Book Design: 6 Variations on Drop-Cap Typography

by Joel Friedlander on February 29, 2012 · 18 comments

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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.

Drop Caps 1

Using the body font, Adobe Janson

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.

Drop Caps 2

Using the display font from the book, in this case ChunkFive

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.

Drop Caps 3

This example uses Pixie Font, a decorative font

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.

Drop Caps 4

This is the CloisterInitials font

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.

Drop Caps 5

This is a hand-drawn capital letter

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.

Drop Caps 6

Example using the text font again, this time with a small cap lead-in

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.

Illustrated capital from the Book of Kells, Wikipedia. This article originally appeared on CreateSpace on 12/19/2011 under the title How to Use Drop Caps and is reprinted here by permission.

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    { 16 comments… read them below or add one }

    Mchael N. Marcus February 29, 2012 at 2:41 am

    You said, “There’s really only one place you should consider using drop caps, and that’s in the first paragraph of each chapter.”

    And also, “A secondary function of the drop cap is to let the reader know a new section of the book is beginning.”

    It’s generally pretty easy to tell when a new chapter begins, even if there is no drop cap. The first page of a chapter usually has the chapter number and maybe a chapter name, and there may be a blank page before it, and the text may start lower on the page than on other pages, and the page number indication may be different from other pages.

    On the other hand, a drop cap with some white space above can be useful device to start a section within a chapter.

    Michael N. Marcus

    http://www.BookMakingBlog.blogspot.com
    http://www.BookFur.com (information, help and book reviews for authors)
    – Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series: http://www.silversandsbooks.com/booksaboutpublishing.html

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    Reply

    Joel Friedlander February 29, 2012 at 11:53 am

    Well, we’ll just have to disagree on that one Michael. In my opinion, drop caps within the body of a chapter are to be avoided.

    Reply

    James February 29, 2012 at 11:41 am

    Joel,

    I have a sense of how EPUB handles drop caps, but I’d be interested to know more about how they work with Amazon’s proprietary format for Kindle. I’ve seen some problems with my Kindle reader app (not device).

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander March 1, 2012 at 10:57 am

    James,

    Check out this title and the look inside on Amazon:

    Exotic Life by Lisa Alpine. This is the book I referred to in answering Wendy’s comment below. Looks like Joshua Tallent was able to get those small caps in there.

    Reply

    James March 1, 2012 at 2:43 pm

    Thanks, Joel. I’ll check it out.

    Reply

    John Morris February 29, 2012 at 2:01 pm

    How nice to see classic book design with drop caps, we don’t seem to see much use of small caps now, I guess they are not included in most font families now. What has happened to the classic design of headlines and folios?

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander March 1, 2012 at 10:50 am

    John,

    Don’t know about others, but I’ve never stopped using small caps and often employ them as here, for lead-ins and other places. Well set small caps have an elegance that’s hard to reproduce. Thanks for your comment.

    Reply

    Wendy A.M. Prosser March 1, 2012 at 12:06 am

    I like the look of drop caps at chapter beginnings and would like to use them in my own publication (when I have one). But like James, I wonder how they would work with the Kindle? I can’t say I’ve ever seen drop caps in a Kindle book, though I _am_ a relative newbie.

    Regarding small caps — your example looks nice, but is this because the whole of the first sentence is in small caps? Would it look odd with first sentences that are longer than three to five words and are thus only partly small-capped? Or shorter, so the small caps extend over two sentences? Just wondering… :)

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander March 1, 2012 at 10:55 am

    Hi Wendy,

    Not sure how the Kindle handles small caps, but I did a book last year that Joshua Tallent converted and, at least in the iBooks version, the small caps translated quite well.

    As far as the length of the run-in, 3 or 4 words is typical. This example is an anomoly, since it’s such a short sentence. Best practice is to decide on how many words and then keep it consistent throughout the book. This is a long-standing convention and in the right book is quite lovely.

    Reply

    Peter Spenser March 1, 2012 at 6:38 pm

    Some info and a small plug, if I may. The Kindle handles small caps fine, but the display of them depends upon which model of Kindle and how large you set the font size that you’re reading with. The smaller the font, the worse it looks, and the e-ink models look worse than the Fire.

    My book, “Anyone Can Make a Kindle Book,” shows (among other things) all of the common text formatting that the Kindle supports. The examples are in a section near enough to the front of the book that you can see it in the free sample from Amazon. Take a look (whether or not you buy the book). Just knowing what is available for you to use can be inspiring for your design work.

    Drop caps, though, don’t work in the standard Kindle code. You can only do them on the Fire.

    In an EPUB book, on the other hand, small caps can be invoked using a CSS font variant. In fact, small caps can be placed upon a paragraph, using code, such that they extend across the first line of that paragraph (with or without a drop cap), no matter how long that first line is, i.e., no matter what size reading font the user has set his device to. Large font, fewer words with small caps; small font, more words with small caps. Automatically.

    It’s very cool to see in action.

    Reply

    Wendy A.M. Prosser March 2, 2012 at 12:04 am

    Hi Joel

    Thanks for the info. I do agree, the small caps look good. Going to try them myself!

    Reply

    JANIS HUTCHINSON March 5, 2012 at 10:32 am

    Joel, In your article written for Create Space, (9 Book Design Tips that Authors Need to Know) you said to: “Eliminate the use of tabs within the text of your document.” My question is: How can one do that, when you have to indent the first line of each paragraph?

    Reply

    Peter Spenser March 5, 2012 at 12:33 pm

    You are using a word processor, I assume. You set the paragraph style for your normal text to automatically be indented. No tabs needed. If you’re not sure how to do this, check the Help menu or search online for instructions.

    Reply

    JANIS HUTCHINSON March 5, 2012 at 1:32 pm

    Thanks Peter. I never knew I could do that!

    Reply

    Donna March 7, 2012 at 2:58 pm

    How do you feel about a display capital that is set very large and in a different color underneath the text, say, in a magazine? The text itself is flush left. I personally feel that it serves the purpose of decoration and drawing the reader’s eye, but that it doesn’t necessarily link together in the reader’s mind with the first word in the paragraph. Therefore, my preference is to begin the sentence with the complete word, and leave the display capital simply as decoration. That is, if the first word of the paragraph were “Complete,” I would not simply go with a big display “C” beneath the text and begin the line with “omplete.” But I’m not a typographer.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander March 7, 2012 at 4:42 pm

    Your solution makes sense and I’ve seen it used in periodicals. Keep in mind that magazine design is very very different from book design. One wants to grab your attention and is essentially ephemeral; the other wants to get out of the reader’s way and is designed to last a long time.

    Reply

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