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On a current web project, we've received word from the client that we can no longer have any italicized text on the website we are building.

When I asked for some reasoning, I was told that "our accessibility person says it's bad for accessibility", with no other justification.

Honestly, I've never heard of this before, so I tried to do a bit of research on it.

All I've been able to find is this post from 2007 which literally comes to the conclusion of:

I never found the text of any study that proves it. There's reference to one, and that's good enough for me. Instead, I am relying on the "everyone says it" method

With most of the post's references having long since rotted away.

As far as I can tell, the main reason italics were ever an accessibility issue were low dpi screens making small oblique fonts unreadable.

But in this retina world, I find it hard to believe that's still a valid reason.

So, what are the reasons for italics being bad for accessibility, and are those reasons backed by any real studies?

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I can't see this being a legitimate argument either. –  DA01 Aug 8 at 2:25
Large blocks of italic text is a problem for everyone. An occasional word or phrase is usually not a problem. –  mcrumley Aug 8 at 14:15
At risk of flogging an old horse, you could in any case use <em> and <strong> for emphasis on the web. If someone has difficulty with italics, that's supposed to be what browser settings (for example local !important style rules) empower them to deal with. That said, if the client "doesn't want italics" that probably means they don't want <em>. Explaining to them that those with accessibility issues can in theory turn off the italics that the client sees using some obscure browser settings, that may or may not be familiar to that user, probably doesn't wash ;-) –  Steve Jessop Aug 8 at 16:36
I would have +1'd if you used italics for your final sentences instead of bold text. –  FreeAsInBeer Aug 8 at 20:10
It's worth noting that the Chicago Manual of Style notes that using italics to emphasize certain words is the correct practice, but that specific emphasis should be kept to a bare minimum otherwise the impactfulness of said emphasis is lessened. As for legibility, I would surmise that a lot of the readability problem with italics isn't the slant so much as the kerning of the font and the limited pixels of low ppi renderings of monitors –  Nikolas Jeleniauskas Aug 10 at 14:22

2 Answers 2

up vote 25 down vote accepted

Italics are a known problem for some people with dyslexia and the general advice has been to avoid italics (particularly large blocks of italic text) and instead use bold for emphasis.

The British Dyslexia Association says:

Avoid underlining and italics: these tend to make the text appear to run together. Use bold instead.

UX Movement touches on this in an article about Bad Practices That Hurt Dyslexic Users:

Italics are sometimes used to highlight text. But you shouldn’t use italicized text because they make letters hard to read. The letters have a jagged line compared to non-italic fonts. The letters also lean over making it hard for dyslexic users to make out the words. When the text size is small, the text is even more illegible. A better way to highlight is to use bold text because the letters are clearer and give better contrast.

There was an experimental study in 2013 looking at which fonts were easiest for dyslexic individuals to read:

Based on the evaluation of 48 dyslexic subjects ages 11-50, reading 12 texts with 12 different fonts, they determined that reading performance was best with sans serif, monospaced, and roman fonts used in the study. They also found that reading was significantly impaired when italic fonts were used.

In WCAG, for Guideline 3.1 Readable (Make text content readable and understandable) there is an advisory technique for "Avoiding chunks of italic text".

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Great answer, but I find it amusing that the paper from the study you cite is full of italicized text. –  RedRiderX Aug 8 at 22:34
That second quote isn't about italics, per se, but about low resolution screens, which the OP states (and I agree) is less of an issue with mobile as well as things like cleartype. As for the last quote, while serif monospace fonts might be great for a subset, they are likely a detriment for a larger subset. I'd be wary of making decisions solely on this limited research of dyslexia. –  DA01 Aug 9 at 2:22
In addition, edeverett's answer points out some other valid concerns with this particular study. –  DA01 Aug 9 at 2:24

The study list linked to in the blog mentioned by Matt Obee is here http://dyslexiahelp.umich.edu/sites/default/files/good_fonts_for_dyslexia_study.pdf

It's an interesting paper and the conclusions are worth working through:

The main conclusion is that font types have an impact on readability of people with dyslexia.

As they do on readability with people without dyslexia. No great surprise here.

Good fonts for people with dyslexia are Helvetic, Courier, Arial, Verdana and CMU, taking into consideration both reading performance and subjective preference. Also, sans serif, monospaced and roman [serif] font types increase significantly the reading performance ...

Ok... so sans, mono and serif choices can work well for people with dyslexia, much they same as they can work well for people without dyslexia...

... while italic fonts decreased reading performance. In particular, Arial It should be avoided since it significantly decreased readability.

By a "decrease in reading performance" they seem to mean it took longer to read. This is to be expected with italics read by people without dyslexia. I couldn't find anything in their paper to suggest that comprehension fell when using italics. I have seen it suggested that comprehension can increase when readability goes down due to it taking more effort to read so the text is read in more detail.

It should be noted that Arial Italic is considered one of the worst designed typefaces ever to grace computers. (In fact it's not really an italic but a slanted roman sans). That crappy typefaces are hard to read is not any great surprise.

So to conclude:

  1. Italics are likely to slow reading down.
  2. There's nothing in the paper to suggest that italics are bad for accessibility.
  3. Typography for dyslexic readers should consider the same factors as typography for non-dyslexic readers.

This supports the dead-horse I've been beating for a long time: just do good typographic design and all your readers will benefit - there is no need to have any special considerations for dyslexic readers above and beyond your non-dyslexic readers.

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The article's exact conclusion is "We did not find a significant effort of Italics on Reading Time." –  Brian Aug 8 at 16:17
@belacqua I like how "comprehension" is in italics. (sorry, someone had to point that out :P) –  Doorknob Aug 9 at 1:58
Well put. The research in to 'best typeface for readability' are so few and far between, and those that exist relatively weak in terms of conclusions, one shouldn't put too much weight into them. –  DA01 Aug 9 at 2:25
@belacqua in traditional typography, italics isn't an effect -- it's a type of typeface. It was carefully designed to be readable. Granted, computers often use a 'fake' italics (automatically slanting the typeface) which is an effect...but not a true italics typeface. –  DA01 Aug 9 at 2:26
And also note the study studied 12 typefaces. There are thousands upon thousands of typefaces. So, it's hard to believe that the particularities of the 12 faces studies are necessarily universal truths that would apply to all typefaces. –  DA01 Aug 9 at 2:28

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