Italic subtleties


My explanation and thought on various italics. Actually, I only wanted to do the MJ illustration and ended up adding a whole bunch of text. I hope it’s helpful for people who are not familiar with italics, and how much type designers care.

Okay, let’s start with upright. This vertical form is what you read for the most of the time. However, a writer needs stylistically different letters to emphasise, quote, or just differentiate certain contents from others. You need italic. Bold is another way to go, but traditionally italic is more common. To me bold is too noticeable when I just glance at a text. Visual differentiation in the body text has to be effective only when you’re reading and reach that point, and bold does more than that. Bold is effective when you use it as a title, or consciously want to make the word(s) stand out from the text.

If you are not very familiar with typography and hit the I button (italic) in MS Office, this may be what you think is happening: just the same upright form but slanted mechanically. It’s sometimes true, but not always. When you are using MS Office and a font that has no italic, and hit the italic button, the application slants the selected text mechanically. Mechanical (automatic) slant is called oblique in typography, shall be avoided especially in serif typefaces, and anyone who wants to achieve good typography should use the italic that’s included in the font family.

When you are buying a font, you sometimes find oblique in a font pack instead of italic. Those are just mechanically made, and you can do it in Word or Illustrator too, which means that there is no point in buying them, although sometimes there are ones called oblique but a designer did a better job on it, which I’ll explain later.

Why are there oblique fonts on sale? Because there were times when digital fonts were starting to hit the market, and foundries sometimes prioritised quantity of fonts over quality. When you find an oblique in the font family that you want to buy, try to find newer version first (e.g. Univers has oblique, but Univers Next has italic). If you can’t find a better option than oblique, well, that’s up to you. Admittedly there are many obliques in the Monotype library, and I personally want to hear which typeface customers want an update for.

The next is a rotation; it’s taking upright form again and rotating everything. I don’t think any modern application does this to automatically recreate italic, but there were the ones which used to do it. It’s more annoying to see in text than oblique because it disturbs horizontal alignment too much; when you have to do the mechanical italic, please slant it, not rotate.

Actually you can rotate letters in Illustrator, but please do me a favour, do not use it to improvise italic!

Rotated italic is called ‘rotalic’, and it can look nice when it’s properly designed. Example of crafted rotalics include Gemma by Rob Keller, Eskapade Fraktur by Alisa Nowak (not quite, but kind of), and the 2012Headline, the London Olympic typeface by Gareth Hague.*

* I hear criticism of this typeface, but I don’t think that’s because it’s a rotalic.

The last one is the cursive italic. It’s closer to handwritten form, structurally different therefore easily noticeable in text, carefully balanced, and only achievable by the hands of a type designer. Traditionally this is the most desirable form of the italic, and more common in serif faces. I tried to find a slanted model in serif category of our Monotype library, which includes Linotype, ITC, etc., but I could only find a few obliques, and even fewer of properly designed slant. Perhaps the most famous of them is Vendome by Roger Excoffon and Zapf Book by Hermann Zapf (which is more like a hybrid of cursive and slant). That’s how strong the tradition is.

A long time ago, a famous British typographer Stanley Morison said that the ideal italic should be a slanted roman. There were a few slanted romans made thereafter, but it did not seem to work and Morison went back to designing cursive italics.

There you have it, three different italics. Slant and rotation can be done by machines, but proper and appealing italic is always a magic of professionals, and a must for awesome performance.

Automatic italics look terrible, and good italic is not easy to do. Please note that I don’t mean cursive italic is the only good one, which I explain in the following paragraph.

Cursive and optical slant

Cursive italic is not the only italic that’s made by hand. It is relatively rare in sans serif compared to serif faces, which are almost always accompanied with cursive italic. Instead there are more slanted forms in sans serif but with manual modification. What typically happens in mechanical slant (oblique) is that some strokes get thicker and others thinner, and some letters look too much slanted as if they are about to trip on the right. The ones that are corrected are also called italic, which I call ‘optical slant’ whenever I need to be clear about the difference.

