I wrote about drop initials about a year and a half ago, and stand by what I said, although the evidence presented below may look like it calls for some moderation of the implied praise of Oxford University Press in that post.

These are a couple of chapter opening pages from A. C. Grayling’s Meditations for the Humanist: Ethics for a Secular Age, a nice little book published by OUP in 2002. There’s so much wrong with these drop initials that anyone could see that including them was a really dumb idea. Maybe the designer thought that as the book is a collection of pieces written for The Guardian it would be appropriate to reach for a flavor of the careless typography often associated with that publication (in the past, let us say)! The one on the left leaves you pondering what the word Ltioning might mean, or it would if you hadn’t just been brought up short by oyalty. The second example shows just what the causes of the problem are.

  • the drop initial is too small. It needs to base align with the second line, which it does, and also align with the top of the ascenders of the first line (if the rest of the first word were to be set in Caps), or with the top of the x-height of the line (if the rest of the first word is to be set in small caps). This one triumphantly manages to top-align with neither.
  • the second line needs to be indented by some amount, to get it away from the drop initial. The only letters where the designer’s instruction in this book might work out would be F, P, T, W, and Y — the characters which provide their own space at the foot.
  • the balance of the first word needs to be tied to the drop initial so that the reader can read the word as one word. These same five Caps are the ones which would work out here as originally spec’d. Unfortunately not too many of the chapters begin with an F, a P, a T, a W or a Y.

Now, in defense of Oxford University Press’s design standards, it does look from the imprints page as if they originally bought finished hardback books for the US market from Weidenfeld & Nicolson, who published the book in Britain (and no doubt the rest of “the traditional market”) under the title The Meaning of Things. OUP’d then just shoot the book when they converted it into their Galaxy paperback line. If this diagnosis is correct then of course it’s really with Weidenfeld’s designer that my beef should be.

I do think the OUP title is better. The Meaning of Things sounds too portentous for what is a philosophy-light romp through 61 topics such as Civility, Intemeperance, Death, Hope, Privacy. Meditations for the Humanist is a slightly odd title — surely a religious enthusiast might also meditate along with Professor Grayling — but titles are often laid on authors by their publisher. I don’t understand why on the cover only the two little words in the middle of the title are italicized. One looks for italics to emphasize things, so just why we’d need to pay special attention to for and the remains mysterious. The cover designer may be the only one to know — if even she does.