Typography: Drop Caps are BACK!

Drop caps were all the rage back when monks created manuscripts by hand with artful images within big letters while the population was ravaged by the Bubonic Plague but hey… art must go on! Since then, they became a bit more tame as less and less people were burned as witches but as a design element, the old rules have been stretched to allow for design creativity even greater than the days of kings, queens and crusades, killing everyone in the name of God.

As a design element, a nice big drop cap draws attention in a layout. The old monks knew that as they drew groups of people who looked like they suffered neck problems, standing around a big letter as if it were an everyday occurrence. Archeologists believe it was.

Examples of initial caps have been found dating back to the 4th century AD. Early books (opposed to scrolls), copied manually, did not have word spaces, sentence breaks or paragraph breaks. It was one, long mumbling.

The written word was not read the way it is now. Written text represented sounds; the sounds themselves held the meaning. “Readers” lived in a primarily oral culture and verbalized the sounds to help them remember ideas and information already committed to memory. A grunt or sneeze might insult someone and war would be declared.

Historically, initial caps were not just decorative elements. Scribes used them to mark where a new section started in the text. This in turn helped readers find their place in a text and I gather, remember where they left off after returning to the manuscripts after a long day of serf beating.

Even as late as the 15th century, monks and scribes used initial caps to aid in visually “chunky” texts. Often the picture that accompanied the large letter related to the text so the picture gave the reader an idea of what the text referred to, just like a TV promo for a new show.

Learn the Rules!

Joel Friedlander, an author and book designer, wrote an interesting article, 8 Drop Caps For Chapter Openings in Adobe InDesign. Mr. Friedlander shows basic examples of drop caps most commonly used.

The two-toned, hanging indent 3-line drop cap. Whatever color you choose, the block draws the eye right to the copy.

A ghosted letter for a really unusual drop cap. The question is; does the word read as “very” or Every?” Personally, I think the drop cap can be pushed over just a bit.

 For that medieval feel without the craned necks and monk images, this decorative drop cap is… well… decorative!

 The two-line drop cap stand up can have problems with the lower line if not handled properly.

 The single line stand up drop cap always works well as long as it’s kerned correctly.

The three-line drop cap, using a blocky serif is bold and lines up well with the space. The same thing can be done nicely with a stand up on the top and the left side for a really bold effect. 

 That little jog on the bottom of the E will crowd the third line when kerned to fit the first line. Three line drop caps are okay but choose your font wisely.

Sometimes, even with a simple two line drop cap, the effect just isn’t enough. Go bold or go home! Design is about the message and making it readable.

Drop The Rules!

Stretch your creativity and enjoy designing some wild drop caps! Think illustration, photography and other different elements.

A ghosted letter acting as a drop cap draws attention to the start of the copy while balancing the page design and other elements.

An interesting use of all elements, incorporating a one line stand up drop cap for a dramatic design. Consider illustration and photography for dynamic effect!

There are, of course ways to bend and break rules. If you are creative, the sky’s the limit when using drop caps. With a creative flair, you can wed the background of a web site or print piece by using a photo alphabet as a drop cap behind text for a layout WOW! Factor.

©GL Stock Images

The Alphabet Gallery from GL Stock Images offers some really different choices for lettering that can be used as drop caps or in backgrounds in conjunction with drop caps. Skim the gallery and see if different pieces inspire you. The great thing about photo lettering is that they can really add to the subject for a fun element in your design.

©GL Stock Images

 This lettering collection just begs to be used with an article or web site on yoga… or mimes!

©GL Stock Images

 Imagine a sky background with a fluffy letter as the drop cap? Heavenly!

©GL Stock Images

 It’s hot, it has a vine, it’s perfect for almost any use… except a retirement home, but I don’t judge.

©GL Stock Images

 “Orange” you glad there’s a fruit letterform available? “Pear” them up with a colored background!

©GL Stock Images

 Any tech article or site would do well with this letterform and the color can be matched and expanded for a larger background. Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto!

©GL Stock Images

 Neon swirls will light up any layout!

©GL Stock Images

Sign language isn’t necessarily just for articles on deafness. The photographic hands lend… a hand, to create a different layout. Give the layout “sole” and try some feet, too!

*Author’s Note: Using images found on the web for ANY business or design usage may be considered a copyright violation. Play it safe and spend a dollar or two for proper, legal images.

Speider Schneider

Speider Schneider is a former member of The Usual Gang of Idiots at MAD Magazine and has designed products for Disney/Pixar, Warner Bros., Harley-Davidson, ESPN, Mattel, DC and Marvel Comics, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon among other notable companies. Speider is a former member of the board for the Graphic Artists Guild, co-chair of the GAG Professional Practices Committee and a former board member of the Society of Illustrators. Follow him on Twitter @speider

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