Adaptive Caps in the Ergata System14 Feb 2018

At formal proportions, capitals are visually disruptive characters, and when two are more are set side-by-side, the effect can be overwhelming. Typographers solve this problem by using small capitals, an extra set of uppercase letters with a reduced stature. This way, fully capitalized phrases are unobtrusive, and feel more integrated into the rest of the paragraph.

I see three big problems with designing small capitals:

  1. People don’t know or care about smallcaps.
    This is the primary obstacle to the adoption of this excellent typographic feature. The rationale for smallcaps requires detailed technical explanation, and only people who care for typography are going to go to the effort.
  2. Smallcaps are inaccessible.
    Casual typography programs like Microsoft Word include no method of accessing advanced OpenType features like smallcaps, so even if the layman did care, he couldn’t utilize them. Even in professional contexts like web design or Adobe InDesign, implementing smallcaps is a cumbersome and repetitive process, even once the style is built.
  3. Most small caps are badly designed.
    Traditional smallcaps are designed at the height of the lowercase x (petite caps) or ten percent larger (true small caps). While this is not a flaw in a strictly functional sense, the size difference from ordinary caps will surprise modern audiences, ironically making a phrase of smallcaps more visually disruptive than a phrase of full capitals.

Furthermore, the spacing of most small cap designs exhibits poor usability. As every typographer knows, small caps typically need 30–50 units of tracking applied for ideal aesthetic results. This makes sense when you think of setting tall and small capitals together: the small caps inherit the logic of Upper&lowercase spacing from the tall caps so that the everything is uniform, and can be tracked out all at once. However, from a digital design perspective, this makes no sense. Clearly, the most common use case for the smallcaps feature is a string of smallcaps set in body text, and tracked out thirty units. The fact that it is necessary to add the tracking every time a smallcaps style is built is rather absurd. The designer should always design for the most common use case.

When I set out to craft a smallcaps feature for the Ergata type system, I knew my design would have to solve the above three problems in order to be worthwhile. The core principles of my solution:

  • Automatic Application
    This is achieved through a substitution algorithm I built into the ligature feature. It works by replacing a given capital-class glyph, followed by any other capital-class glyph, with its equivalent smallcap, and then replacing any capital-class glyph preceded by a smallcap with its respective equivalent smallcap. This creates a “domino effect” that turns any capital phrase of two or more letters into a small capital phrase.
  • Stature & Spacing
    Traditional smallcaps are designed at the height of the lowercase x (petite caps) or ten percent larger (true small caps). Talhertz’ reduced capitals are designed at approximately 90% of the capital height. This way, they won’t surprise general audiences, but can still mitigate the overwhelming effect of full capital typesetting. They do this chiefly with wider, squarer proportions and broad spacing, these capitals are well-adjusted to each other and need no additional tracking applied.