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Akira Says ... Linotype’s Monthly Typographic Tip

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Akira says ...

Typographic Tip of the Month from Linotype’s Type Director Akira Kobayashi!

December 2006: Use your font’s correct small caps, or do not use small caps at all!

Used in typography for centuries, small caps are shorter capital letters that may either be mixed with upper and lowercase text, or used alone. A great tool for emphasizing bits of text, they can help create a sophisticated hierarchy of information.

Thanks to the automatic small caps generation buttons found in many applications, we are seeing more small caps now than ever before. Unfortunately, if a font does not have small caps in it, many computer software programs will auto-generate fake small caps for you. You might not even know whether your text is using real of fake small caps at all – but your readers will. Fake small caps, being shrunken down capitals instead of newly drawn entities, are normally too light visually when paired with the rest of the glyphs in a text.

The key to judging true small caps lies analyzing in their strokes. Do the letters look as light or dark as the non-small cap characters around them? Are the thick and thin strokes of the small caps harmonious when compared with the thick and thin elements of other letters?

Old PostScript and TrueType fonts from Linotype do not include small caps in the character sets of “normal” fonts. Rather, when available, they were built into separate fonts, which normally have the suffix “SC” in their names. Linotype has integrated existing small caps into many OpenType fonts. Occasionally Linotype has even designed and integrated small caps, which haven’t existed before.

When using a normal Linotype PostScript or TrueType font in an application, or when using an OpenType font that does not have any small caps in its character set, pressing the automatic small caps button will result in the auto-generation of small caps. This practice should be avoided. These small caps will not harmonize well with the letters around them at all. Small Caps should only be used when they are in fact “real,” or “designed” small caps.

What are some examples of common small cap usage? Abbreviations are a common example. Long strings of capitals in a text can stand out and attract too much attention, especially if they have more than three or four letters. Abbreviations with two letters are not often replaced with small caps. For instance, the abbreviation for the United Nations, “UN,” is not normally written with small caps, whereas the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) does appear better with them. The abbreviations for eras (e.g., B.C. and A.D., or B.C.E. and C.E.) are also often good opportunities for the use of small caps.

In many occasions, it can be helpful to add additional letter spacing to strings of small caps.

Curious about the typefaces used in this month’s tip?
Optima™ nova
Stempel Garamond™

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