Using italic body type is quite acceptable

Italic body type is rarely used for expanses of text. Some writers and editors tend to think it is difficult to read. But is it really?

Firstly, a definition. Italic type is serif type that slants slightly to the right of vertical like this and has more pronounced serifs than normal serif type. The first italic type, designed by Aldus Manutius in 1501, was based on the handwriting style of that time.

Italics are used for:

  • Emphasis.
  • The titles of works that stand by themselves, such as books or newspapers. (Where works appear within larger works, such as short stories, chapter headings or newspaper articles, they are set in quotation marks, not italics.)
  • The names of ships.
  • Foreign words.

If something within a run of italics needs to be italicized itself (eg the name of a ship within a sentence already italicized for emphasis), the type should be switched back to non-italicized type for that item (ie in this example, the ship’s name).

(Incidentally, when a sans serif font is slanted, it is called ‘oblique’ rather than italic because it has no serifs.)

Colin Wheildon, editor of the largest Australian motoring publication, wanted to find out the facts on using italics. With one million readers, he wanted to maximize the effectiveness of his printed words.

There is no doubt that serif type faces are easy to read in printed material. Serif italics have the same thick and thin strokes, even if they are extended more; they have the same x height as normal serif type; and they slope in the direction of normal handwriting.

To test the effectiveness of italics, Wheildon used a Corona Roman typeface, which is similar to Times New Roman. The serifs in Corona Roman are fairly moderate, which means that the individual letters in the italics version aren’t elaborate.

Results

Readers’ comments indicated that italic type caused an initial reaction because it was unusual to read in such volume, but it wasn’t difficult to read. The comprehension level of italic body type was as follows:

Layout using Corona Roman text – Good 67%, Fair 19%, Poor 14%
Layout using Corona Italic text – Good 65%, Fair 19%, Poor 16%

The results from this research show that there is nothing to stop you from using italics for introductory paragraphs, highlights, side bars, breakouts and variations on normal serif text. However, italics would look out of place if they are used in large areas of text.

(Although Colin Wheildon’s original book is out of print, a more recent version is available under the title: Type & Layout: are you communicating or just making pretty shapes? Author Colin Wheildon, publisher The Worsley Press, Melbourne, Australia, 2007.)

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