Even before Gutenberg invented the craft of typography,
fancy initials were used to begin chapters
and decorate pages in medieval manuscripts. While
Gutenberg didn’t create specially designed initial
letters to complement his fonts, he left a space in his
typeset pages so these typographic embellishments
could later be drawn in by hand.
Most type designers who followed Gutenberg
added 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.
Initial letters probably grew out of medieval
scribes’ desire to glorify and add visual beauty to
the “words of God.” Their goal was to raise text to
the level of art. Today, initial letters are used for the
same—although somewhat less ethereal—purpose: to
add beauty or emphasis to the beginning of a page,
chapter or paragraph.
TWO KINDS OF INITIALS
The oldest initial lettering 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.
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. If the initial letter has points, like some
forms of the cap A or M, they should project above
the text letters to achieve optical alignment. The
base of a dropped initial letter should also appear to
align with a line of the text copy. If the base of the
initial is pointed, as in the V and W, then the points
should project below the baseline in order to achieve
visual alignment. For the same reason, the bottoms
of round letters like the C and O should also fall
slightly below the lines they align with.
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. Sometimes when the letter A is used,
the first line can be aligned closely to the top of the
character, with the following lines indented and vertically
aligned. 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 font may not work for the same letter in another
font. Look at the characters and text; make design
decisions on how things look.
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 so they
align optically with the edge. For example, when the
initial is a cap T, the left-hand serif part of the bar
on the top bar should project into the left margin.
Round letters like C and O should extend slightly
into the left margin to create an optically aligned
Frequently, words that begin with initial letters are
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.
When the initialed word is a proper name and
you are using caps to create a text transition, the
entire name should also be in capitals. The first letter
of each word in the name should be set in capitals
and the rest in small caps to distinguish it from
Sometimes initial letters are 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.
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. Historically,
initial letters have not been used with copy set in
sans serif type styles—this is a rule based on tradition,
and we all know what rules are made for.
It’s OK to be creative with initials. Try putting a
subtle ornamental scroll before the opening initial.
Maybe a lowercase letter could be used 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.
While your next project may not be as lofty as
that of a medieval scribe, a sprinkling of initial letters
may be just what you need to elevate the end result.