Drop Caps (and critique?)

zrisso's picture

I am currently in a bit of a pickle. I like drop caps at the head of a book chapter... more specifically, I enjoy the pairing of drop caps and small caps for the first word (or three) of the chapter.

My problem comes when the height of the drop caps. right now, I am using a two-line height with small caps for the first word.

My question to those of you who've worked with books is: how do you choose to lay out the first page of a chapter?

I've attached the current design of the first page of chapter i. It looks so... boring. I'm a fan of the crystal goblet school of thought, but it just seems to be missing something. Please be as highly critical as you please. I'd like it to look as good as possible, obviously.

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oprion's picture

That drop cap definitely needs more leading.

zrisso's picture

Better? If not, what more should I change about the drop cap?

Tomi from Suomi's picture

The problem to my eye is the small capitals, which are so much taller than lower case, so, with anfang (or dropped capital), the result is too busy. Try with more words in small caps, or try without small caps, and see if that helps.

zrisso's picture

I attached one with more words in small caps. Without any, it didn't look right at all.

How's it looking now?

Nick Shinn's picture

Any number of words in small caps is OK, if you align the top of the drop cap with the top of the small caps.

ncaleffi's picture

Zach, I dared myself to play a little with your text setting - hope you take it as a typophile's friendly cooperation and not as a sign of arrogance. In general terms, I am not a fan of the drop cap technique, but if you want to create an "old style" feeling it can work. But there are some things to manage: in the first image, I've aligned the drop cap to the left margin with the paragraph nested style, increased the kerning in the space between D and ae, and increased the tracking in the small caps of "aerwyn" (I think it needed it). The second example is similar but doesn't feature the drop cap, just small caps (with capital C) - I believe Tschichold often used to set the paragraph beginning this way (but all small caps, including C, should be preferable, in my opinion). There's the same tracking in the small caps. Finally, the paragraph with no drop cap, no small caps: in most cases, I believe this setting works the best way. As of the matter about how many words should be set in small caps, in the begininnig of a paragraph, I think you should condiser the sense of the phrase. There was a thread months ago which dealt with the matter, got to find it and link it here.

zrisso's picture

The reason I like the drop cap at the beginning of the chapter is because for section breaks where it focuses on a different character in the same chapter, I use the second example (all small caps.) I also, like you said, enjoy the "old" quality it gives to the page when using a drop cap.

I also noticed you changed the leading. Do you think that it is better with a smaller leading? Right now, I have it set to 11pt text with a 14pt leading. I felt that the page was able to breathe more. As I look at your examples, however, I do like the tighter qualty.

Christopher Adams's picture

A few observations:

You might consider picking a dedicated font for the drop caps. It need not be a display face or set of capitals per se. If your choice falls to Arno Pro Display for the task, you might select one of the heavier weights.

Margin kerning: a character like C can hang ever so slightly in the margin; characters like T and V benefit even more from this practice.

Each successive line of text should line up more or less neatly. There is sometimes a need to kern the first line closer, but the second line should come up to the bounding box of the drop cap. (In Nicola's first sample, the lines align, but the C is given too much space on the right side.)

Nick is correct about lining up the tops of the caps. The small caps can sometimes be just a hair lower, but not as low as you have placed them.

About the design as a whole: you have burdened your opening with the word CHAPTER in all caps followed by a rule and the chapter number. This detracts significantly from the visual impression the drop cap is trying to make.

Instead, try putting CHAPTER I in small caps at the same point size as your body. Or just use the roman numeral at a display size and dispense with the word chapter.

Are your margins really that generous? If so, excellent! But move the folio down just a notch.

zrisso's picture

Thanks for such detailed information, Chris! I've posted an update incorporating some of your suggestions. I think I might go for the "CHAPTER I" in small caps at the size of the body text though. The one display numeral does not quite look right.

EDIT: Uploaded another with the alternative chapter heading with an em space between the word "chapter" and the numeral. (And yes, the margins are that generous)

Christopher Adams's picture

Don't hold back. Increase the weight of the drop cap, as suggested. Then bump up the size so that it equals three lines instead of two.

If you are going to use a drop cap, it has to be convincing.

zrisso's picture

Hmm... is the three-line height necessary though?

Anyone have a suggestion of a drop-cap-dedicated font for it?

barthak's picture

Nothing is ever necessary, but normally I would agree on the drop cap being at least three lines high. Otherwise it looks like it's trying to be a drop cap, but is just not getting there. Although in this case, because the page size is pretty small, two lines could work. Just try out some different heights and see how it looks, that's how designing works ;-)

About suggestions: when a drop cap can't be in a different color -- to make it less dark -- I always like to use an inline font like Castellar.

zrisso's picture

Inline might work. It straddles that line between simple and "too fancy."

I like the idea of square, decorative caps in theory. But, for a novel, they are too presumptuous, I think.

Christopher Adams's picture

Slimbach's Jenson Pro Display (Semibold or above)

zrisso's picture

Does anyone have an opinion on elaborate/semi-elaborate initial caps? Personally, I think, for today's novels, they can be a bit overwhelming on the page.

Is there an initial/block cap that you like?

Christopher Adams's picture

Zach, in inquiring into ornamental initials, it would appear that you are tempted to increase the register of your design, without having first mastered the basic technique.

Let us conceptualize a hierarchy of drop caps, with the proviso that in every case the end result must be related to the text face, and speak the same idiom.

