Font families, font widths, italics, and obliques
Over the years, font design has developed groups of fonts that are obviously variants of the same basic font. They are called font families. These families can have differences in weight and width. Commonly, they have also have italic variants; but that is really a special case, as we will see in a bit.
Weight is the thickness of the stroke. Here are the common weights arranged in order from thin to thick: Extra Light, Thin, Fine, Light, Book, Regular or Medium or Plain or Roman, Semi Bold or Demi Bold or Halbfett, Bold, Heavy, Extra Bold, Ultra Bold or Ultra Heavy, Fat, Display, and Ad. Book is usually the most elegant. It is designed for use in books. It is a little lighter than regular (medium) and a little narrower. This makes it possible to get more words on a page.
These radical weight variations are relatively new to font design where most of our standard fonts are four to five hundred years old. The first to appear was Bold, and that did not show up until the eighteenth century.
As advertising became a major force in graphic design, many specialized fonts were developed for the ads. Because these ads were commonly called display ads (as opposed to classified ads), these fonts became known as display fonts. Many of these display fonts showed extreme weight variations, but they were not linked to normal fonts. As far as I have ever been able to tell, extended font families are primarily a late twentieth-century phenomenon.
There also used to be separate, usually individual, fonts with different apparent widths. There are narrow, extra-condensed, condensed, expanded, wide, extra-wide, and so on. At this point, the demand for fonts with these variations has diminished because any decent publishing software can do what was done to that poor word “Study” below (to the horror of traditionalists). However, this is certainly one of the descriptive characteristics of a font.
Heed a few words of caution, however: A font in which the horizontal strokes are thicker than the vertical ones looks very strange. When you make a font narrower by choosing horizontal scaling, the vertical strokes get narrower and the horizontal ones remain unchanged. This can happen very easily if you make extreme adjustments to the horizontal and/or vertical scale. Many purists are horrified at any width adjustments. However, if you keep it to plus or minus 5%, no one (except for a very few nit-picking copyeditors) will be able to see it. Wide set-widths are not so much of a problem, but discretion is always in good taste. Deformed type is not usually an indication of sophistication, but of immaturity.
Italics and Obliques
One standard for type is the carved type in Roman columns honoring emperors’ great deeds. They are still the classic standard. You should check out fonts like Trajan, Augustinian, and their ilk. To our eyes, they look extremely elegant, and they are. The name has remained in the fact that many people call vertical type roman, to this day.
The problem with these carved letters was that they were all caps. What we now call lowercase letters crept in as people wrote the words. As they wrote faster and faster, monks and scribes developed minuscules. These forms were roughly codified by the scribes and officially adopted by Emperor Charlemagne in the late 900s. Called Carolingian minuscules, he made them the standard for education. They are definitely recognizable as what we now call normal lowercase letter shapes.
The second time this happened was in Italy in the early Renaissance. In Venice, a man named Aldus Manutius developed a font based on the handwriting of his day, which he called Italic. It became very popular, but because of the narrowness and tight fit of the letters, it was not as legible — and still isn’t. Italics were completely separate fonts and they were not used on the same page as roman fonts until the pomp and ebullience of the Baroque.
In this day and age, every normal vertical style has a matching italic — Palatino Regular, Palatino Italic. As you can clearly see in these four words, italic is a very different font. The a, n, and l show the most obvious differences. With some fonts, the matching of these two type styles is done very well and elegantly. In other cases, the two fonts are seemingly just forced into the same bed.
One of the aberrations of the digital age is a new phenomenon of fake italics called oblique. These are not true italics, but merely slanted roman characters — for example, look at the two versions of Garamond above. The one on the left is not a true italic. Obliques have been known to drive type purists nuts (but for most of them it’s just a short putt anyway)! I tend to think they should get a life and simply not use the fonts they don’t like, but then that’s just me.
Many fonts released nowadays do not have genuine italics. For sans serif this is not a real problem. For serif fonts, it is a major issue. But don’t get upset about it. In some cases, obliques are a good solution. For the radical geometric sans serif fonts of the 1930s, a true italic would be foolish. This should be the choice of the type designer. What you definitely do not want are the faux italics produced by software (like Office) that simply skews the letters. Thankfully, current versions make this optional in most cases.
The answer is simple: Choose fonts which you like that have the weights, widths, italics, and/or obliques you need for your book.
- Sizing your type (hackberry-fonts.com)
- Bureaucratic fonts: dump the drivel! (hackberry-fonts.com)
- Book Typography Part 3 What makes good fonts for a book (hackberry-fonts.com)