Simple Geometric Aspects of Italic

By Alfred Fairbank
Date Added: 17/07/2009


A model alphabet for handwriting can be likened to a signpost, which points to directions but itself stays put. The writing-master writes his exemplar slowly and with due care and precision, and it provides an ideal standard; and the pupil starts with this guide but soon moves on. The model will suggest suitable movements of the pen, but just as running is different from walking so the movements of quick free writing will certainly be different from those of the slow set writing of the exemplar. This is obvious, but it leads to certain simple geometric considerations that relate to design of the model.

Most italic writers accept that the hairline should run up at an angle of 45° to the horizontal (a diagonal of a square shows the angle). This is both convenient for teaching and is rational, for this angle gives agreeable height and breadth of letter, and the joins, necessary for speed, are easily organised. The steeper the angle of hairline, the narrower the letter. An angle of 50° would be more difficult to imagine and therefore less teachable. An angle lower than 45° would tend to flatten letters and to spread out the writing.

Italic is generally regarded as slanting to the right. It may be upright and it is sometimes written with a back-slant though this slope is undesirable. Printers want a decided slant to differentiate italic from roman, but this principle does not apply to handwriting and the slant can be slight, to the benefit of legibility. I find myself attracted to those italic hands that slope not more than 10° from the vertical, and indeed I fixed on 8° when writing the Beacon Writing Books though I might well have-chosen the 5° slope of the Condensed Bembo Italic type. If the slant is too great the letters and words seem to me to be falling over.

The writing-master in making his exemplar can adopt specific angles of hairline and slant. In free writing these angles will be governed by the pen, the way it is held, how the paper is placed, and the movements of the hand under the supervision of the eye. Theory gives way and so handwriting gains the inevitable and valued mark of individuality.