The practice of using a large letter to mark the start of a text has been around for almost two thousand years. Illustrated caps increased usability by marking important passages and guiding readers through the text. Unlike their historic counterparts, drop caps on the Web don’t add value in terms of usability or readability—and they are hard for Web developers to control, often rendering differently across browsers.
Yet, front-end designers and clients often want to use drop caps as decorative elements. How should we implement them? Just as scribes, artisans, and early printers had a variety of methods for creating initial capitals, we Web designers have multiple methods to choose from. We can use an image of a letter, create a class to enlarge and place a letter, or use a first-child:first-letter to enlarge and place the first letter of the first paragraph. But which method should we use? Which method remains consistent across browsers? Which is most accessible?
Further Reading on SmashingMag: #
- 5 Useful Coding Solutions For Designers And Developers
- Weird And Wonderful Typography – Yet Still Illegible
- The Perfect Paragraph
- Understanding The Difference Between Type And Lettering
Initial Caps In Manuscripts #
Examples of initial caps have been found dating back to the 4th century CE. Early codex books (books with pages, as opposed to scrolls) did not have word spaces, sentence breaks, or paragraph breaks. The written word was not “read” the way it is now. Written text represented sounds; sounds held meaning. “Readers” lived in a primarily oral culture and verbalized the sounds to help them remember ideas and information already committed to memory.
Historically, initial caps were not just decorative elements. Scribes used them to mark where a new section—a new idea—started in the text. This in turn helped “readers” find their place in a text.
Even as late as the 15th century, monks and scribes used initial caps to aid in visually “chunking” texts. Figure 1 shows a manuscript (lettered by hand) bible from 1407. The initial cap (P in the word Petrus) contains a picture of St. Peter, and is thus historiated; it relates to the text by showing a recognizable figure or scene. It is also illuminated; it is decorated with gold in order to bring the light of God to the reader.
Historiated caps not only helped mark the start of a new idea in the text, they acted as place markers for significant places in the text. Images related to the story served as memory aids for priests and monks who “read” the texts by flickering candle light.
But look closely (Figures 1 and 2) and you’ll see a far more subtle “initial cap.” The manuscript contains word spaces but does not contain a space between sentences. Thus, the letterer added strokes of red to the first letter of each sentence, giving visual separation to sounds represented on the page.
Figure 1: Illuminated, Historiated Cap in a Latin Bible, 1407. Lettering by Gerard Brils, Belgium. (Image: Adrian Pingstone)