Font Myths: italic and bold styles
This is one of those topics that just makes me feel like Sisyphus: I keep on pushing the boulder of truth back up the hill, and a zillion other folks just roll it back down again. The problem with this myth is that it’s almost true – except when the exact opposite is the case. I just read the popular wisdom on this topic again tonight, in an online column from another type foundry. Worse, it was written by an outstanding type designer who is also a great person. Oh well – at least I have a topic for tonight’s blog posting.
[update 12 May 2006: an esteemed colleague at "other type foundry" points out that some of the linked material, and a bit buried below from an asterisk in the main text, correctly clarifies the initial blanket advice. I still don't get the need to give misleading advice up front, but at least it's clear that they know the full truth, even if they present it oddly.]
What’s true is that using bold and italic styling on text can sometimes result in a faux (fake) bold or italic. If there is no style-linked bold or italic font, or that font is not installed, you’ll get a faux bold or italic, and it won’t look great, and it may print even worse. So the popular wisdom among graphic designers is that you should never do it, but always pick the bold or italic font directly off the font menu. Unfortunately, the popular wisdom is just plain wrong, for two main reasons.
First, most of the people giving this advice must not have spent much time on a Windows machine (or perhaps they assume that everybody who matters is on Mac OS). It’s true that most of Adobe’s applications allow you to directly pick any font off the font menu, even on Windows. However, "normal" Windows applications such as Microsoft Office don’t allow direct access to bold and italic variants. You can select only the "base font" of the style linked group, and you must apply bold or italic styles as needed. That’s just how Windows fonts work in most Windows applications, and folks who tell users they should only pick the bold or italic font directly off the font menu are betraying their platform bias by not realizing this is Mac-only advice.
It gets worse when Mac users go to Windows and wonder where their fonts went, or Windows users don’t realize that those "styles" are often fonts unto themselves. I wrote this section of our OpenType Readme to try to address the issue from those perspectives. It’s also covered in an Adobe Knowledgebase article from our tech support section.
The second consideration is for folks on Mac OS making documents in "normal" applications such as MS Office, which may need to go to Windows users who have "the same" fonts. If the Mac users want their document fonts to map correctly on Windows, they must use the style links where appropriate. That is, if you can get to the real italic font by style link, you must do so. Otherwise the fonts won’t map correctly when the document goes to your colleague on a Windows machine.
Finally, if an application supports both style links and paragraph or character styles based on other styles, it can be handy to use a "based on" style and use the bold or italic style link for emphasis. This allows the possibility that if you change the font of the underlying style, the style link can function with the new font without you having to redefine it as well.
That last point is a matter of personal preference and working style. But the first two are a matter of necessity. So here’s hoping a few more people do their homework before telling others that using bold or italic styling on text is "always wrong." Yes, it can be a problem for the unwary, but sometimes it’s a necessity – like for the millions of people running Microsoft Word on Windows.
(Note: Please no comments about Mac superiority or descent into platform wars. I do think that it’s nicer to always be able to tell which fonts are really available to you. But gosh, in the grand scheme of things, there are a zillion more important things in choosing which computer platform you want to use.)