Getting the Drop on Initial Caps

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For Complete Control Over Drop Caps, You Need a Few Tricks

Drop caps are a great spice for text-heavy pages. InDesign makes simple drop caps easy but typographically refined ones are more challenging. No matter what kind of a drop cap you create, the following techniques will give you maximum control.

Basic controls
InDesign’s drop-cap controls lie under Drop Caps and Nested Styles in the Paragraph panel’s flyout menu. Here you define how many of the first characters in a paragraph are enlarged, and how many lines deep they’ll be set. Text lines are indented automatically. Curiously, InDesign never tells you the point size of the enlarged initial cap. The Control and Character panels identify the point size of the drop cap as the same as the rest of the paragraph text.

A new control in InDesign CS3 allows you to compensate for descending characters (normally only J, unless you use a lower-case initial character). By default, InDesign scales your drop cap so its baseline aligns with the baseline of the last indented text line to its right. This makes drop caps with descenders overlap text on the following line. Checking the Scale for Descenders box reduces the size of descending drop caps so they’ll fit within their appointed indent.

This isn’t much of a solution. If you allow such a character to be scaled, it will be noticeably smaller than other drop caps in the text. If you manually create an indent to allow the descending character to set at its full size, that indent will be at least one line deeper than those for all other drop caps in the text. The lesson: Avoid using descending characters for drop caps.

Refining your results
InDesign can enlarge as many characters as you like for your drop caps, but for the rest of this article, let’s assume that you just want one character set large.

InDesign assumes that you want your drop cap to top-align with the rest of the type on the first line. If you’d rather it didn’t, place the text cursor between the drop cap and the following character, and type Shift-Return (PC: Shift-Enter). This creates a line break without starting a new paragraph, so your first line of type sinks down to the next baseline. More such line breaks sink it lower and lower.

You can also make the drop cap larger or smaller by selecting it and altering its point size—best done by using the point-size field in the Control panel. Because the values you see displayed don’t reflect the visual size of the drop cap, use a fractional point size (e.g., 12.2) for precise control.

To control the width of the indent for the text that runs around the drop cap, place the text cursor between the drop cap and the character that follows it and use your manual kerning controls: Option-Right Arrow (PC: Alt-Right Arrow) spreads the characters apart (enlarging the indent); Option-Left Arrow (PC: Alt-Left Arrow) makes the indent smaller. Using Command-Option (PC: Ctrl-Alt) with the Arrow keys increases the kerning increment tenfold. (Note: This increment is defined in the Preferences under Units & Increments.)

Flush left at last
In the past, large drop caps have always appeared slightly indented, because their side-bearings push them in from the margin. (Side bearings are slivers of space that flank most characters to separate them from their neighbors.) InDesign CS3 can compensate for this. Checking Align Left Edge in the Drop Caps and Nested Styles dialog causes the visible part of the drop cap to align smack against the margin. But some characters (particularly those with rounded left sides, such as C) will look better aligned if they extend slightly into the margin. You may also just want to let your drop caps extend into the margin for design reasons.

To move a drop cap beyond the margin, first place the cursor to its left and insert a Thin Space or Hair Space from the Type>Insert White Space menu. Then go to the Paragraph panel’s flyout menu and change your drop cap setting to affect two characters: the space and the initial cap. Now, with your text cursor between the space and the drop cap, use your kerning controls to move the drop cap to the left. The farthest you can move it is one em. Although InDesign’s Control and Character panels insist that the point size of your drop cap is the same as that of the rest of the paragraph, the em’s worth of kerning that you’re allowed is based on the visual size of the drop cap. This allows you to hang the entire drop cap into the margin, if you like.

More fancy kerning
This same trick is useful for adjusting just the first line of text so it snuggles up more closely against the drop cap, closing the often-distracting gap between the two. Again, the trick is to place a Thin or Hair Space between the drop cap and the first text-size character in the paragraph. Now kern the text back toward the drop cap. If you have a long way to go, the one-em limit will be too restrictive; in that case, add yet another space and kern back against that too.

This kind of extreme kerning makes it difficult to select characters in the first line. Say, for example, that you want to set the first few words of the paragraph in small caps. The best way to control your selection is to position your text cursor after the last character you want to select and then use Shift-Left Arrow repeatedly to select the characters you want one by one. If you simply try to click into the area of wide, overlapping kerns, it’s impossible to see where the cursor really is.

Here’s one more cool thing. If you need to apply some special effects to that drop cap, select it and choose Create Outlines from the Type menu. This makes the drop cap into a straight-ahead vector graphic. But InDesign still recognizes it as a character at some basic level, so your Drop Cap settings are unaffected, even though the first character in the paragraph isn’t really a character any more.

This drop cap uses only the InDesign CS3 controls in the Drop Caps and Nested Styles dialog. One character sits five lines deep and Align Left Edge pushes it against the margin. The indented lines crowd the drop cap and should be kerned away from it, but this is corrected in the next image.

The drop cap has been changed to Bernhard Modern Bold and enlarged from 12 to 14 points, creating better spacing between the drop cap and the text. The drop cap has also been kerned to the left to extend slightly past the margin.

The opening text-size characters have been converted to small caps and enlarged by one point. To make a better visual and logical connection, the first text line has been kerned closer to the drop cap.


  • sharon herman says:

    I love this website! The infor on color and typography are extremely helpful! sharon herman

  • Drew Hill says:

    I’m on a quick learning deadline and you really helped me out. I have 4 days to covert my quark 4 file to indesign 2. I mean learn the program and use last months issue as a template of sorts. I really hated the drop cap H that I started out with and stared at trying to figure out other than making a wrap around and placing a letter inside the box. Well you get the drift. This trick was cool.

  • stefan says:

    Thanks for the tips. Solved my problem

  • girish says:

    thanks a lot, i was bumbling around with the drop cap for the letter A

  • […] 16. Getting The Drop On Initial Caps – Layers Magazine […]

  • Peter Lurie says:

    Thanks for this tutorial.
    Can’t work out how to reduce the kerning between the top line and the “A” dropcap, to look like thie last example above.
    Could you guide me, please?

  • BGM says:

    I have a problem whereby I have a long descender on my drop-cap, and it is causing the succeeding line to be indented. There is nothing specified in my spacings – it’s the drop-cap that is messing with the second line. How can I keep my drop-cap and force the second line all the way to the real left margin?