Creating emphasis with type – particularly in text settings – is a valuable technique for getting a message across. It helps guide the reader to take note of special words and key phrases. Before deciding which form of emphasis is appropriate for a specific usage, consider whether you want to create a soft emphasis (noticeable, but not too disturbing to the color and texture of the type) or a stronger one (deliberately, and more prominently, calling attention to itself).
Once you are sure of this, you can narrow down your choices considerably, making the selection faster and easier. The most common treatments for achieving emphasis in text are:
Italics & Obliques
This technique offers a popular form of typographic emphasis. It creates a soft emphasis that will attract the reader’s attention without causing a significant change in the color of the text. It can be used as often as necessary in running text, drawing the eye while blending nicely with the surrounding text. When using italics for emphasis, be sure to select the same weight as the roman (straight up and down) version being used – unless a double emphasis is desired, in which case you can use a bold italic. Italics are the typographic convention for book, magazine, and newspaper titles, as well as certain other proper names.
Bold (weight contrast)
This approach creates more assertive emphasis. The technique of weight contrast should be used sparingly within text, because it presents a somewhat stark visual interruption in the color of the type. This can create a checkerboard effect if overused. When using a boldface from a type family with subtle progressions in weight, it is usually best to jump at least two weights; a nominal weight contrast risks being ineffective at best and, at worst, causing a visual disturbance or distraction.
This treatment is only appropriate when a very dramatic emphasis is desired, as it disrupts the rhythm and flow of running text. That said, it can be an effective technique for important call-out words and phrases that need to stand out, as well as for stand-alone text in charts and graphs. Conversely, all caps are not a good choice for running text requiring a soft or moderate emphasis, as the abrupt change in cap height interrupts the text in a jarring way.
Changing the size of type within running text is an illustrative technique that should only be considered for expressive, playful text, to emphasize the meaning of a word. In a children’s story, for example, setting the words tall and small reinforces understanding.
Changing type style creates a very pronounced effect that should be reserved for instances where a word or phrase needs to stand out. This can be effective for flyers and for brochures with charts, listings, and diagrams, helping to establish a strong information hierarchy by differentiating several levels of information.
Color or tint
Introducing color or tints for words or phrases can provide very noticeable yet harmonious emphasis. This approach allows text to stand out without changing typestyle or any other formatting, while enlivening the piece with added visual interest.
Less is more
A little emphasis can go a long way. In running text (as opposed to callouts in charts, maps, or instructional usages), emphasizing too many words or phrases can dilute their importance. Similarly, using too many techniques in one piece creates a typographic hodgepodge, which can cause visual confusion. Stick with one or two techniques, and use them sparingly.
One more caveat: Avoid using an underscore for emphasis in anything other than a hyperlink. Underlining was the only option available in the days of typewritten text. Today, it is considered amateurish and unprofessional for typesetting and design.
- Editor’s Note:Ilene Strizver, founder of The Type Studio, is a typographic consultant, designer and writer specializing in all aspects of typographic communication. She conducts Gourmet Typography workshops internationally. Read more about typography in her latest literary effort, Type Rules! The designer's guide to professional typography, 4th edition, published by Wiley & Sons, Inc. This article was commissioned and approved by Monotype Imaging Inc.