Why are italics lighter than their upright counterparts?

Wei HuangWei Huang Posts: 77
edited September 2015 in Technique and Theory
I think there was a thread on Typophile about drawing Italics but… obviously I can't find it. I have a a question I hope someone can shed some light on:

Why are Italics usually lighter than their roman counterparts? How is this calculated, or decided how much it should be lighter by?

Checking the outlines themselves, the stems are actually drawn lighter than the upright too. In text its clear that that italics are lighter too. Is it so that the italics don't stick out in running upright text and that these typefaces were not designed with running italics text next to upright in mind?

(While I'm here does anyone have the link to the thread on Typophile [to access on Archive.org] where David Berlow or someone else from Font Bureau explains how they create a slanted sans?)


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  • Two reasons. Italic stems, being angled, have to be drawn slightly lighter or they look too dark. But they're often drawn to produce a lighter color than a roman so that they stand out when used as a hierarchical device in text.
  • The stems are longer as well (being slanted), so the x-height area packs more black if the stem widths are identical.
  • Italic x-heights can also be made slightly lower to compensate for the angled stems being longer. 
  • Also: italics are often narrower (at least the lower case), than their corresponding romans, which means the stems must be proportionally narrower, too.
  • Choz CunninghamChoz Cunningham Posts: 18
    edited September 2015
    Italics were used to save space (and paper) by Francesco da Bologna . I assume, to compensate for being narrower and more tightly tracked, the developer felt they needed lightening, less they darken the page too much.

    Obliques are often share their upright brethren's weight and tracking, and are usually very close in weight; that just might be because they are computer tilted knock-offs, though.
  • Indeed, if it was only to compensate the width or the angle, we shouldn't notice they're lighter in body text. It's also strange to say, today, the italic has to be lighter to stand out as we should consider a lighter style as we so with uprights. Maybe the reason is mostly historical? Something about too-much-ink when printing?
  • After from using alternate italic forms, when I make sans-serif obliques, slanting alone creates an italic that usually fails to sufficiently emphasize. Although, I could keep increasing the angle, at a certain point, it starts to look ridiculous. The slant is just one aspect of an oblique. Lighter stems, condensing, looser sidebearings...all that stuff helps.
  • Wes AdamsWes Adams Posts: 56
    edited September 2015
    @Choz, I've frequently heard that Manutius found Griffo's italic to be laterally compressed and have never seen any evidence that it actually is... or that it was ever Griffo's intention in cutting it. As its progenitor, its equally possible that he followed the much admired Roman chancery hand and that efficiency was a byproduct of the model.

    A bit of a tangent I suppose, Manutius's italic-set books usually contain no roman at all and it wasn't really until Granjon that the italics acquired a greater slant, a lighter weight, and more compression. By that time setting roman and italic together was fairly common.
  • Italics were used to save space (and paper) by Francesco da Bologna .

    That’s unfounded speculation. See Cramsie, The Story of Graphic Design, p. 89. 

    It has been thought that Aldus adopted this cursive humanist script as a space-saving device, but not only is there no quote or comment that supports this supposition, when the text is set in the same size as his roman type it does not increase in length. What is more certain is that his books benefitted from the popularity of the humanist script, which was held as a model for handwriting among educated and literate Italians.

    And Updike proposed that Aldus used the italic because his Greek types, which matched contemporary writing hands, had been successful:

    The adoption of an imitation of a cursive hand by Aldus for his new fonts is not wholly explicable by the wish for a compact type. His italic types were only a development of an idea already put into effect in his Greek fonts. The older Greek manuscripts employed formal, simple characters, separate from each other and with comparatively few ligatures or contractions, which adapted them very well to translation into type; but Aldus preferred to imitate the cursive Greek handwriting of his time, which was filled with an immense number of ligatures, contractions, and unnecessary complications. Despite their faults, these cursive Greek fonts hit the popular taste. So when a small, compact type was wanted for editions of Latin classics, etc., I suppose it may have seemed to Aldus natural and clever, to do for Latin letter-forms what he had done for old Greek letter-forms. It may be, too, that Aldus adopted a cursive letter for his new font because it suggested the popular and informal character of his projected series. Whatever his reasons, the result was the Aldine italic.



  • Slanting an upright stem without adjusting its stem thickness at all still creates the optical appearance that the slanted stem is lighter.

    It's design-dependent, but sometimes a reduction in width is not necessary, the italics/obliques will naturally look lighter.

    It's the same reason that in already angled stems (such as A), slanting makes this optical discrepancy even more pronounced. After slanting the upstroke will appear lighter, while the downstroke darker.

    With some basic sans designs, I've found that the italics/obliques without any stem width reduction, still look lighter next to the romans because of this.
  • Wei HuangWei Huang Posts: 77
    edited September 2015
    What I gather from this discussion so far:

    Merely slanting an upright makes the font look too dark. Therefore it is made lighter to compensate. This I understand.

    But most of the serif designs I see take it further and actually reduce the weight so that optically they appear even lighter than the uprights. This is done is so that the italic has enough emphasis (like a word within a line or a sentence within a paragraph?) compared to the upright text —why not have italics that are darker instead?
  • Albert_Jan_Pool Albert_Jan_Pool Posts: 44
    edited September 2015
    —why not have italics that are darker instead?
    Because that is not what the reader expects. From that point of view, a darker italic would not be as functional as a lighter italic. If you want to use an italic which is darker, you can also use an italic with a medium or even bold weight. Or take a bold roman. The darker the weight, the more the evenness of the grey value of the page is distorted. Until you end up with raisin-bread typography.
    Another reason why italics are lighter is probably that humanist roman scripts are being written with a pen held at approx. 30°, whereas humanist cursive scripts are typically written wit a pen angle of 45°. When you write these scripts with the same pen at the same x-height, the cursive script is always lighter than its roman counterpart.
    Yes, the idea of doing an italic with an x-height that is lower than that of the roman is temptative, but it may look awfully unrest when hinting for smaller sizes is not done properly. I wonder how many professionally text typeface designs really feature such an italic (except for the – in my eyes – obvious bloopers from the pre-war Monotype office, such as Fournier).
    When you want to test the grey value of your italics, you would probably like to test some words in italic within a text set in the roman, because that is the most common and critical situation for the use of a roman and its italic counterpart.
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