How to Design with Small Caps
Small caps are capital letterforms that are shorter than full-sized caps. They are usually the height of the lowercase or slightly taller when part of a text font, and can be even taller – sometimes slightly shorter than the full caps – when designed for a display design. Small caps have many uses.
They can be used for titles, subtitles and title pages in publishing, headlines and subheads, text lead-ins, page headings and footers, column headings, as well as a substitute for full-sized caps in acronyms and abbreviations.
The most important thing to know about small caps is to only use the true-drawn variety as opposed to the fake, computer-generated ones.
True-drawn small caps are designed by the type designer to match the weight, width and spacing of the lowercase (or caps if designed for an all-cap typestyle). The fake, computer-generated ones look too light, too tight, and in some cases, too narrow.
For these reasons, they are considered a “type crime” by type-sensitive designers. Unfortunately, the use of these “fakers” is an all too common occurrence. Here is how this amateurish and unprofessional typographic practice can be avoided: if one knows ahead of time that small caps would be a useful feature in any particular job, only use font(s) that contain the true-drawn variety.
If small caps are such a useful typographic tool, why don’t more fonts have them?
Prior to the OpenType font format that can accommodate thousands of characters, the older Type1 and TrueType formats could only accommodate 256 characters, and therefore did not have room to include small caps – even if they were originally designed and available in older font technology such as phototypesetting and hot metal.
In order to work around this limitation, typeface designers and foundries wanting to include small caps had to put them in a second font – either an additional font designated with a SC in the name, or an Expert Set. This made it more expensive for the foundry, and more time-consuming and tedious for the type user, who had to access them from a separate font for each and every usage.
But with OpenType’s expanded character capacity, there is more than enough room for small caps, as well as many other characters desirable to graphic designers.
Identifying and Setting True-drawn Small Caps
So how does one know if a font has true drawn small caps? And if it does, how does one access them?
When using Adobe InDesign, the industry standard for page layout and typesetting, the user interface can be a bit confusing. One can always view the Glyphs panel to see if the font contains small caps, but there is a better way that combines identifying the availability of small caps and applying them.
Here are the steps:
– First, select the font in question in the font dropdown menu in the Character panel or Control panel.
– Next, open the OpenType panel. If the All Small Caps option is not bracketed, there are true-drawn small caps in that particular font. If it is bracketed, that font does not contain them. (Note that some typeface families have small caps for just some of the versions.)
Once you determine that a font does have small caps, you can apply them in one of two ways:
– If you want to convert both caps and lowercase to small caps, select the All Small Caps option in the OpenType panel.
– If you want to convert just the lowercase so that you have a blended cap/small cap setting, select the Small Caps option in the Character panel.
Note that if a font does not have true-drawn small caps, InDesign will create the fake version by reducing the full caps to the default 70% of the cap height.
If you want to eliminate the possibility of fake small caps from ever appearing in your work, you can change the default Small Cap Size from 70% to 100% via Preferences > Advanced Type > Character Settings.
This will not affect true-drawn small caps from appearing when available in a font.