words (“I prefer the term cursive over italic.”)
• Foreign words and phrases that aren’t part of popular usage (use a dictionary to sort this out)
• Punctuation (periods, commas, colons, and semicolons) following matter set in italic
Italics are also often used as an editorial device to highlight what the author thinks is a particularly salient part of a text quoted from another source, an editorial emphasis that must always be acknowledged. Italics can change meaning — they’re not just typographic decoration — so they have to be used carefully.
Getting into a Family Way
Although italic types have long been used in these ways, the practice of designing an italic complement for a specific roman face only began in the 18th century. Many of the italics we see for revivals of older faces are in fact modern inventions, efforts to build families around faces that didn’t have them originally.
The word italic, by the way, does not necessarily imply slanted characters, and some very early italics were indeed vertical. Even today, the slant of italic faces varies widely, as seen below.
Figure 2. Rialto is nearly vertical. Didot is one of the more slanted of the italics, tilting at an angle of some 20 degrees.

The Bold Approach
If the role of italics is linguistic emphasis — to clarify meaning — the role of bold faces is graphic emphasis: to clarify page structures and text hierarchies. In editorial terms, bolds have no role. Instead, they’re often used for subheads, captions, and so forth. They’re visual cues, not clues to meaning.
It’s not uncommon, then, to set warnings and alerts in bold, where they might otherwise be overlooked. In an otherwise gray user’s manual it might be wise to set in bold the part about electrocution hazards. But again, this is a graphic signal — READ ME! — not an editorial device per se.
The problem with using bold faces in roles traditionally reserved for italics is that they’re too emphatic. They draw the eye on a page even when they shouldn’t. Literary emphasis should occur when the reader’s eye gets to that point on the line, not when the reader first turns the page. The matching color of roman text types and their italic complements assures this visual harmony.
Bold faces created as complements to text-weight romans are a fairly new development. Although bold types, including the bulbous “fat faces,” became popular for ads in the mid 19th-century, the practice of routinely designing them as parts of typeface families only took hold in the 20th century. This allowed entire ads to be set in a harmonious set of faces designed to be used together. The practice spread rapidly to publications, where bold weights are commonly used for display roles.
Figure 3. When fat faces first appeared in the 1820s, they were radical departures from normal type. They started a trend toward bold, eye-catching display type. Today they’ve become part of the mainstream, often appearing as extra-bolds, or ultra-bolds as shown here.

As for bold italics, use them with bold faces just as you’d use italics when setting with regular-weight roman faces. Most often, though, bold italics are used for display type and for layout contrast, as in subheads and caption lead-ins.
Bold Typesetting Issues
Setting type in italic and bold faces raises some problems you don’t have to face when setting regular old roman type.
The main problem with bold faces is their boldness. Their fat strokes tend make the negative spaces in and around the characters a bit pinched. When set in small sizes, counters (the “holes”) in characters such as e and a may plug with ink during printing, especially on cheap paper.
This is a common problem when using older faces that were designed for use on Linotype hot-metal composing machines. These marvels of engineering art shuttled around small molds for each character, and as the operator typed, these molds were arranged in lines and flooded with molten lead, casting whole line of type (line-o-type, get it?) in one piece. But because of the design of the machine, all the characters in secondary fonts had to have the same character widths as those in the roman font.
This made for pinched-looking bolds, such as Times Roman Bold. Typeface families designed during the digital font epoch don’t have this problem (or at least they shouldn’t). But you should still be careful when using bolds in small sizes.
Italic Typesetting Issues
Italic faces raise their own subtle typesetting problems. First, their characters tend to be a bit spidery, with the thin parts of their strokes often getting quite thin indeed. In small sizes, italic characters can break up during printing if the ink is applied too parsimoniously on the press. When printing plates are made from traditional films (instead of direct-to-plate imaging technology), underexposures will erode thin character features.
Just as ink-spread can plug counters in small bold type, it can cause italic type to break up if it’s set in reverse (white on black). That’s a good reason to avoid reversing italic type except in larger text sizes (say, 12-point) and display type. And while using blended colors to print type can make any text-size type look a bit murky, italic type takes a particular beating.
In terms of type composition, italics create easily overlooked problems because of their angle. Watch for these situations and use manual kerning to open up spaces when characters collide:
• italic characters followed by roman closing parentheses, brackets, or braces
• italic characters followed by roman question marks or exclamation points
• italic characters followed by roman quotation marks or apostrophes
• italic parentheses, brackets, and braces followed by roman characters
Figure 4. Bad things happen when italic and roman collide.

Italics are somewhat harder to read than roman types, mainly because we’re not used to reading long texts in italics. Readability studies indicate that when well-designed typefaces are used for printing books and magazines, people will read any familiar type style — roman, italic, fraktur — with equal facility if that’s what they’re used to seeing.
That said, because we’re not used to reading a lot of italics, try not to make them any harder to read than they already are. Avoid tight tracking at text sizes, for example, because it tends to make italic characters blur together. Likewise, over narrow measures, justified italic type tends to look worse than roman type; set it flush left when you can.
When I started this column, I was going to write about Unicode and finding the characters you want in fonts with large character sets. But the column kept threatening to become a book, and I gave up trying to rein it in. Would you be interested in tips on finding characters? If so, let me know and I’ll put my nose back to the grindstone. All other ideas for topics are also welcome, natch.

James Felici has worked in the publishing industry for over 30 years. He is the former managing editor of Publish magazine, and written for PC World, Macworld, and The Seybold Report. A renowned type expert, he is the author of The Complete Manual of Typography.
  • Anonymous says:

    I like the balance of thought you have given to the subject. Thanks!

  • Anonymous says:

    I like the balance of thought you have given to the subject. Thanks!

  • Anonymous says:

    With the ever increasing globalization and need to have access to international characters in this digital age, I think it is NECESSARY to have better understanding on how to access those characters. Also finding the “degree”, trademark, copyright and registered marks are also important. Please put that nose to the grindstone!

  • Bibona says:

    Yes, please put your nose to the grindstone. Would love to have help on access. It drives me crazy.

    Billie Brown
    Drama Dog Design

  • Anonymous says:

    Nice! Made me think a bit about face usage.

  • Anonymous says:

    It is refreshing to read an article that gives the “why” in addition to the “should.”

  • Anonymous says:

    I have always wondered what Unicode is.

  • Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the great post James. It’s interesting to know that “italic” comes from “Italy”.
    Please continue with a post about finding the characters in a charset.

  • d brugge says:

    I just hate it when ink is applied too parsimoniously!

  • felici says:

    O.K., Unicode it will be. There are already a couple of future columns in the hopper, but look forward to “more than you thought you’d have to know about Unicode” in a few weeks.

  • Anonymous says:

    “When setting type, there is generally no need to use underlines, or underscores.”

  • Anonymous says:

    Great series, amusing that the column before this purported to call “Old English” Blackletter, yet this column calls Cloister Black fraktur – that’s the nice thing about standards– there are so many of them :-)

  • Glen Schaefer says:

    How to make a font set to italic not darker or bold? I noticed many fonts used by Adobe Indesign set the text with a slight darker colour when italic. It’s annoying as I just want the words to be the same weight and colour as normal text.

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