The tradition in book design of making the first letter in a paragraph larger than the rest of the type goes back pretty far. In fact, it predates printing entirely. This practice started with scribes. When writing out books, they would sometimes treat these first letters as an opportunity for embellishment. The monks who were scribes would enlarge the letter to the point that it was big enough to become part of an intricate illustration.
When printing first began in the 15th century, early typographers wanted to imitate the manuscripts of the day. They adapted this practice of using a large initial capital letter at the beginning of a chapter as a way of making their books acceptable to a public accustomed to buying illuminated manuscripts.
Today, this practice survives in the drop capitals we see at the beginning of chapters. But like everything else in book design, it’s best to be guided by the long traditions of bookmaking when deciding how to use them.
When to Use Drop Caps
There’s really only one place you should consider using drop caps, and that’s in the first paragraph of each chapter.
There are only a couple of functions served by the drop cap, so let’s take a look at them. This will give us a better idea of when to use them and when not.
- Decoration—In a book with hundreds of pages of gray rectangles of type, it’s considerate to your reader to give her a bit of decoration once in a while, and drop caps are perfect for that.
- Navigation—A secondary function of the drop cap is to let the reader know a new section of the book is beginning. When you see that large letter, it physically alerts you that something new is coming.
Drop Cap Variations
Most often these drop caps are exactly that: a plain capital letter from the font in which the text is set. But there are also lots of other variations including caps that stand above the line (“stand-up caps”) and ones that print in the margin of the book. Here we’ll look at the standard type of drop cap and some variations.
Instead of using the body text font, you can use the display font from your chapter openers. This also ties the two elements together if the display font works well with the body text.
You can also use a purely decorative font. There are thousands of decorative typefaces, and most of them aren’t appropriate for use in a book’s body text. But if you’re only using one letter at a time, as you would for a drop cap, they can be very effective. For example, look at the listing of free decorative fonts on fontsquirrel.com for some ideas.
There are also fonts that are made up of only large, square illustrated capital letters, and these are intended to be used as decorative drop caps. An example would be Cloister Initials.
Illustrations in which you hire an artist to create letter forms within a shape to be used as drop caps can be very effective. For instance, in a book on garden care, you could incorporate drawings of different kinds of plants into or around the letterforms.
You can also add to the effect you’re creating at the beginning of the chapter by emphasizing the first few words following the drop cap. You’ll see this done with small caps, often with some letter spacing. To use this approach, decide on a standard number of words between 3 and 5 and keep all the chapter openings consistent.
You Can Also Misuse Drop Caps
Lately, I’ve seen some self-published books in which the author got a little carried away with how wonderful these big letters looked. Instead of just using a drop cap at the beginning of the chapters, I’ve seen books where every text break in the book—and I mean a lot of them—had a big, ornate, or very bold drop cap. There must have been hundreds of them.
I don’t think this improves the look of the book. Don’t forget that readers are really interested in your content, not in how pretty your pages look, unless you’re selling books on the visual arts.
The job of the book designer is to create an environment conducive to reading and engaging with the text. Elements that are added to the page need to serve a function. Running heads help a reader navigate by showing where she is in the book and page numbers provide reference points.
In this scheme, the decoration we use on chapter openings offers a welcome relief to the reader, a signal that the subject is changing in some way, and a chance for the author to either make a clean break in the story or continue to unfold the hierarchy of information in the book.
Drop caps can be a pleasant part of this inter-chapter break and, used with taste, lend another dimension of effective typography to your book design.