Standing at the beginning: Initials, Drop Caps and Initiums.

Also known as an initial, drop caps are a way to guide the reader through the text, while also adding decoration, style and character. Medieval scribes would use ornate letters to begin new sections of their work. Historically, they included illustrations inside or alongside the typography.

An example of a drop cap from 1457.

The word Initial is from the Latin initialis which means “standing at the beginning”. Initiums were special drop caps in “illuminated manuscripts” (books that were decorated throughout with illustrations and decorations, in the margins and within the text paragraphs themselves).

The example to the right is a medieval dropped drop cap, meaning the letterform is nestled into the text. Raised drop caps are another option, where the bottom of the letterform lies with the rest of the first sentence.

Some medieval texts are difficult to read because of the spacing surrounding ornate drop caps. Thankfully, we got better in time and recognized the importance of spacing around initials.

This example from Miss Vogue magazine uses a drop cap as a giant typographic element on the page.

You might think of drop caps as mostly being in books of fairytales or mythology, but they appeared in books of many different topics. In modern use, they are perhaps most used in magazines.


Where drop caps used to be ornate and illustrated, most modern uses are minimal, focusing on one letterform and limited colours. I will definitely be considering using drop caps in the design for my book. I think it lends a bit of whimsy and romance to the manuscript.

Luckily for me, these days you can easily find drop cap fonts made by talented designers. This might be a good option for any design work that needs a little extra something.

Do you like drop caps or do you find them distracting? Have you seen interesting use of a drop cap recently? Let me know. I’m always looking for more inspiration!







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