Linked by Thom Holwerda on Tue 12th Jan 2010 13:31 UTC
Graphics, User Interfaces Every now and then on OSNews, we discuss typography and language. Despite the fact that many think it's not relevant for computing - it most certainly is. Whether you're browsing the web, reading email, or chatting over IM - the most common element on your computer screen is typography. Today, I want to discuss something we barely have in my native language: small capitals.
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At one point in my life...
by Tuishimi on Tue 12th Jan 2010 15:28 UTC
Tuishimi
Member since:
2005-07-06

...I created educational material for a QA group in DEC. Workbooks and such.

Learned many tricks of the trade and with that came many cautions about font usage. Fonts are extremely powerful ways of leading the eye and demarcation of thoughts and ideas.

While I don't have a vendetta against small caps, I agree their usage should be quite limited.

It is actually easier for the eye (brain) do discern mixed case. Letters are more quickly recognized and reading becomes more flowed. Other things that are important are white space and balance (back to fonts, with titles, header/footer graphics, etc.)

Anyway... this topic should be MORE frequently addressed especially in web development groups.

Reply Score: 2

I like small caps
by filmamigo on Tue 12th Jan 2010 15:32 UTC
filmamigo
Member since:
2010-01-12

Thom, I always enjoy your side excursions into the typographic. I don't always agree though, and today is an example.

I like small caps.

I think you may be onto something when you note that small caps are very foreign to your native language. Aside from the current normative usages (like for acronyms), smalls caps have a "heritage" (read "old fashioned") aspect to them.

Small caps in English harken to the era of independent small-press broadsheet printers. Look up an example of 1800's posters -- like a U.S. Civil War era print job. There is a playfulness in the use of sporadic capitalization and small caps.

The use of sporadic capitals and small caps helped those broadsheets convey something that is missing from modern, Helvetica-inspired web communications. It very clearly conveys EMOTION, C A D E N C E, and authorial emphasis. Texting, emails, and web postings are often found to be problematic because they are missing so many of those elements. The need for an emoticon arises, in part, because of a mechanical reliance on a single typeface with no emotional inflection.

I also like small caps because they are part of a playful heritage within the English language. English has been marked by rapid evolution in spelling, word invention, and the adoption of phrases from other languages. It's fun!

Reply Score: 3

RE: I like small caps
by JacobMunoz on Tue 12th Jan 2010 16:45 UTC in reply to "I like small caps"
JacobMunoz Member since:
2006-03-17

I agree, and I do think it's usage in early US prints (of all sorts) has made it a part of 'traditional' American English. From elementary to high school, every US history course has images with small caps - so it doesn't really strike us as jarring or foreign because we've always seen small caps (most of the time without even realizing it).

Most official US seals have small caps in some form as well (President's Seal, every State Seal, most govt. departments, academia, etc.) in places where regular lower-case just doesn't look right. "of the" just doesn't look as formal as a small "OF THE" because lower-case is puny, weak, and boring.

I do admit that when I use small caps I often find that I need to adjust the font size for it to look right sometimes, but I don't use them often enough or have such problems that I gripe and complain about it.

Edited 2010-01-12 16:45 UTC

Reply Score: 2

RE[2]: I like small caps
by Zifre on Wed 13th Jan 2010 01:38 UTC in reply to "RE: I like small caps"
Zifre Member since:
2009-10-04

I agree, and I do think it's usage in early US prints (of all sorts) has made it a part of 'traditional' American English. From elementary to high school, every US history course has images with small caps - so it doesn't really strike us as jarring or foreign because we've always seen small caps (most of the time without even realizing it).

Most official US seals have small caps in some form as well (President's Seal, every State Seal, most govt. departments, academia, etc.) in places where regular lower-case just doesn't look right. "of the" just doesn't look as formal as a small "OF THE" because lower-case is puny, weak, and boring.

I live in the US and I haver almost never seen small caps. Admittedly, I haven't been looking out for it. But when I do notice it, it definitely does distract and annoy me.

