Guidelines for drop cap letters?

athanasius's picture

What are opinions on how to set different letters in drop caps? I know it depends on the font, but setting aside unpredictable ornate initials, what are the accepted guidelines for, say, standard simple initials opening a book chapter or other long text document? I'm primarily interested in the guidelines for relatively formal straightforward documents (books, business reports, etc.); obviously people can do lots of whimsical things in informal or more ornate situations.

In particular, I'm wondering about two issues:

(1) Obviously the first line should generally be brought in closer to the initial. But assuming the initial occupies three or more lines of text, when is it (if ever) a good idea to pull in the second and/or subsequent lines to follow the shape of the initial? I've seen this done with A, V, and W to create a reasonable effect with the lines flowing along the diagonal. But I've also seen lines pulled in with other letters that might produce excessive whitespace otherwise near the bottom (T, P, F) -- once even in a middle line next to an E, which looked quite strange to me. Oh, and L is obviously its own problem with more than two lines. On the other hand, I've often seen initials without such manipulations, which can sometimes leave a lot of whitespace, though they look a little more "formal" to my eye.

(2) I know this is largely up to the eye of a designer and the specific font, but what are the general guidelines for aligning the left side of the initial? I know that round letters (C, O, Q) look better pushed out slightly into the margin, and perhaps those that slant up on the left side (V, W, Y) or have an uneven left side (J, T). With pointy serifs, it seems like it might even be a good idea to nudge out things like an I a bit. But how far is enough (or not enough), and how far is too much? Are there general guidelines for such things?

I don't expect that there's a magic equation or formula for these issues, which are highly dependent on the individual circumstances. But are there general opinions or rules that people follow beyond what I've already mentioned here?

charles ellertson's picture

There are lots of opinions. One thing you can be sure of is whatever your opinion, someone else will have a different one. Even your "obviously" is banned by some.

Here is one from column B. A drop cap is visually strong. The more lines it occupies, the stronger. If/when it threatens to overwhelm your chapter title, screen the drop cap back to restore some of the strength of the display type.

Figure out how to deal with a drop cap preceded by quote marks. Strong opinions on that one, too. Or when the first word is in italic. If chapters start with a two-letter word -- such as "At" -- you have another problem. Or, you're using a three-line drop cap, but the first paragraph in a chapter is only one, two, or three lines long. And on & on.

From column C: Some use small caps following a drop cap to really give a geometric shape.

My personal opinion is that as with most text design, the text itself will help you decide, and sometimes the best decision is not to use them.

athanasius's picture

Thanks, charles_e for the thoughts. I do realize these are not easy questions and that there are a lot of opinions out there. And, yes, I also do realize that there are further complexities beyond what I ask (other punctuation, short opening paragraphs, use of small caps, etc.). I should have qualified my "obviously" as well; just as "obviously" there are bound to be other opinions on that matter.

Perhaps to clarify my question -- I'm really wondering about letter shapes and the two particular issues I bring up: (1) when/how much to pull in text on the right, and (2) when/how much to push into the margin on the left. I realize people may have varying opinions, but I assume most people will at least have some general guidelines that they personally think work well.

While I too can come up with dozens of other parameters and dozens of other special situations, I'm trying to get a feel for the basics. Beyond choosing a font, choosing the number of lines to drop, and deciding where to put the top of the initial, it seems like the two questions I bring up are the most common a designer has to deal with, no? And these are highly dependent on the shape of the initial.

Perhaps I'm asking a dumb question here, but I thought if one can come up with a set of rough principles to follow for the shapes of the various standard characters in roman type, similar principles can be extended to other more ornate shapes for initials.

Or is a search for such rough principles bound to fail? Is the answer always simply "whatever looks good to your eye"?

charles ellertson's picture

Whatever looks good to your eye is where you'll start anyway, if the decision is yours. And over time, what looks good to you will likely evolve. In my world, several people may have an opinion: The editor, the designer, the typesetter, and the art director. Whose opining prevails will vary. More often than you might think, it is editorial.

I remember one press -- I think it was Stanford University Press -- where they had a style sheet for drop caps. It covered all 26 letters, at least, implicitly -- a number of letterforms were grouped together. And the first "regular" letter of first line was closer to the drop cap only in a few cases -- A was one. As I remember, second & third lines pulled back with V and W, but not T. They had their reasons.

Did I agree? No, but it was "house style." Sometimes the comp is suppose to decide, but an the art director gets in a reactive mode. No opinion going in, but if they don't like something as set, they chime in at revises.

Now if it is always your decision -- no editor, designer, or art director putting in a requirement -- you will perforce develop principles, as you call them. And over time, they will change. You will even be able to come up with arguments to justify each of them, even though the arguments conflict. Or, if you prefer, you can get these principles from authoritative books on design. As often as not, the authorities will not agree.

I realize this doesn't directly answer your question. Maybe someone else will post.

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