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Bringhurst writes that small caps need to be designed to visually match the standard capitals of a font, so that the resulting mixed caps look uniform and balanced; and that purely geometrically generated small caps can only be a parody. For a long time it was obvious to me that "faux small caps" are a mistake that would only be made by clueless programmers of consumer software like MS Word, and those of their users which are equally clueless.

Now recently I encountered several examples of – I'd say bad – mixed caps using faux small caps in places where I wouldn't have expected them:

The back entrance of the US embassy in Berlin: (click to see full size)

The credits of the TV series Hemlock Grove:

In both cases I'd expect the people in charge to have hired a designer that knows his/her business – but in both cases the small caps seem to be just scaled-down versions of the regular caps. What's going on here? Do some typographers / designers actually consider this to be OK?

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    “In both cases I'd expect the people in charge to have hired a designer that knows his/her business” – That seems overly optimistic to me. – Wrzlprmft Dec 20 '14 at 21:41
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    @Wrzlprmft, so you'd agree those are "bad caps"? Looking at it again it occurs to me that capitalizing "the" (in the first photo) is another typographic faux pas. – A. Donda Dec 21 '14 at 16:31
  • @Wrzlprmft, after reviewing the answers so far, I believe the real answer to my question has been given in your comment. Thanks! :-) – A. Donda Dec 22 '14 at 19:15
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They are most certainly not OK with me; I'm totally with Bringhurst on this. I hate seeing small caps with significantly thicker-stroked (enlarged) first letters.

P.s. For those unacquainted, we are referring to Robert Bringhurst's seminal work on typography 'The Elements of Typographic Style'

  • Yisela has written a great response, and the only thing I can suggest to make the difference clearer would be to squint your eyes when comparing the two examples. In the second example, the characters are different sizes, but they share the same thickness, and look equally dark through squinted eyes. In the first example, the first letters are almost thick enough to look like bold characters - and this is the quality that makes typography geeks complain – tk32 Dec 22 '14 at 18:16
  • As I commented on her answer, I think there was a misunderstanding, while you seem to have understood me correctly. Of course mixed caps are good in the right place, my question was whether mixed caps using scaled-down caps as faux small caps is considered good. I edited my question to make things clearer. – A. Donda Dec 22 '14 at 19:13
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The main issue in your examples is not the mixed caps themselves, but how they were used. As tk32 mentions, thicker-stroked first letters can be a deal breaker, but 'real' mixed caps can look nice:

enter image description here

This exam­ple uses scaled down cap­i­tal let­ters, and that's why the thick­ness of their strokes look disproportionate. Your two examples have this problem. It is a small difference, but it might explain why your examples didn't feel right to you. This is particularly noticeable in the embassy sign, where you can see how thick the first caps look compared to the others.

enter image description here

This one on the other hand uses small caps specially designed to har­mo­nize with the big cap­i­tals. They have the same stroke thickness.

Small cap­i­tal let­ters mixed with full-caps have a cer­tain regal qual­ity to them. When not overused and prop­erly tracked (let­ter­spaced), mixed cap­i­tals are great for cap­tions and headlines.

enter image description here

I can think of situations where they could work. This one came to mind:

enter image description here

And here's a very enlightening article on mixed caps: Alec's Julien Small Caps.

Images source.

  • Hi Yisela, thanks for your answer, but I'm afraid I don't really get it. What is the difference between 'real' faux caps and other faux caps? You're saying whether scaled down caps are acceptable depends on "how they are used", but what's the difference in use between the examples I gave and your first example? I agree there can be cases where faux caps aren't that bad, but still comparing your first and second examples, the first one just looks a bit cheap. But maybe that's because I know how it's supposed to look like. :) – A. Donda Dec 22 '14 at 17:45
  • The real difference is the weight of the lines. In my first example and your images, the bigger caps are just scaled up version of the smaller ones. In my second example, the bigger cap is made specially, and although it is taller it has the same line widths. It is a small difference, but it might explain why your examples didn't feel right to you. This is particularly noticeable in the embassy sign, where you can see how thick the first caps look compared to the others. Makes sense? – Yisela Dec 22 '14 at 18:38
  • Well yes, but that's just the difference between faux small caps and real small caps that I referred to in my question. But then what do you mean by 'real' faux caps? Since they're real, they're not faux, right? – A. Donda Dec 22 '14 at 19:01
  • Just saw your edit. Now I think I wasn't clear in my question: Using designed small caps in combination with regular caps, therefore mixed caps, is of course a good thing in many cases. My question was whether using scaled/faux/fake small caps in combination with regular caps, therefore "faux mixed caps", is considered acceptable by some typographers / graphic designers. I edited my question to make things clearer. – A. Donda Dec 22 '14 at 19:13
  • @A.Donda See here for more demos of the good, the bad, and ugly — and not necessarily in that order. The stroke width should be the same in the small caps as in the rest of the font at the same size, and the proportions should be different. – tchrist May 5 '15 at 1:56

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