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.)

6 Responses

  1. Jay Gordon says:

    The funny thing is that, as one who has used Macs for nearly 20 years, I am so glad that font “suitcases” are gone. On both platforms, your font folder contains each font variant– when they exist– as a separate file. And that’s that. When I work with my students, I explain that sometimes font variants aren’t included, and since you can’t tell in Word (as opposed to InDesig), if you want to be sure you’re getting a “true” and distinct italic and bold, you can always just check the Fonts folders in the Windows directory (in Windows, that is, which is what we use in the university here– Macs are trickier, with their multipl font locations, even when there’s only one default user account).I appreciated your post in part because I am constantly in the position– as a teacher of professional writing and document design– of giving advice, disseminating factoids, etc. It’s not always how I wanna teach, but it’s a big part of transferring “know-how” to students. I tell them that good design always has principles and reason– absolute rules (“never” do this or that) are the cop-out of simple minds.

  2. Peter Truskier says:

    So is it actually worse to create a faux italic by sheering the non-italic font than it is to use an oblique font which, as I understand it, does exactly the same thing in the RIP?

  3. Thomas Phinney says:

    Peter,Actually, yes, faux italics are usually worse than designed obliques. For one thing, faux italics on Mac and Windows seem to have about a twenty degree angle, which is roughly double what you normally see from a real italic or a designed oblique. Also, deliberately created obliques sometimes have some additional optical compensations, even when they’re not called italics.Cheers,T

  4. Daniel says:

    Another method you can use on a Windows PC (in many programs, including Word) to tell if the font you are using actually has a true italic, bold, etc. is by accessing the font menu, selecting the font, then the style. If the style you chose for that font does not have its own font file and will have to be faked, below the preview window the words “This font is imitated for display” will appear.

  5. Arle Lommel says:

    Using Mac OS X (10.4.3 – 10.4.8) and OpenType, I’ve run into a problem where if I select an Adobe OpenType Pro font (like MinionPro) and try to use the cmd-I or cmd-B comments in Word, I get fake italics or fake bold. This problem only occurs with OpenType Pro fonts. I have had it happen on two different machines, and it means I have to select the styles from the font menu for those fonts on the Mac.Is there something wrong with my installationand is there a workaround to fix this problem? If there isn’t, then I can’t follow your advice with Adobe fonts at all…Thanks,Arle

  6. Michael Rowley says:

    Arle Lommel:Minion Pro requires attention to the PDF file (written, I believe, by T. Phinney), for although the regular has the full range of fonts – roman, italic, bold and bold italic – neither the medium nor semibold have a bold (because they’re ‘bold’ already). Not all Adobe Pro families need such care.[I’m not sure what PDF has to do with it, but yes, Minion Pro Medium and Semibold do not have style linked bold relatives. I believe that Arle is also referring to a broader OS X bug with style linking and OpenType, which seems to be fixed in 10.4.9. – T]

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Thomas Phinney

Adobe type alumnus (1997–2008), now VP at FontLab, also helped create WebINK at Extensis. Lives in Portland (OR), enjoys board games, movies, and loves spicy food.

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