Reply Score: 2

RE: I like small caps
by Doc Pain on Tue 12th Jan 2010 19:44 UTC in reply to "I like small caps"
Doc Pain Member since:
2006-10-08

Thom, I always enjoy your side excursions into the typographic.


I may express the famous "me too" here. :-)

I like small caps.


I've worked for some years in the scientific / academic sector and have done typography there. Small caps came in handy when you wanted to connect, let's say, a person's name to an effect, which is done this way in German: "der SCHULZsche Effekt" (no idea if such a thing really exists, but let's assume this for an illustration purpose). In this example, the name "SCHULZ" should start with a regular capital S and and continue with small caps for C up to Z; then "sche" is appended in small letters. It really does look good when set correctly. This special form is used to show that "Schulz" is not an abbreviation (which are set in capitals, and may or may not contain dots, such as "N. V." or "KVP"). Other means, used in the absence of small caps, are typesetting it in italics, and maybe adding an apostrophe, e. g. "Schulz'scher Effekt". Of course, small caps can include hyphens for concatenated nouns, e. g. "die Van-der-Beulen-Schaltung", named after some arbitrary mister van der Beulen.

Of course, LaTeX is the tool of choice. It offers the \sc macro: {\sc This is in small caps!} with scopus, or \sc now small caps \rm and now normal roman font again.

As you will agree, LaTeX is for professional typesetting, usually on paper, and often for PDF files. It's not used for the web.

BUT:

Is the web usable for typography?

As a sidenote: Many written (i. e. printed) languages suggest the use of ligatures, such as "ck", "ch", "ff", "fl", "ffl" or "fi" and many others in German. If you want to have something typeset correctly, you can hardly achieve this with web tools. The usual workaround is to provide a PDF file that contains all the typographic properties.

The use of sporadic capitals and small caps helped those broadsheets convey something that is missing from modern, Helvetica-inspired web communications. It very clearly conveys EMOTION, C A D E N C E, and authorial emphasis. Texting, emails, and web postings are often found to be problematic because they are missing so many of those elements. The need for an emoticon arises, in part, because of a mechanical reliance on a single typeface with no emotional inflection.


That's what smileys (to be delivered as embedded and animated pictures) are to be used for on the web. :-)

English has been marked by rapid evolution in spelling, word invention, and the adoption of phrases from other languages. It's fun!


Every language is fun, as soon as you are able to master it. :-)

Reply Score: 2

Comment by defdog99
by defdog99 on Tue 12th Jan 2010 15:36 UTC
defdog99
Member since:
2006-09-06

Quit yelling softly at me !

Reply Score: 7

ttf lib
by bsdero on Tue 12th Jan 2010 16:12 UTC
bsdero
Member since:
2005-08-29

I wrote a little image program using freetype lib ( I think OO uses this library?) and the library does the font rendering work. After that, u can do some bit-blitting to some display buffer or the like. Sure, u can use many options for font rendering, like kerning, width and height of text, and some another cool options. But I was looking for a "weight" of text... and I didn't find anything. Not in the freetype doc here: http://freetype.sourceforge.net/freetype2/documentation.html

The only thing from here is to read font data and program the text rendering yourself instead.

I think OpenOffice is using freetype internal text rendering funcs. Would be better if OO programmers could develop their own text render capabilites instead freetype ones....

Edited 2010-01-12 16:16 UTC

Reply Score: 1

"Always use my fonts..."
by cjcoats on Tue 12th Jan 2010 16:24 UTC
cjcoats
Member since:
2006-04-16

And some of us have been so disgusted about what
so-called web designers do that we set stringent
rules about the display of fonts: what font to use,
and what minimum sizes are, etc.

The PITA is that CSS can subvert some of this.
Which IMNHO is obnoxious, too. Any guesses why
"Zap style sheets" is the very most-used button
on my browser?

I know what my eyes can read on my screen: J Random Idiot doesn't have a clue.

