Drop caps and initials are an effective way of grabbing readers attention because they add personality and visual strength to the page. Though, there is a slight difference between them. Drop caps drop below the baseline and initials sit on the baseline but are much bigger than the body text.
Both, naturally signify the beginnings of the text and drop caps can be used instead of paragraph subheads. Their origins date back to the 9th century when they were used in religious books. Those drop caps were richly illustrated, painted in bright colors and gilded.
They lost popularity at the beginning of the 20th century, especially during the Bauhaus period, but they are having a revival in last 20 years.
Drop caps and initials practices
Today drop caps and initials can be used in numerous ways. Whatever design you use, use it throughout the story. Do not mix different designs for drop caps and initials in the same story, make it consistent.
The choice of typography is up to you. You can either use the same font as in the body text or you can choose different contrasting one. The effectiveness of the drop caps and initials will depend on your choice of type.
The size of the drop caps and initial letters should fit with the headline and the rest of the text.
I have one rule that I follow and that is to almost never use drop caps that drop only two lines deep. In my opinion there is nothing special in drop caps that are two lines deep. They do not draw that much attention and they do not bring drama to the page. You can use 2 lines deep drop caps in some shorter stories and only in the first paragraph of the text.
Also take into consideration the width of your text column. The wider the column the deeper the drop caps can go. For narrower columns you should go less deep. You don’t want your drop cap that is 5 lines deep to take up half the width of the column. If the column of text is really narrow, like picture captions, there is no point in placing drop caps in it.
Also there is no point of placing drop caps and initials into short text blocks. If the text is only two or three rows deep, no matter how long, there is no use of placing drop caps into it since it will look awkward if the drop cap sits on empty space instead on the rest of the text.
So, my rule of thumb is to go for 3 lines deep up to 5 to 7 lines deep. For bigger impact you should use initials and only at the beginning of the story or a page.
For paragraphs always use drop caps.
One thing that you should avoid is to apply drop caps to the text aligned right or in the center. Unfortunately I have seen this practice so many times and it looks really bad when you add the drop cap to the text aligned right. You can see in the example above that the ragged text on the left leaves unwanted space between the text and the drop cap.
When positioning drop caps on a page try not to position all of them at the same horizontal line. You can do this only if you want to make a statement with the letters that are used as drop caps.
There is another nice practice that is used widely lately and that is to use the whole word or few short words as drop caps. In this case it is advised to go only two lines deep since more would be too much. Instead of initials you can even use one word or few short words that can represent initial words in this case.
Symbols as drop caps and initials
No one says that you have to use letters to make drop caps or initials.
Symbols or other graphical elements are OK but they have to look good and to have some meaning.
You can use boxes, arrows, quote marks, anything that will look good but meaningful. But do not over exaggerate with their usage.
Tips for better alignment of drop caps and initials
Some letters do not align nicely with the outer edges of the column margin. For example letters “L” or “P” can look like they are moved to the inside of the column, especially if they are set in bigger size. To correct this issue you should add two characters for drop cap. Then add empty space, by pressing space bar, before the letter you will use as drop cap. Then you position your cursor between the empty space and drop cap letter and kern them in negative value until the letter aligns with the edge of the column properly.
Another adjustment that needs to be done is the alignment of the rest of the text with the initial letter. In many cases there will be a gap between them and it should be resolved with another negative kerning values input.
Third adjustment that needs to be corrected is to adjust the space between the drop cap letter and the rest of the text. In many cases the text next to the drop cap will be too close to it. You can adjust this issue by kerning them in positive value to add some breathing space to the drop cap.
Drop caps and initials are really effective ways to add some graphical splash to the page, but if done wrong it can look awkward and unpleasant. Trust your eyes and your judgement. If it looks fine than great but if it does not, remove them and use some other element to spice up the page.