The central rule of typographic emphasis is simplicity
itself: Use discretion. Emphasis depends on
exception. The more things are emphasized, the
less effective the emphasis. Generally, one level of
emphasis is adequate, two levels are substantial, and
three are excessive.
Once you’ve got the discretion thing taken care
of, there are five basic tools you can use to create
typographic emphasis (see right).
The simplest way to create emphasis is to use an
italic. Even though italics are generally intended for
titles, foreign words, technical terms, and the like,
they can also be subtle emphasizers. Using the italic
form of a typeface creates a distinct yet harmonious
departure in text copy.
While the first italics were not drawn to complement
a specific typeface—they were generic designs,
intended to be combined with any roman type—
virtually all of the typeface families now have italics
created just for the family. This means that, although
they differ in character design, they share the basic
weights and proportions of their roman brethren.
Use italics to emphasize words, phrases, or
short sentences in text copy. Because their designs
are usually cursive (as opposed to simply obliqued
or slanted), the italic counterparts of serif typefaces
stand out a little more in a block of copy than sans
The discretion rule also applies to italics. One
or two words in italic stand out without interrupting
the reading process. A sentence set in italic begins
to be more of a distraction than an emphasis, and a
paragraph can be downright difficult to slog through.
A little care is also necessary when it comes to
italics and punctuation. When an italic word precedes
a question mark or exclamation point, an italic
! or ? looks much better than the usual roman equivalent.
Combining serif and sans serif typefaces can
accentuate the emphasis offered by the use of italics.
In figure A, a sans serif italic in a serif text block creates
moderate but definitive emphasis.
If you want to walk on the typographic wild
side, however, use an italic from a serif family in a
block of sans serif copy. The results will be emphasis
with grace, power, and distinction. If you try this
typographic trick, be sure that the lowercase x-height
of the italics is about the same size as that of the surrounding
copy. This may require a point size adjustment
Emphasizing with bold type is just about as easy
as using italics—and you will be making a stronger
statement. The first thing to remember when
emphasizing in bold is to not necessarily rely on the
style bar or formatting palette of your application to
access the bold font: Some font families are not set
up to switch to a new design when the font format is
changed. In such instances, results will be electronically
bolded characters with awkward proportions
and strange weight shifts. Image at the right shows the difference
between proper and improper bolding.
The weight you use to create emphasis should
be the result of a conscious decision and not just a
click of the mouse. Using the next heavier weight
in a family might not be the right choice. In some
typeface families, weight changes are subtle. The
next weight up from the basic text design may be too
light to make a strong statement, and using it will
simply distract the reader—instead of highlighting an
“Make it bigger” seems like a logical guideline for
creating typographic emphasis. While this can be
effective, there are also some potential drawbacks to
just bumping up the point size.
First, unless you are setting copy with generous
line spacing, the bigger type will appear cramped
between the lines of type above and below it. If you make the size enlargement subtle, there
will be less chance of the copy appearing cramped—
but if the size increase is not obvious, the opportunity
for emphasis is lost.
If you are emphasizing by increasing the point
size of the important information, it’s best to separate
the word, phrase, or sentence from the rest of
the copy. Try centering it in the text column, like a
pull-quote (figure A), or run it as its own copy block,
keeping the column width consistent with the text
around it. If you are emphasizing a phrase or sentence,
the word spacing may also have to be adjusted
to be optically consistent with the smaller copy. And,
if you are setting the copy justified, you will probably
have to deal with word spacing that is too open and
hyphens that litter the right edge (figure B).
Color is an excellent—if sometimes expensive—
emphasizer. Color is irresistible … unless there’s too
much of it. It is color’s rarity that makes it noticeable
and a powerful differentiator. The less color
you use, the more valuable it becomes.
A couple of tips for emphasizing with color:
5. Typestyle change
- Set colored type in bold, to compensate for color’s
paleness relative to black.
- Work out your document’s color scheme before
you begin the page layout. Color should be
designed, not added as an afterthought.
- Don’t waste color on headlines for the sake of
emphasis. Headlines already stand out
by virtue of their size and boldness. Color only
decorates them and mostly represents waste. You
may, of course, have other, valid reasons for using
color in your headlines.
A change in typeface will also create emphasis.
There is a typographic “Golden Rule” of sorts
for combining fonts from unrelated families: The
greater the difference in type designs, the better the
mix—and the more powerful the emphasis. Visually, strong contrasts typically don’t create
problems, but when typefaces from different families
that look a lot alike are combined the result is
visual discordance rather than emphasis.
The least risky combination is using a sans serif
typeface for emphasis in copy set in a serif design.
If you want to combine two serif designs, pair very
different typefaces. Using a sans serif design as an
emphasizer in copy set with a different sans serif face
almost never works.
Coda: The nevers of emphasis
Most typographic rules leave a lot of room for “artistic”
interpretation. There are a few associated with
creating emphasis, however, that are right up there
with not eating crackers in bed.
- Never underline.
- Never reverse text type out of a dark block.
More than five words in reverse becomes tedious
and difficult to read.
- Never emulate a “highlighter” by putting a yellow
tint over copy.
- Never use bold italic—well, almost never. There
may be cases in your stylebook where it’s called for
(as in DG’s!). But most of the time, if you want to
be subtle, use italic. If you want to make a strong
statement, use bold. Bold italics suffer from dissociative
- Never set all caps for emphasis in text copy. In
fact, never set all caps for almost any reason. If
you need to use all caps in text, use small caps.
All methods of typographic emphasis are seductive;
some are downright fun. The best uses of them,
however, are restrained rather than effusive.
White, Black, Red - The Best Typographic Colors
To be absolutely safe in the use of color, use
the three most powerful:
- White—that’s your background
- Black—always the best for type
- Red—the proven winner for emphasis and
In print, white is the absence of all color; on
screen, it is every color at full strength. White
is the brightest color and the perfect backdrop
for any other color placed on top of it. Every
other color stands out from, and contrasts
Black holds the highest contrast to white. It is
the best, most logical choice for type set on
a white background. Type can be set in other
colors, but every step away from black is a
step away from the perfect contrast and the
best shot at readability and comprehension.
Gutenberg, Garamond, Caslon, Bodoni, and
Baskerville could all have chosen to set their
text in a color other than black—but didn’t.
Hundreds of years later, we revere their work
as some of the best typography ever produced.
And then there is red. Yellow on white is difficult to read. Red on white isn’t. Blue type fades
against a black background. Red won’t. If you
are considering a third color for typographic
communication, think of red first. The third
most powerful color for type, it is so powerful
that it shouldn’t be used to replace black. A lot
of red type can easily become overpowering.