Edited 2010-01-12 16:24 UTC

Reply Score: 1

Comment by iWill
by iWill on Tue 12th Jan 2010 18:12 UTC
iWill
Member since:
2009-12-16

Thom, I disagree that small caps are a distraction. If you look at the line of text here, you will see that they allow a seamless scan of the line. The font used is Garamond, which had a relatively high x-height which would cause severe impairment to scanning the line if normal caps were used.

<img src="http://i126.photobucket.com/albums/p116/readred_2007/SCaps.png">...

Present browsers do not handle typography competently, although this facility will come one day.

Edited 2010-01-12 18:27 UTC

Reply Score: 1

RE: Comment by iWill
by Thom_Holwerda on Tue 12th Jan 2010 18:37 UTC in reply to "Comment by iWill"
Thom_Holwerda Member since:
2005-06-29

Does Garamond/small caps still look as good on smaller point sizes, though? It's easy to make a font look good at large sizes - it's the smaller sizes that I'm more interested in.

Reply Score: 1

Don't understand the hate
by google_ninja on Tue 12th Jan 2010 21:48 UTC
google_ninja
Member since:
2006-02-05

small-caps aren't really used inline that often in web design, where it is used is in headers or subheaders of things. In fact, I can't think of a single instance of small-caps being used for emphasis in a non academic page, and it is pretty rare to see it at all.

Is there any specific examples you have of small-caps being abused on the web?

Reply Score: 2

Comment by ricard
by Ricard on Tue 12th Jan 2010 21:59 UTC
Ricard
Member since:
2005-07-03

Is this an American English thing? I hardly see any small caps outside of American academic journals, one of the few printed American English materials I see; unlike digital material.

Reply Score: 2

using Times New Roman
by testerus on Tue 12th Jan 2010 22:45 UTC
testerus
Member since:
2005-07-06

Does Times New Roman feature small caps at all? Better use a font that knows about small caps like Linux Libertine: http://linuxlibertine.sourceforge.net/Libertine-EN.html#spezial

Reply Score: 1

Comment by cavewoman
by cavewoman on Tue 12th Jan 2010 23:29 UTC
cavewoman
Member since:
2009-10-27

"21st-century" in French you would have to write « XXIe siècle » using small caps for Roman numerals.

Reply Score: 1

Bleh
by Kalessin on Wed 13th Jan 2010 00:45 UTC
Kalessin
Member since:
2007-01-18

Well, as someone who is not particularly typeface or font savvy, I must say that small caps seems rather ugly. They're rather jarring and just don't feel like they fit in with the rest of the text. Maybe that makes sense with things like mathematical formulas, but for acronyms? They're used for too much these days for it to make much sense to try and distinguish them like that. I mean, you wouldn't do that with a regular name, would you? Really, how is NATO different from Novell? Why should one be in small caps and the other in the normal font?

I just find it ugly and pointless. It seems like the kind of thing that typographic geeks would care a lot about, but personally, I don't like small caps at all.

And as for the web, I agree with Thom that we don't need more complexity. Web pages already tend to bad enough as is, and browsers have a hard enough time rendering things properly with complicating them that much further.

Reply Score: 1

earksiinni
Member since:
2009-03-27

Thom, one of the things that keeps me coming back to this site is your sharp eye for the synergies between language and computing.

A very enlightening article, indeed, although I really like small caps. I've noticed that in the US it is practically a sine qua non when it comes to certain formatting niches, like lists of editors in journals. I discovered that while I was Editor-in-Chief of Foundations, an international undergraduate academic history journal (http://www.jhu.edu/foundations, all English-language submissions are encouraged!), during my undergraduate years, and you can see what I mean if you visit the link and download the PDF of the Spring 2009 issue. Of the editors, I probably had the most experience working with layout, and yet because I was never formally trained I was ever finding out new things about how my mind interprets formatting and its quirks. The proper use of small caps was one of these cases which I had to learn through trial and error, and undoubtedly the subliminal gratification it engendered when put to use properly is caused by the typographical milieu that surrounds me.

