Designing with Decorative Initials

Decorative Initials font consists of characters which combine basic letter forms with artistic embellishment, often in the form of floral or geometric patterns used as a background or intertwined with the letter. Decorative Initials have their origins in medieval manuscript decoration where complex and colorful characters were used to make a manuscript page more attractive. Most Decorative Initials fonts have their origins in the adaptation of this medieval concept to early typography, limiting them to complex two-color patterns, though in some cases these might be decorated after printing. Decorative Initials fonts are sometimes referred to as ‘Drop Caps’ because they are ‘dropped’ into a page of text.

ecause Decorative Initials characters are far more complex than the characters in a regular font, they present design problems and may present some difficulties for the end-user as well. This is particularly true when dealing with True Type fonts because of the limitations built into that format. All of the difficulties of designing Decorative Initials originate in their complexity. Characters in digital fonts are made up of points and vectors. A truly detailed initial may require hundreds of points, and in some cases even thousands. With an original font this can be controlled to some degree by making the characters less complex, but if you are adapting a font from a historical source (like many of the Scriptorium Decorative Initials fonts), the original source material may be too complex to simplify significantly. With all types of fonts complexity and large numbers of points means that the font will require more memory. This may create problems on both Macintosh and PC computers which do not have sufficient memory or where programs are not assigned sufficient memory to render the fonts on the screen. Similar problems may occur with printers which lack the memory to download these complex characters. And in most cases the more complex characters you use in a document the more problems you will run into. Usually font memory problems will be manifested by characters not printing or appearing on the screen in larger sizes. These problems are worse with TrueType fonts, because operating systems set an absolute limit on the complexity which a character can have. This limit may make it impossible to use some fonts at all.

here are only a few ways to deal with the problems of complexity in Decorative Initials. If you want to use them you have to be prepared to use them sparingly and put up with some frustration. If you want to design or adapt them you have to accept limitations on what you can achieve, or be willing to do a lot of extra work to make perfect curves and minimize points in order to produce characters with the look you want at acceptable complexity. There are some tricks which may help. For the designer one trick is to split a Decorative Initials font into two fonts, each with half the characters. This keeps the total memory usage of the font down to a better level. With a few of our fonts (Campobello, Golgotha, Maidens) this proved to be the only way to make the fonts workable. A good trick for the frustrated user is to use a powerful art program like Photoshop to turn the individual characters you want to use into TIFF or JPEG files for insertion into desktop publishing documents, thereby bypassing the complexity of the actual font. In addition, as a general design guideline it is better not to overuse decorative initials. They were originally intended to be used once per page, and if you are using them more often than just to start each paragraph they will start to make your pages look over done.

lthough Decorative Initials fonts are limited – like all fonts – to two colors, there are some creative things you can do with them to make them more like the medieval initials from which they originate. Most of these suggestions assume that you have some sort of color printer available to you or are preparing your document for viewing on a color computer screen. The simplest option, and one which will work in almost any word processing program, is to do the decorative initials in a different color from the main text. The combination of a strong red initial with standard black text is quite striking and frequently used in religious pamphlets and event programs. A more advanced technique is to place the characters you need in a pain program like Photoshop and then color individual elements of the character appropriately, as demonstrated by the initials accompanying this article. The disadvantage of this technique is that you have to place the initials as art rather than as text, but many word processing programs and desktop publishing programs handle this fairly well. And as you can see it works quite well in HTML. Be creative with Decorative Initials, but don’t go overboard with color. These characters are already visually complex and if you make them too colorful they may become distracting or confusing so that the reader just filters them out.

f you choose not to use an actual decorative initials font, you can still create decorative initials of your own if you have some good art to work with by superimposing type on an art background. Small illustrations with dark colors of relatively uniform intensity work best as backgrounds, and you should pick a relatively bold font with clear, heavy strokes to superimpose. The art you choose should be not be so detailed that it loses all meaning in a small size, and be sure the color of the type contrast strongly with all the colors in the background. Take care to make sure that none of the key figures in the art background are obscured by the type. To use this technique and keep it simple for guaranteed success you can use a simple square filled with a nice texture as your background. Another option is to use artwork to fill a character on a contrasting background – a technique favored by many Art Nouveau designers. These methods can produce some impressive results if you have the right source materials to work with.

hile Decorative Initials are traditionally most commonly associated with the look of medieval manuscripts or early printed books, their durability is demonstrated in the ways that the concept has been creatively revisited by designers in other eras. Arts and Crafts designers, Art Nouveau designers, Psychedelic poster artists and many others have adapted the concept of the decorative initial to their unique and sometimes very modern themes. Decorative initials also work extraordinarily well on the web. It’s easy enough to incorporate them in a HTML document to produce a result which is as striking as an illuminated manuscript but in an entirely modern format. Take a look at the source for this page to see how to make your initials fit right with your text paragraphs.

ecorative Initials can be challenging and frustrating to work with, but they are one of the best ways to add a unique or antique look to your documents. Use them sparingly and creatively and don’t be profligate with them. If you use them well they may add just the touch of style you’re looking for.

For more information about Initials fonts from the Scriptorium, click here: INITIALS

Initials Featured on This Page: Roughwork (title), Parsifal, Florimel, Morris Initials, Romantica, Clockwork Initials, custom initial using Arthur Rackham art and Theodoric font, custom initial using Alphons Mucha art and Ariosto font.

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