Typographic Emphasis in Digital Media
The most common ways to achieve emphasis in digital media are similar to the techniques used in print, but with an important proviso: the appearance of on-screen typography is often fluid rather than fixed. It can differ from viewer to viewer due to differences in scale, resolution and settings on various devices, in addition to differences in fonts available on each. On-screen users tend to be impatient, and can easily click away from a page. For this reason, digital media calls for design that communicates quickly, succinctly and legibly, taking into consideration the parameters of various digital devices. By extension, emphasis techniques must be implemented with these variables in mind.
These are some of the most widely used techniques for achieving emphasis in digital media:
- Italics & obliques
This soft form of emphasis is more of a whisper than a shout. It draws attention without significantly changing the color of the text, so can be used as often as necessary in running text. Italics or obliques are noticeable, but also blend nicely with the surrounding type. Obliques tend to provide less contrast than italics, as the former are usually a slanted version of the corresponding roman, whereas true italics are usually a distinct, more calligraphic design. (Read more about Italics vs. Obliques in Text Emphasis [https://www.fonts.com/content/learning/fontology/level-2/text-typography/text-emphasis]). Make sure your chosen font includes an italic or oblique that offers enough contrast for the task at hand.
The use of a bold or heavier weight for emphasis is a more assertive technique that can quickly draw the viewer’s eye to important information. Avoid overusing weight contrast within text, as it creates a somewhat harsh interruption in the color of the type. Bear in mind that some fonts intended for digital media have a limited weight range, which may not offer enough contrast for the desired emphasis on a given device. Although typefaces originally developed for print often contain a broader range of weights, the differences between certain weights may be too subtle to create enough contrast on screen. Make sure your font family of choice has a heavy enough bold to create sufficient emphasis.
Changing typestyle for emphasis creates a very pronounced effect that should be reserved for instances where a word or phrase needs to be extremely noticeable. This treatment can be useful for headlines and subheads, as well as for charts, graphics, and diagrams, to help create a strong information hierarchy.
- All caps
Setting a word or short phrase in all caps within text may be appropriate when a very strong emphasis is desired. However, in running text, it can disturb the rhythm and flow of reading. This technique should be used sparingly, and only for important call-out words and phrases that need to pop in a very assertive way.
The use of color can achieve eye-catching emphasis. It livens up the page overall and draws attention to the type, without having to change typestyle or any other formatting. Since color in digital media can look different for every viewer and on every platform, be sure to select a color contrast strong enough to work well on a wide range of digital media. As with boldface, this form of emphasis should be used sparingly.
Things to keep in mind
When choosing a font for digital media, legibility should always be of paramount importance. As mentioned earlier, devices vary in resolution, scale, default and custom settings, as well as installed fonts all of which should be taken into careful consideration. Fonts that look sharp and clear, with good contrast, on a hi-res screen might not work as well on a lower resolution device.
In running text (as opposed to callouts in charts, graphs, diagrams, maps, or instructional usages), emphasizing too many words or phrases can dilute their importance and also create a visual checkerboard. Likewise, the use of too many emphasis techniques on one page or site can easily turn into a hodgepodge of typographic effects, leading to visual confusion. Stick with one or two techniques, and use them selectively. Less is often more when it comes to emphasis.
Last but not least: Using underscores for anything other than a hyperlink should be avoided. In digital media (and in the digital world at large), an underscore is understood to mean only one thing: click here! So stay away from underscoring for emphasis, and take advantage of other, better options.
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- 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.