If you can’t be Bold, be Italic.

If you’ve been doing page layout on a desktop computer for a while, you will remember one of the original pro applications, Aldus PageMaker. The one-time competitor to the mighty QuarkXPress, PageMaker (which became Adobe PageMaker in 1993 and later shelved by Adobe in favour of InDesign) eventually fell out of favour with designers who preferred QuarkXPress’ power and compatibility with high-end output providers and printers.

But I’m not writing today about the history of desktop publishing applications. I only mention PageMaker because it is likely more familiar to designers than its founding company name (and logo) named after 16th century printer, Aldus Manutius. The original Aldus was a proponent of getting the printed word into the hands of more people (much like the 20th century company). To do so, he used italic typefaces in order to fit more words on a smaller page. Over time, the italic form became commonly used to denote emphasis, as it is today. See Kern Your Enthuisiasm by Matthew Battles for details.

Quite often graphic designers need to add emphasis to a word or phrase. Selecting the italics style of a typeface is often adequate but many times the italic form either does not provide enough emphasis or it provide too much emphasis. In 12 Italics That Whisper and Wail, Jake Giltsoff distinguishes between times when one needs a subtle differentiation in type and times when one needs to really attract the reader’s attention. Because some italic faces are more pronounced than others, if a designer wants to use italics for either light or heavy emphasis, one’s choice of typeface is definitely important.

But are italics truly effective at providing emphasis? There are leading experts in typography who argue that italics actually have a negative effect on readers. Others suggest that italics are effective precisely because they interrupt the reader and thus draw attention to the italicized word or phrase. For more on this discussion, read Why Don’t Online Readers Like Italics? by Eric Jaffe.

We seem to be at an interesting point in typographic history. Although some declare the death of print, various print media and packaging proliferate. Print substrates and inks are evolving to attract reader and consumer attention. As more people choose to consume information via smartphones and tablets, manufacturers continue to improve screen resolution, creating greater opportunities to produce beautiful designs with crisp and detailed typefaces. Apple’s retina display can now be found in all of its devices, including the iPad and even the desktop iMac.

These days we see multiple type styles competing for emphasis with the traditional italic face. These “superfamilies” include semi-bold, condensed, and extended styles, with multiple weights. Will italics be bold enough to compete with multiple widths and weights in a culture cluttered with words? I have a feeling italics will never go away.


Thinking with Type – a great one-page overview of type

On Web Typography – a useful book dealing specifically with the web

Learning about typography – some very helpful primers

Adobe Font Finder – find the classics or something new

Not sure a font’s name? Try:

The Big Book of Font Combinations – if you get stuck for a traditional combination

Just a few books for designing with type

The Anatomy Of Type: A Graphic Guide To 100 Typefaces by Stephen Coles

Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield

Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works, Third Edition (3rd Edition) by Erik Spiekermann

Design: Type: A Seductive Collection of Alluring Type Designs by Paul Burgess and Tony Seddon

Lynda.com courses

Foundations of Typography

Typography for Web Designers

InDesign Typography

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