Tripping the light italic...a story of computers and quality

There was a thread posted a month or so ago asking Dopers to relate memorable sentences they used, subscribed to or believed in. I posted one as well. It was pretty obscure but elicited a few personal e-mail responses asking me what it meant.

Since this is the MPSIMS area, I thought I’d share this mundane, but I think humorous, fragment of my working life.

==>> My original posting to that sentence thread:

>> You’ll have to be a computer font wonk to get this.
>> I worked for a typesetting equipment manufacturer
>> with a full-on font department. The head of the
>> department, John Matt (now deceased) had
>> this sign over his desk:
>> “Trip the italic flag and oblique off.”
>> I’ve never forgotten it. R.I.P. John.

==>> And what it means:

Short answer: Get lost you ignorant moron.

Long answer:


I completed college with a B.S. degree in the application of computer systems to the printing industry. I found employment with a company called Information International, Inc., (triple-I) Triple-I manufactured what were then called phototypesetters. This was back in the late 1970’s. To support those machines triple-I maintained a big font department whose primary job was to digitize typefaces for the equipment. These days Adobe Systems and a few others perform that role, but back then each company selling this kind of equipment did it for themselves. I did not work in the font department but interacted with it a lot in the course of my employment. So I became acquainted with how triple-I fonts were digitally created and manipulated.


Back in those days digitizing a font was an ordeal. (In fact, it still is, if they are digitized with quality and craftsmanship.) Original letterform drawings were hand coded and individually shaped and tweaked on dedicated computer systems with specialized displays. I assisted one customer during an assignment and the fellow thought he had a really successful night if he was able to complete three (3) characters in the six hour session. More often he only completed two. So a completed font, in one weight, meant a lot of manpower expended.

When a font was digitized the powers-that-be felt a need to exploit it. One of the nice things about a digital font is the ability to alter its shape electronically. So very quickly in the digital font realm begat the concept of taking an erect (roman or plain) typeface, tilting it some slight angle and compressing it just a skosh to simulate the same typeface as an italic. This is called an oblique face. It’s the SAME digital data, just visually altered. The triple-I font department, headed by John Matt, had no qualms with the oblique technique as long as the typeface in question was not touted as italic, but was identified as oblique. This was a particularly sensitive topic with John, who had grown up in the font world and knew what a true italic typeface was.


The software world employs a practice of using a single memory bit to indicate the condition in a two-condition situation. This bit is commonly called a flag. If the bit is zero the flag is down, lowered, etc. If the bit is one (1) the flag is up, raised or tripped.

We humans can easily see the difference between italic and oblique but the implementation of italic and oblique on triple-I typesetters was the same. In order to typeset a font as italic or oblique the software driving the typesetting machine had only to turn on (or trip) a single-bit flag in the computer memory to make a font slant and compress into it’s oblique or italic form. This was still okay with John Matt, as long as the resulting visual appearance was correct and unambiguous: italic was true italic and oblique was fake italic.


Triple-I marketing seemed not to care whether a typeface was identified as oblique or italic and in fairness the triple-I sales force probably didn’t understand typography well enough to make a distinction. Triple-I customers often paid extra for particular typefaces to get digitized. If you believed John Matt, the sales force deliberately misled the customer into thinking they would be getting a very expensive true italic weight “for free” when in fact they would be getting the ability to oblique a roman typeface. (Which, BTW, was part of the basic system and applied to all the fonts.)

There were many arguments in John Matts office about this matter and at some point John had the sign made. If you were discussing typeface issues with John and showed a lack of sympathy for high quality typography he would point to the sign and stop talking to you.

I miss underlining.


I don’t.

To give you guys a sample:* The default SDMB font has true italics, while the Arial font only has oblique*. The easiest way to tell is to use the letter f. With true italics, it will usually have a tail.

Arial was explicitly designed for screen use at low font sizes, so using oblique made more sense. The default font here, called Trebuchet MS, was designed to work both on screen and printed, in order to show off the new web browser Internet Explorer. According to Wikipedia, it is the first Microsoft sans serif font to have true italics.

(Sorry hardcore Linux users without the corefonts package installed. Everyone else, the dark blue stuff is Arial.)