  1. The text face at an increased point size (tradition dictates 3× larger)
  2. A different weight or display cut of the text face
  3. A related face with finer detail (such as Jenson if your text face is Arno)
  4. Titling capitals, calligraphic or inscriptional (e.g., Rialto, Sistina)
  5. Inline capitals (Castellar, Smaragd, Augustea Open)
  6. Decorated capitals / Ornamental initials
  7. Rubrics, illuminated capitals (etc.)

I have no first hand experience with the last of these. But you might look at the work of Petra Heidorn and Dieter Steffman at moorstation.org. Lanston Type Company may have something to offer (see http://p22.com), and a quick hunt on MyFonts turned up the name Gilles Le Corre.

Before embarking on any design, have a look at the specimens from The History of the Book (Amsterdam). Of particular interest would be their samples from 16th century Italy.

zrisso's picture

Oh my, how did I not know of this flickr account?! Thanks!

(and, for the record, I had no plans of using and elaborate square caps... I was just curious of others' opinions)

riccard0's picture

Does anyone have an opinion on elaborate/semi-elaborate initial caps? Personally, I think, for today's novels, they can be a bit overwhelming on the page.

In theory, they could work. If the matter of the novel allows them, along a thoroughly crafted "period" design.
Obviously, it raises the difficulty to achieve a transparent design (the content is king).

kentlew's picture

Drop cap aside, I think the weakness on this page lies in the spatial relationships of text to sinkage to margins.

It would be easier to evaluate in a spread, since this left-hand opener won’t occur in isolation.

First of all, the presence of a running head (book title, I presume?) is unorthodox on a chapter opener. Although it may be properly centered, because it is italic and because of the excessive word space in the chapter head, it looks disturbingly off center from the text/head. Its presence also makes the placement of the chapter head look too low. I would lose the running head.

And Miller Italic (transitional/modern) with Arno (oldstyle)?? Sorry; doesn’t work for me.

With this sink, the proportions of your text block are almost square, which makes for a pretty static element. And it doesn’t feel well engaged with your overall page proportions and margins. I would try losing and dropping about four more lines (maybe even as much as that entire last paragraph). Then activate the sink area differently with your chapter title.

The margins may be generous, but unless you’re going to be able to use a sewn binding (which I’m guessing not — fantasy books don’t generally get that kind of production), then that gutter margin looks way too tight to me. I suspect you’re going to start losing your text blocks into the binding — visually, if not literally — which is going to really mess up your classical page design.

Seriously, trim your proofs and tuck them into a bound book or dummy and check how your margins work in three dimensions.

Hope this is helpful perspective.

zrisso's picture

Hi, Kent, thanks for the advice!

I've updated the first post with a spread. How does that look?

Christopher Adams's picture

I'll second everything Kent said.

Zach, a touch less margin kerning on the C will do.

However, a drop cap is more difficult to justify with a spread that is far from busy. (Pun fully intended.) The chapters don't appear to have titles, so you might reconsider how to introduce them.

Play with the weight and the positioning of the drop cap until it "locks" with the text block.

Even of the context does not demand it, set everything up to the word "capital" in small caps. This will give a better idea of how the design will perform across multiple chapter openings. It is unusual for only the first opening word to get the small caps treatment.

barthak's picture

Btw, you might also want to consider an elevated cap.

Nick Shinn's picture

This traditional effect has been compromised by the subtleties of digital technology, misapplied.


  • Above: poster's most recent version; below, my modification.

Firstly, I don't like the optical alignment of column edges. It subverts the glyph metrics that have been designed into the font, and creates a soft column edge; metal-style typography should be hard.

Secondly, tight spacing and kerning of small caps is wack/naff. The traditional look is for letterspaced capitals, and that includes small capitals. Furthermore, kerning small capitals creates wonky spacing--here the R_W is tight, but the W_Y is still cavernous. So in my modification, I have tracked out the small caps, and added letterspacing between Æ and R, R and W, and N and comma. Now this different parameter for small caps serves to distinguish it better from the U&lc setting, and makes it the same scale as U&lc: true small caps, not just shrunken capitals that are a bit beefier. Also, letterspacing of the small cap run-in harmonizes it better with the drop cap as a single word, with the letterspacing approximating the mini-gutter width between the drop cap and the three-line text indent.

Thirdly, the drop cap is, like all the best typography, supposed to imply the precision of an underlying grid/matrix/armature, because it's a reassuring recognition for the viewer to know that the work has been precisely assembled. Therefore, the bounds of the drop cap should define a square that aligns with the text matter at baseline, with the column edge at left, with the top of the small caps at top (also because the implication of "caps with small caps" is tacky and to be avoided at all costs), and at right be separated from the text matter by a clearly defined margin; this is why I have aligned "Æ" with the two glyphs beneath it.

And don't get me started on the Th ligature...

eliason's picture

Therefore, the bounds of the drop cap should define a square that aligns ... with the top of the small caps at top (also because the implication of "caps with small caps" is tacky and to be avoided at all costs)

... or with the top of the ascenders at top, if you're less certain about the implication of tackiness. (FWIW, Harry Carter describes "a true two-line letter" as ranging with the ascenders.)

Nick Shinn's picture

I don't find that satisfactory in a face where ascenders are taller than caps.
Better to align with what is immediately obvious and close at hand.

This also makes the distinction between "pure" caps with small caps and caps with small caps as a variant of mixed case, observing the traditional principle of historical hierarchy where the older letter forms precede the later.

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