Automatic all caps spacing

Type, be it metal type, be it digital type (which essentially emulates metal type), is simple. One letter sits on one block, with metal type, or within fixed boundaries to the left and to the right, with digital type. The implicit space, left and right, defines one letter’s distance to the next. Since one letter sits on one block, the implicit space, left and right, is the same regardless which other letter precedes or follows it. And since text is composed of lowercase letters, most of the time, each letter’s implicit space, left and right, is defined such that it works well with lowercase letters. This has an odd yet unavoidable consequence. Uppercase letters, too, are spaced such that they work well with lowercase letters – the common use case for uppercase letters is to capitalize a word set in lowercase letters, after all. More often than not, this leads to badly spaced all caps setting, as illustrated best by Jan Tschichold in the Meisterbuch der Schrift,[1] quoted by Jost Hochuli in Das Detail in der Typografie:[2]
Left: All caps setting, relying on implicit space, left and right, as defined for a context of lowercase letters. This is not improved by adjusting individual distances between individual letter pairs – doing some kerning here and there. It is the overall spacing that is broken. Jan Tschichold’s subsequent illustration, missing in Jost Hochuli’s book, makes this more clear:
Left: All caps setting, relying on implicit space, again. The overall spacing is just too tight. Right: Fixed. The space inside of letters should inform the space inbetween letters. Put differently, uppercase letters among uppercase letters require a different beat than do uppercase letters among lowercase letters.
In a metal type world, this kind of adjustment would be done by experts trained to do so, typesetters. (The typographer, as artistic director, would serve as critic of typesetters’ work.) In a digital type world, this kind of adjustment ceased to be made, not at last because designers took over, either lacking typesetters’ training, or not being given the time needed to do this kind of work. Yet, with digital type having matured, it is possible to define not just one implicit space but adjust it too – depending on context. This is what Grotext™ and Litteratra® do. By default, uppercase letters are spaced for use in a context of lowercase letters. In context of other uppercase letters, though, the implicit space, left and right, of uppercase letters increases – on an idividual basis: increasing more with the N, for example, than with the O, as the red bar indicates:
Jan Tschichold’s WOLLWAREN and HUHN – in a digital type world:
For some hints at how this got implemented, see pages 26–33 of the PDF mentioned at the beginning of the note on a TypeTech talk given at the ATypI 2007 Conference in Brighton, Crossing borders.
Not all typefaces need this. Tiptoe™ does not. It is a matter of each typeface’s design. Both Grotext and Litteratra emphasize the difference between wide uppercase and narrower (Grotext) or more tightly set (Litteratra) lowercase. Tiptoe has rather narrow uppercase which, consequently, needs a narrow uppercase to uppercase spacing. As always, when it comes to design, it depends.


This note is one of three notes, on three aspects of good typography and (inevitably) type, as embodied in our first trilogy of typefaces consisting of Grotext™, Litteratra®, Tiptoe™:
Italics included
Automatic all caps spacing
Punctuation spacing
Our second trilogy of typefaces, of which Kerl™ is the first one published as a retail typeface, focuses on more ephemeral aspects of typography and type.

28 December 2020

[1] Jan Tschichold: Meisterbuch der Schrift. Ravensburg: Otto Maier, 1952. Jan Tschichold: Treasury of Alphabets and Lettering. London: Lund Humphries, 1992. It appears that both the German and the English version are out of print, which is a pity, as to this day it is one of the finest collection of all-time classics.
[2] Jost Hochuli: Das Detail in der Typographie. Wilmington, MA: Compugraphic, 1987. Sulgen/Zürich/Salenstein: Niggli, 2005/2011. Jost Hochuli: Detail in Typography. London: Hyphen Press, 2008. Another book that should be present in every serious typographer’s library.

All texts & images, unless noted otherwise:
© Karsten Luecke
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