Bold small caps: necessity, abomination, or side effect of variability?

Somebody asked me last night in private chat:

Are bold small caps a thing? Do foundries generally make them? Does anyone use them? Are they worth the effort? The idea seems a bit uh... silly.”

I explained that t
here is very much a split in thinking on this among type designers.

1) people who think they are silly (traditionalists)
2) people who think they are useful/good
3) people who are designing their stuff as variable fonts (whether or not they ship in other ways) and give everything the same character set across all weights, because that is easiest anyway

I am in the third group, for sure. If not for that, I would probably be more the second group than the first, but I do not find your/their point of view at all crazy! Both of those first two groups have a significant following.”

But to be honest, I do not have much of a sense of the relative popularity of these varying takes. I am curious as to where folks stand on this, and also what you think the current norms are.


  • Cristóbal Henestrosa
    edited June 21
    I think about this frequently. First of all, judging by the texts I am exposed to, I guess small caps are not very popular nowadays, and perhaps they are not necessary at all if the uppercase height is modest in the first place, which is a very common feature among contemporary designs. ¶ That said, small caps are still very popular among book designers, and they frequently want to use them even if the typeface doesn’t include them, so it is better to have them than not, just to avoid fake small caps. In addition, many people just assume that if they push the Small Caps button, they will get them across all the styles, and don’t even look if they are real or fake. And that can happen in any style, even in Black Italic or other variants seldom used.* I am afraid that digital typography leads to that way of thinking: we want it all and we want it now. (And free, please.) ¶ So yes, if I think that my typeface is going to be used for running text, I try to include small caps for all the styles, even for those not intended for running text. Better safe than sorry.

    * To be fair, some other people still think that real small caps must be in a separate font, just like in the old pre-OpenType days, so they never use the Small Caps button because they think it always produces fake small caps.
  • Igor Freiberger
    Necessity, no doubt.

    If the use is limited to acronyms, a regular-only small caps may be enough. But if the user adopts an extensive use of small caps in the hierarchy of chapters, sections, titles, and subtitles, more weights are necessary. The same could be said about italics. My fonts include them all.
  • John Hudson
    John Hudson Posts: 3,058
    It very much depends on the nature of the typeface and the uses for which it is intended. Igor says bold smallcaps are a necessity, but then goes on to describe kinds of typography in which this is so, while acknowledging that there are other kinds of typography in which regular-only smallcaps may suffice. This is the case with bold type in general. Typography is a field that expands outwards from text type: the futher out you get in the field, the more you need things that you don’t need closer to the centre.
  • Vasil Stanev
    Vasil Stanev Posts: 775
    edited June 21
    Typography is a field that expands outwards from text type: the futher out you get in the field, the more you need things that you don’t need closer to the centre.
    I second that statement. At Fontfabric we used to say that fonts are like the ocean, the deeper you go the deeper it gets.
    I think bold smallcaps can be used in a very specific case - if some other font - a bold floriated script font -has to be set in all caps. You use the bold script for the first letter and set the rest in the bold small caps. Playing with the size a bit to get them to match.

  • Nick Shinn
    Nick Shinn Posts: 2,169
    edited June 21
    I subscribe to Thomas’ third category, and don’t make “small caps only in Regular” typefaces (although I did, 20+ years ago).

    On a related note, if including Swash Capitals, I do try to make a full set, however strange-looking some characters may emerge from the process, the principle being that “something should happen when the button is pushed,” because if nothing happens, that has the semblance of a bug, short-changing the user. 

