Thursday, October 30, 2014

Introduction to italics, part one

At this point, we’ve completed the entire ASCII block (save for the at sign (@) ).

Now, we could go on to do one of four things. We could add more glyphs to the font—fill out the Latin Supplement block with accented letters like ‘ å ’ and a few moderately common symbols like ‘ ¢ ’ and ‘ ° ’. We could go back and actually kern the letters we’ve already made to make the spacing look nicer. We could also derive the bold weight, or we could create the italic version of the font.

I recommend doing italics first. That is because between these four projects, creating italics will add the most value to your font. A functional font family includes a regular, or roman style, and an italic style. In many cases, italics are mandatory, for setting names of works of art, for example. They are also the best way to emphasize words in text. What about deriving the bold weight, you may ask? Well, bold is much, much less commonly used than italics. A font family does not need a bold weight to be functional, though it can be a selling point. Bold is usually used in contexts where it would also be appropriate to use a completely different typeface (headings, for example). The bold weight is also much more straightforward though tedious to design. It is also much easier to embolden both a roman and an italic typeface to create the bold and the bold italic than to italicize both a regular and a bold font to make the italic and bold italic. That is why I like designing italics before bold.

What are italics?

Italics are much more different from the regular style than the bold style is. In serif type, it is possible to machine-produce a passable, though ugly, bold font given a regular font, since emboldening is a relatively straightforward and mechanical operation. Indeed, dozens of weights can be automatically interpolated (with quite good results) from just three base fonts (extra-light, regular, and black). However it is impossible for a computer to automatically produce the italic style of a serif font (something the opposite is true in sans serif type, where the “italic” is very close to a machine slanted version of the original, and the different weights are given much more consideration). That is because the serif italic letterforms themselves are drastically different from the roman letterforms. Italic letterforms are much closer to calligraphy than roman letterforms are. In fact, the italic hand is one of the most natural styles of calligraphy. This is evident in the strokes of the italic letterforms, which are more cursive than those of roman letterforms.
(Somewhat messy) italic calligraphy of some lyrics from How You Get The Girl, in Taylor Swift’s 1989. While handwritten, this calligraphy is essentially the same as italic type. Compare this with the Proforma Italic sample below.

For comparison, here is a sample of the italics from the Proforma font (grouped by letter shape):

The letterforms are much more free-flowing and give a completely different texture than the roman style does. Here are some important differences.

Italic letterforms

Round letters like ‘o’ become more compressed and oblique. Letters like ‘n’ also become more cursive, essentially made up by one continuous stroke. Serifs are also absorbed into this stroke, meaning that “vertex serifs” (like on the bottom left of the ‘n’) disappear, and in/outstroke serifs (like the top left and the bottom right of the ‘n’) become one-sided.
Joins everywhere move up or down to merge with a vertex rather than branching off from a stem. Some letters like ‘v’ also get more rounded, at least in some typefaces.
A few letters change letterforms completely. The roman ‘a’ is always a double story form, but the italic ‘a’ is almost always the single story form. The ‘e’ loses its corner and becomes more rounded, and at least in some typefaces, the ‘g’, like the ‘a’, adopts its single story form too (though many old style typefaces preserve the looptail).
The italic ‘f ’ changes form in that it receives another arc of stem on its bottom. So ‘f ’ becomes a letter that contains both an ascender and a descender, unlike any other letter in the italic or roman alphabet. Italic fonts also tend to have slightly more diagonal stress than the roman (often concealed by the slant), most clearly exemplified by the ‘z’, where the strokes and hairlines are the reverse that they are in the roman form.

Italic slant

Slant is very commonly associated with italic type, though some designers overuse this design element. Generally, older style type has a heavier slant, and more modern serifs have less severe slant. Garamond Italic is slanted twenty-four degrees, twice as heavily as Minion Pro is. Most typefaces have italics slanted by around 10–15 degrees. A few typefaces have no slant at all—though they are no less italic than any slanted style is. A skillful designer can produce a distinctive italic using no slant at all, another reason why italics are much more than just slanted letters.


An often overlooked element of italic design is letter compression. Italic letters are often one-sixth to one-fourth narrower than their roman counterparts. Italic letterforms simply take up less space than roman letterforms—in fact italic type was first invented as a way to save space when printing.
In Proforma, the italic ‘o’ is just four-fifths the width of the roman ‘o’,  and the italic ‘n’ is seven-eighths the width of the roman ‘n’.
In Proforma, the italic ‘o’ is just four-fifths the width of the roman ‘o’,
and the italic ‘n’ is seven-eighths the width of the roman ‘n’.

True italics vs faux italics

For many, italics are just slanted versions of roman letters. This is likely because of the prevalence of sans-serif type today, where the italics really are essentially slanted roman letters (such italics are better referred to as obliques). This is why when italics are called for, and the font used does not have them available, the rendering engine will machine-slant them to produce faux italics.
Faux italics are passable for sans serif type, since obliques are basically faux italics with some optical corrections made. But they ignore all the subtle (and not so subtle) differences in letterforms, compression, serifs, etc, which is why they look sheared and unnatural. Faux italics are also often over-slanted to compensate for the fact that they are just slanted roman letters, which makes them look even worse. This is also a reason why you should always design your serif italics by hand, rather than relying on an automated tool to do it for you.

In the next part of this post, we’ll be going over how italic fonts actually work and the basic workflow for designing them.

» Read part two of this post