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“I” is for: Italic (Faux vs. True)

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Warning: You are now entering design geek territory (DGT). DGT is a land where beautiful typography lives. If you have something against beautiful typography, feel free to escort yourself off the premises. For the rest of you, we’re going to review something that you’ve probably never EVER given any in-depth thought to. And that is italic type.

Faux or no?

Can you tell the difference between these two images?

Hopefully, you can. Hopefully, you see how lovely the bottom text is, and how bastardized the top one is. That, my friend, is the difference between a faux italic and a true italic.

A faux italic is what happens in some text editors when you hit that little ‘i’ button. You may also see a faux italic on websites that are using fancy web fonts without an italic version. What you’re seeing is your normal upright font that has been force-slanted — bullied, even — to the right to make it “italic.” Now, I don’t want you to get too upset about this, but… you are being deceived. That’s not really italic.

A true italic is designed by the type designer. Each character is meticulously and intentionally created as an italic form, normally with calligraphic or cursive flourishes, and even changing the letterform altogether. 

Far from simply being slanted to the right, the italic style of the above Aire typeface was designed to be curvier and softer; and letterforms have been completely redrawn — see the differences in the italic Q, f, a, and d?

The problem with faux…

Okay, so you may be wondering, “Sure, I see the difference, but what’s the big deal?” Please don’t say that out loud. Any design geek within hearing distance may inflict bodily harm on the closest thing that moves. Aside from pure aesthetics, the main reason that faux italics are problematic is because they hinder legibility. Have you ever found it difficult to read a block of type set in italic? If it was faux italic, it was likely even more difficult. That’s because as letters are slanted in a way that they weren’t designed to be, it squishes the negative spaces of letters. It distorts the curves. It skews the strokes. They become unbalanced and as a result, readability suffers. Letters are useless if they are unreadable, so the goal for any text (particularly if it is on a website, where people notoriously skim instead of read) is to maximize legibility.

It also just looks…. off. Like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, you know it’s not supposed to be that way. Something about it feels wrong. That’s your brain telling you to back away slowly.

I should pause here to clarify a point. Faux italics are generally more of an issue with serif fonts (letters with little feet) as opposed to sans serif fonts. For many sans serif fonts, the “true italic” version will in fact look exactly like a gently slanted variant of the upright version, save for maybe a few minor differences, like the lowercase ‘f’ or ‘a’. And in fact, the proper term for this kind of sloped variant is “oblique” instead of “italic”. Even with sans serif fonts, however, forcibly slanting them can cause unnatural distortion of the letters and result in the same issues described above, though less noticeable. 

Faux must go.

Now that you know about the Leaning Tower Phenomenon, what can you do about it? When you are selecting fonts to use, especially if they are serif fonts, look for type families, not just singular standalone fonts. A full type family will be professionally designed and very versatile. At the least, it should include an italic/oblique and a bold variant (yes, faux bold is also an issue — like a thin man wearing a fat suit, it’s not fooling anybody). If you do this, design geeks everywhere will love you, and your readers will too (whether they realize it or not). This is the understated beauty of type design. Thanks for doing your part.  🙂

Nyla Smith

Nyla Smith

Nyla is a Graphic Designer, Web Designer, Front-End Web Developer and Consultant with over 15 years of experience. She is the owner of n-Vision Designs, LLC in Hampton Roads, Virginia, which exists to provide marketing support and brand consulting to small- and medium-sized businesses needing creative solutions. Contact Nyla if you'd like to discuss your next creative project. She can usually be bribed to a meeting with a cup of green tea and an oatmeal cookie.

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