    Being bolder than full caps, Bold Small Caps in effect add another weight of capitals to a typeface—which astute typographers do occasionally exploit.
  • Igor Freiberger
    Igor Freiberger Posts: 263
    edited June 22
    John, my non-native English is maybe obscuring what I mean. In some scenarios with restrict use of small caps, a regular-only option may be enough. But I see a font as tool for wide possibilities of usage. To limit the options, especially considering the technologies available, is a no-no path in my view.
    Nowadays, non-fiction books and articles use to have multiple levels of titles, plus a number of possible additional elements —like side notes, boxes, tables, and diagrams. To handle all this only using the classic regular+italic styles is unlikely to work. The New Left Review magazine is an outstanding example of few styles working very well, but the editors limit the structure of the submitted papers.
    So I think that to have different weights of small caps is a necessity. The more options you have, the better results you can deliver. It's very much like having a comprehensive set of colors, although you can use just a partial palette while painting.
    [Sorry, all this is actually obvious, I'm writing too much to compensate the subpar precision I achieve in English.]
  • Jens Kutilek
    Jens Kutilek Posts: 349
    When I prepared the release of FF Hertz, I thought it is geared towards book typography, so italic small caps surely wouldn't be needed. Yet one of the first uses, for the identity of Typo Berlin 2016, required them! IIRC, all German text was set in Roman, and all English text in Italic. Fortunately, the graphic designers worked around the limitation by using slanted small caps from the roman fonts, which was nearly unnoticeable.
  • Kent Lew
    Kent Lew Posts: 908
    My position has evolved, as I’m sure is true for many others as well. 
    When I first started in type design, coming from a traditional book design background, I was in Group 1. Whitman was originally released with SC to accompany Roman style only (this was PS T1 days, so separate fonts). I did eventually design SC for Italic (probably on commission, and probably around the time of conversion to OT format). I resisted FB’s urging to do so for other weights, absent a specific commission.
    But now, I am more in Group 3. The upcoming release of completely revised and expanded Whitman Text has SC in all weights & styles, Regular–Black, mostly for consistency’s sake. And, as others have said, so as to accommodate the current market expectation for such.
    I can’t say I have ever fully subscribed to Group 2 position, though I have come to have more respect for it over the years.
    As it happens, when I designed Haffner for TIME magazine’s 2015 redesign, they specifically wanted Bold Small Caps for regular lead-ins. In fact, the premier issue with the new design even used the Bold Italic Small Caps right out of the gate.

    That experience is probably what convinced me to just get over it and draw them as a matter of course. (Assuming that the design warrants small caps at all, that is. Still not sure I would draw them of my own volition for a typical sans serif design. )
  • Dave Crossland
    Dave Crossland Posts: 1,415
    (2) seems so obvious to me that I understand folks in the (1) camp walk away thinking I've implied they are idiots. I try not to do this, but still...
  • John Hudson
    John Hudson Posts: 3,058
    edited June 23
    But I see a font as tool for wide possibilities of usage.
    I certainly see the value in fonts that can do lots of things—and have made many of them—, but I think that is a design choice (design in the structural sense, not the making shapes sense) and not something inherent in the concept of a typeface or font. I admire some of the most one-off typeface projects: types made by or for particular publishers who knew exactly what they needed and did not need, or the concept of a typeface created for a specific text.

    I do a lot of work with scripts that have not evolved complex typographical hierarchies, or in which the hierarchies that exist involve combinations of different styles of letterforms, not variations on a style such as weight or slant. Sometimes, what is needed is a typeface that does one thing very well, and you use a different typeface for the other things.

    None of which is to say that bold—and even bold italic—smallcaps are not useful things: I am philosophically in Tom’s group (2) and practically in group (3). But I also just delivered a project that includes no smallcaps, no oldstyle numerals, and no ligatures, because the typeface as designed functions perfectly well without those things.
  • Scott-Martin Kosofsky

    Rather than speaking with fellow type designers about bold small caps, I think it’s a better idea to discuss them with experienced typographers who work on complex, carefully layered texts. Bold small caps are important in my work; they provide readily apparent differentiation in subheadings and tables without the disruptive size of full caps. This is especially important when regular small caps have been assigned a different function in the text. Needless to say at this point—though I’ll say it anyway—I am referring here to text fonts.

    When I say “bold,” I’m mostly referring to a semibold or medium weight. But there is no real standard for that; it’s a matter of being bold enough to be easily differentiated from the regular weight, but not so bold as to become gummy. 

    Small caps are sometimes the most beautiful letters in a font, italic small caps especially so. I’d even go so far as to say that bold italic small caps can be useful for some purposes, particularly where text-weight italic small caps are used.

    It’s a little sad to think that there are still people who have not absorbed OpenType features and functions and who think that the small caps button will always produce fake small caps, even with fonts that have a small cap set. I suspect that part of the confusion might come from the two ways small caps are accessed in InDesign, though it’s not the only function in InDesign that can be accessed in more than one way.

  • John Butler
    John Butler Posts: 270
    edited June 24
    Weird combinations can be a delight, e.g. Hoefler Text black italic swash small caps.
    The earliest instance of italic small caps I can think of would be Zapf Renaissance.
    Support for true small caps is why I tell anyone and everyone to ditch Microsoft Word in favor of LibreOffice Writer.
    In this age of variable font designs, you should be able to get appropriate small caps as a parametric function of weight and optical size applied to scaled full caps.
  • Nick Shinn
    Nick Shinn Posts: 2,169
    Linotype specimen, 1958.
    Faces with Bold Italic Small Caps:

    Garamond Bold No.3
    Caslon No.3