Why Don't Online Readers Like Italics?

The restyled New York Times homepage features italicized headlines--a bold move given that a modest body of research on digital type suggests using italics with caution.

You can see just about anything you want on the Internet, for better or worse, but one thing you don't come across very often is a major news site that's heavy on italics. So it was striking to see the recently restyled New York Times homepage feature large, italicized headlines running down the left side of the page. The change has the effect of pulling the eye back to that column like some lateral gravity.

Ian Adelman, director of digital design for the Times, tells Co.Design that the italicized headlines emerged as the best solution to the problem of lending a sense of urgency to the site's major stories. On the old site, headlines were set in Georgia, which was designed for the screen and conveys considerable force in bold. The new site uses the newspaper's font Cheltenham, to enhance print-web cohesion; the problem, says Adelman, is that online Cheltenham lacks the same presence as Georgia.

"We didn't have a weight of Chelt that felt like it could carry that lead story spot, so we tried the italics," says Adelman. "The italics, they get a little heavier in terms of the density, and there's a bit of urgency to them as a result."

In choosing italicized headlines, the Times is straying a bit from a modest body of research on digital font preference that's been accumulated over the past 25 years, which on the whole suggests using italics with caution. One influential study from 1998 compared the responses of test participants reading a screen with regular Verdana type to one with Verdana italics. There was no difference in reading comprehension or speed, but participants rated the regular type as easier to read, sharper, and generally more legible.

More recent work identified other marginally negative impacts. A 2011 study led by Sanjiv K. Bhatia of the University of Missouri in St. Louis measured the influence that three different italics presentations--no italics, moderate italics, and heavy italics--had on website usability. Test participants found the three sites equally satisfying to use and took the same amount of time to answer questions based on their content. But participants using the moderate italics site got more analytical questions wrong than those using the other sites.

Then again, there's also reason to believe that italics can help people process information in ways they don't even realize. The UCLA psychologist Daniel Oppenheimer has shown that sometimes people retain information presented in "hard-to-read fonts"--including the italics font Bodoni MT--better than in those that are easy to read. The relative difficulty of italicized words might lead people to engage more closely with the words and rely on fewer cognitive shortcuts.

So the evidence is mixed: italics might interfere with site usability, but they might also boost reading performance. Whether or not these broad findings have any direct relevance to the Times site is another question. There are considerable real world-research discrepancies with regard to text function. The Times italicized headlines, where the research looked at body copy, and the Times uses a serif font in Cheltenham, not a sans serif like Verdana--to name just two limitations.

Adelman says the published research on italics didn't come into play and that the Times felt confident with the move based on its own internal tests. When test readers viewed new and old versions of the site, with page design changed but the content held constant, they clicked through on the new headlines at the same rate as the old, he says. At the same time, he acknowledges that the italicized headlines aren't "where we need [them] to be quite yet" and that he may open up the letter-spacing a bit.

Adelman also points out that all of the italicized headlines are accompanied by story summaries in roman type. In other words, for all the force of the italicized Cheltenham headlines, the Times doesn't expect or even want them to carry the weight of a story alone. "It's about that whole presentation, not about individual headlines," says Adelman. "I think a list of ital headlines would just be awful."

Dan Boyarski of Carnegie Mellon's design school, who led the 1998 italics study, tells Co. Design that the new headlines on the Times homepage do raise some questions. He wonders if they stand out "a little too much" and also if the italics lend the headlines an undesired "informality." At the same time, he thinks it's too early to judge the style choice and advises patience. "Unless it was really awful," he says, "which it's not."

Add New Comment

5 Comments

  • There's something you didn't care to notice, I think. The 1998 study was done using material available at the time - very, very low resolution screens compared to what we have now. I'm not even sure there was that antialiasing thingie working on all computers, so italics WAS harder to read.

    Now we have retina displays, and the "normal" ones are like the ones in my computer: 1440x900 in a 13'' screen. Heck, the screen I owned in 1998 could display 800x600 in a 15inch tube!

  • I am surprised to see a double hyphen (--) used in place of an em dash (—) or en dash (–) in an article discussing typography.

  • While on the subject or readability/usability, the font and colour used for your own pull quotes on this feature are difficult to read if, like me, you are colour blind.