Optical slant looks weird when it’s slanted back to upright, which is a good thing. Slanting back your font is a good way to identify mechanical obliques if you cannot immediately tell.

And the adjustment doesn’t stop at letterforms; the spaces between them is also distorted in oblique. There are type designers who at least correct letterforms but simply copy the kerning data of upright to italic and call it a day. Ideally, kerning has to be adjusted as well (or sidebearings, depending on the designer’s strategy). There’s a lot of work even in such a simply looking italic.

Ambiguity of oblique

The meaning of oblique and italic vary. Frutiger Next has cursive italic whereas Neue Frutiger has optical slant, which are both called italic. While they are both manually made, some people consider only the cursive one as italic (and the latter as oblique). The confusion comes from different ideas of the italic model that people have in mind, and they use the subjective and unclear term, true italic, for explanation. Whenever there’s a discussion about oblique or true italic, I always ask people to clarify what they mean by that.

In Monotype libraries for example, optical slant is generally italic, which means anything that was manually made deserves to be called italic, although not all fonts are consistently named so. My understanding of italic and oblique is basically the same.

When slant is acceptable

Mechanical slanting is often noticeable in round or diagonal shapes, but less so in vertical and horizontal ones. One time I got a customer asking why there is no italic in Eurostile Next whereas the previous Linotype Eurostile had one. After some research I noticed that there has never been an Eurostile italic from any foundry; the Linotype version only had oblique. I asked Akira why he didn’t make an italic, and the answer was that it wouldn’t look much better than mechanical slant due to its square design, and users were expected to slant on their side, which made perfect sense to me. While some professionals may not like to do it, there are forms that can withstand such modification more than others.*

* Another example is Gerard Unger’s Swift, which can be mechanically condensed with no problem, according to Unger. Swift is also rather squarish, so the geometric distortion is not so noticeable.

Back slant

Actually, there is another style, which is usually called back slant. It is basically a style that leans to the left, and is called differently (‘Contra italic’ by Michael Twyman at University of Reading, also ‘Reclined’). I intentionally excluded this in the initial version of this post, because as I said above, drawing Michael Jackson was the whole purpose of it and I didn’t want to draw back-leaning Michaels (he didn’t do it anyway, and it would weaken the contrast between fake and crafted italics). Now, I call it back slant but they are not mechanically slanted; well, some are done that way. I think the German word Linkskursiv (left italic, or left cursive?) that is used in Venus family sounds more appropriate to me.

Back slant is new to the toolkit of typography, and its most common use was probably German cartography. Handwriting or engraving on a map is a tough job, and typesetting is next to impossible (I’m talking about metal type era). You need a lot of letter styles for different kind of information; cities, roads, buildings, mountains, rivers, seas, etc.. Size, thickness, and regular slant may not be enough. Left slant is a good addition to this, since you don’t have to change your pen, which you might do in writing big or bold letters (or you don’t need to chip away more metal if you are engraving), and text-based concept of legibility and readability, which assumes everything flows horizontally to the right, is not quite relevant in maps anyway. Back slant in particular was used for water area: rivers, seas, and lakes.

Linotype has several typefaces for traditional cartography (Kursivschrift, Roemisch with possible mechanical left slant, Venus, and TopografischeZahlentafel, a numeral-only font). Also check out Myfonts’ back slant list.

Kursivschrift is especially energetic and fun.

Is anybody using back slant for specific purpose today? Actually there is a group that promotes the use of back slant for sarcasm, called Sarcastic Font. It has a bad web site, and even worse is the font available for free download (very likely pirated, and spacing is a disaster). To me this is a total nonsense. You can use different sizes, weights, and italics, for different purposes. They don’t have specific meaning. But you shouldn’t use back slant for nothing but sarcasm, otherwise it loses its value. How useful is that? And how often do you feel sarcastic in the first place? Do we need a S button in MS Word for sarcasm? I’m not inclined to support it.