I just wanted to make one small correction, because the error was idiomatic yet subtle--it made me chuckle a little at how complex language is, because the sentiment and grammar and everything make perfect sense, and yet it is still "off":

"tout my own horn"

It really should be "toot my own horn". Touting your own horn makes you sound like a horn hawker ;-).

EDIT: I just saw ricard's comment about printed academic journals and JacobMunoz's observation about the seals, both of which are dead on. I might also add that the headers of pages in (old academic?) books that have the running chapter or book title are done in small caps, and I can confirm this in English as well as Portuguese and some Turkish books.

Edited 2010-01-13 05:13 UTC

Reply Score: 1

Interesting to know
by Aankhen on Wed 13th Jan 2010 07:26 UTC
Aankhen
Member since:
2010-01-13

I never really thought about small caps up until now, beyond “hey, that looks kinda cool”. After reading this and pondering the topic for a while from a typographical point of view, I think I agree. No more small caps for me.

A couple of tangentially-related (to the article) comments. Your blog’s header has red text on a black and white photo. I found that pretty hard to read, which seemed somewhat ironical given the context. :-P As for the OSNews redesign, any chance you guys might start using ‘em’ for emphasis, ‘strong’ for stronger emphasis and ‘blockquote’ for quotes, rather than relying on typographical conventions to represent everything?

Reply Score: 1

RE: Interesting to know
by Kroc on Wed 13th Jan 2010 10:51 UTC in reply to "Interesting to know"
Kroc Member since:
2005-11-10

The redesign will be HTML5 and make full use of semantic elements instead of classes and whatnot unless absolutely necessary. My own website uses no classes, even for complex articles like this http://camendesign.com/geos it reduces the writing overhead when you have decent semantic elements, as well as making the content play better in people’s RSS readers and other places it may end up.

Thom was dropping a big hint to me that he doesn’t want artsy-fartsy, pedantic and stuck-up typography conventions on OSnews—just plain readability. I’m with him on that one. I’m not a font-geek (thank Heavens), nor a typography nerd.

Reply Score: 1

More 'info' needed
by deathshadow on Thu 14th Jan 2010 23:26 UTC
deathshadow
Member since:
2005-07-12

As there are some omissions/inaccuracies.

First off, for those of you not familiar with all the typography terminology, here's a GREAT reference.

http://www.paratype.com/help/term/le.htm

TECHNICALLY it is NOT an EX that small-caps is supposed to use. Small-caps are supposed to use the meanline as their top, which is the same line used as a guide for most lower case letters. Since a lower-case X can through serifs and other embellishments go below the baseline and above the meanline, it's size is not an accurate indicator of where the mean-line is. x-height does not always equal the distance between the meanline and the baseline.

Of course, all the different renderers treating it differently doesn't help, but the biggest problem is none of these font engines or formats HAVE a value for the meanline or x-height to be stored! This pretty much means that it's up to every program to randomly figure out what it's going to use - since small-caps isn't even officially recognized as a font-style by the rendering engines.

Yes, you heard me right, if that font style is applied, it's the program handling it, NOT the font engine in the OS. This means for the most part, the size is a complete guesstimate.

Which you can see since Firefox, OpenOffice and any Microsoft software will all give you radically different appearances on text formatted the same way. (Netscape legacy small-caps being among the worst out there, since the 'lower case' small-caps appear to be half a EM in height)

It gets REALLY stupid when OpenOffice is involved, since it appears to use freetype or some other internal engine for kerning and determining the size of text even when using truetype to render glyphs on windows. (****ing brilliant - NOT) Part of why i t oft en h as prob lem s with spacin g! (and why I find OoO completely useless when working with text for any length of time)

But that goes back to what I said on that page two article about font sizes - if you are wanting pixel-perfect identical appearance of fonts across platforms/software/hardware targets, you're in the wrong business, and kind of missing the entire point of digital media.

Edited 2010-01-14 23:27 UTC

Reply Score: 2