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The impact of using italics for printed text

28 Feb, 2017 Writing and layout

This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 2020.

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.

Use of italics

  • 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.)

There is no doubt that serif type faces are easy to read. 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.

Testing the effectiveness of italics

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.

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.

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 research results were:

Comprehension level of italic body type Comprehension level
Good % Fair % Poor %
Layout using Corona Roman text 67 19 14
Layout using Corona Italic text 65 19 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, Communicating or just making pretty shapes, is out of print, a more recent edition has been recently published and is available at Amazon.com under the title: Type & Layout: how typography and design can get your message across – or get in the way. Author Colin Wheildon. ISBN: 1875750223)

About the author Kim Harrison

Kim Harrison loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in the eBooks available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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