Monday, November 3, 2014

Introduction to italics, part two

 » Read part one of this post.

This post will be about setting up your italic workspace, as well as an outline of what lies ahead.

How does an italic font relate to the regular style?

An italic font almost always shares the same vertical metrics as its roman counterpart. That means that they have the same x-height, capital height, etc. Otherwise, the italic font might rightly be regarded as a completely separate typeface from the roman. Horizontal metrics and actual letterforms, at least for the lowercase alphabet, deviate significantly, as discussed. In fact, an italic font is meant to provide contrast with the roman style.

How do italic fonts work?

Technology wise, italic fonts aren’t really that different from roman fonts. Italics are drawn just like any roman font, in rectangular em boxes. Italic–roman pairing in apps does require a font to be flagged as ‘Italic’, though we’ll worry about that when we get to font packaging. One very helpful thing to do is to specify the italic slant in the Font Info dialog (accessible in fontforge from ElementFont Info) This will cause fontforge to draw the italic slants as guidelines in the glyph panel, which can be immensely helpful when you’re drawing your italics. Supposedly it also lets you constrain your vertical motion to the italic slant when drawing, though this functionality appears to be broken in fontforge at the moment. The slant value is also used by word processors to slant the cursor when italics are being used.

What’s it like to design italics?

Designing italics is like designing a whole new typeface, so it can take much longer than say, just deriving the bold weight. However, the italic style is actually a much easier type of font to design than the roman. Designing a full slate of lowercase italics can take perhaps two days of full-time work (and maybe a few more days of polish before moving on to the capitals and numerals which are even easier to create). Many italic letters are simple variations of one another, and after designing maybe four or five letters, the entire collection comes cascading very naturally. There is a very ordered and swift sequence you can follow when designing italic letters, and you can be through in just a couple days.

If you ask me, designing italics can be quite fun actually. The letters are meant to be more lively, and the rules more relaxed. You don’t need to stress about geometric minutae like slant alignment as much, for the italic slant is very forgiving to minor inconsistencies, concealing small imperfections.

Working in fontforge has its advantages. Fontforge includes extensive tools that can actually generate a workable (but shoddy) italic given a roman font. For the lowercase alphabet, we will be using this feature rather sparingly, as it’s actually easier to design most of the italic alphabet from scratch, but it is indispensable for italicizing the uppercase alphabet—which is typically oblique rather than truly italic—and numerals and punctuation.

Common italic problems

Italics do have their share of unique problems, most of them owing to their slant. Extremas are a perennial headache. It’s still usually a good idea to make the major splines one-to-one—if anything because it actually makes italic glyphs look better—but missing extremas are generally tolerated more in italic type than they are in roman type, since extrema problems are often unavoidable in some cases (like bracketed serifs). Letter spacing is also a common problem, because of the slant.
(Floribunda) The percieved sidebearings and ‘actual’ sidebearings of an italic glyph can be very different.
(Floribunda) The percieved sidebearings and ‘actual’ sidebearings of an italic glyph can be very different.
Because italics are treated like roman fonts, with rectangular em bounds, the horizontal extremes of an italic glyph may not be the actual extent of the glyph relative to the slant angle. Because of this, the sidebearing numbers are largely meaningless, so italic type must often be spaced by eye (fontforge will tell you the sidebearings relative to the slant angle in the glyph view, but sadly does not make full use of these numbers). Keep these in mind as you design your italic font.