Raised and Dropped Initials
Even before Gutenberg invented the craft of typography, fancy initials were used to begin chapters and decorate pages in medieval manuscripts. And while Gutenberg didn’t create initial letters to complement his fonts, he did leave a space in his typeset pages so these typographic embellishments could later be drawn in by hand.
Most type designers who followed Gutenberg, however, did add initial letters to their palette. Caslon hand-cut decorative initial letters to be used with his standard types. Bodoni developed an entire range of outsized letters that complemented the weight and proportions of his text designs. There were also initial letters in the fonts by Garamond, Janson and Baskerville. (Illustration 1)
Two Kinds of Initials
The oldest initial form is the drop cap. Here the initial letter is set down within the copy, not rising above the top line of text. The other style is a raised initial. This variety rests on the baseline of the first line of copy and rises above the top of the text block.
Raised initials are the easiest to set – just align the baseline of the initial with the first line of text copy. Sometimes the copy to the right of the initial letter needs to be kerned to the left to ensure that the first word is read properly. The initial letters to watch for are the same ones that would usually be kerned in normal text copy: T, W, V, Y. (Illustration 2)
Setting dropped initials can be more challenging. Dropped initials should fit snugly within the surrounding copy, and the top of the character should align optically with the top of the opening word or words. The base of a dropped initial should also appear to align with a line of the text copy. (Illustration 3)
With most dropped initials, lines of surrounding text copy are aligned vertically with just enough indent to provide snug spacing between the initial and the lines of copy it adjoins. (This is usually less than the line spacing.) As with most things typographic, however, there can be exceptions to this guideline. Sometimes letters like A, L, R, or even an E, may require special handling. When using initial letters with irregular right sides, the first line of the paragraph is usually brought in close to the letter, and the lines that follow are aligned with the right side of its body. Line beginnings can also hug the right side of the initial letter.
The key to the best alignment of initials is the same as for all other typographic arrangements: It has to look good. What works for one letter in one typeface may not work for the same letter in another typeface. (Illustration 4)
Whether you’re using capital letters as dropped or raised initials, some capital letters should be set overhanging the left edge of the text block, or be slightly taller, so they align optically. For example, when the initial is a cap T, the top left crossbar should project into the left margin. Round letters like C and O should also extend slightly into the left margin and below the baseline to create optical alignment. (Illustration 5)
Words that begin with initial letters are also frequently completed with capitals. While this isn’t necessary, it makes the transition from large initial letter to text-size lowercase characters smoother. When the first word has only one or two letters, it may facilitate the transition to use capitals for the second word as well.
Initial letters can be housed in decorative boxes. In this case, the space to the right of the box should be optically the same as the text line space. (Illustration 6)
When using quotes, the opening quote should be sized somewhere between the initial size and the point size of the text copy, but its alignment should remain at the optical top of the letter. (Illustration 7)
Sometimes initials are set very large and serve as an oversized graphic introduction to a page. These can be very striking but, if they are too big or too far away from the text letters that follow them, readability can be impaired.
It’s OK to be creative with initials. Try using a lowercase letter instead of a capital. The initial can be put into a plain box or circle. Initials can be hand-drawn; they can be exceptionally decorative or very simple. They just need to look good.
Text copy in illustrations are from Shakespeare’s Sonnets
Text is set in the ITC New Veljovic™ Book typeface
Initials are set in the Lithos™ Bold, Windsor Bold, Gill Floriated Capitals™, Caslon™ Open Face, Ophelia™ Italic, Special Alphabets™ 6 and Donatello™ Regular typefaces
- Allan Haley is Director of Words & Letters at Monotype Imaging. Here he is responsible for strategic planning and creative implementation of just about everything related to typeface designs. He is also responsible for editorial content for the company’s type libraries and Web sites.
- Prior to working for Monotype, Mr. Haley was Principal of Resolution, a consulting firm with expertise in fonts, font technology, type and typographic communication. He was also executive vice president of International Typeface Corporation.
- Mr. Haley is ex officio Chairman of the Board of the Society of Typographic Aficionados, and past President of the New York Type Directors Club. He is highly regarded as an educator and is a frequently requested speaker at national computer and design conferences.
- Mr. Haley is also a prolific writer, with five books on type and graphic communication and hundreds of articles for graphic design publications to his credit.