Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The case against upper case

The advance of lower case - road signs, health warnings and even tabloid headlines now embrace the more legible style

A timely piece on The Guardian's style blog this week. I had just finished a typography session with the Daily Mail trainees, banging on about why the world was rightly becoming lower case, when David Marsh posted his case against uppercase.
Middle market newspapers, I am pleased to say, are almost wholly lower case in their display typography these days. The Mail still goes for caps for impact on Page 1, but is just about exclusively lower case inside. 
Even the red tops have moved towards more lower case headlines. Why? Partly because capitals are harder to read. Anyone who went on a Bob James course, and there were hundreds, will have it drummed into us that lower case letter structures and word shapes are more distinctive - the ascenders, descenders and other projecting parts increasing clarity. Caps also eat up more white space, which is essential to legibility. Equally important is the fact that caps are less economical and therefore we get fewer meaningful words. The legacy of local newspapers trying to copy the black sans caps of The Sun and the Mirror, has been thousands of meaningless headlines in which none of the key words fit. I recently came across a local newspaper that carried this headline in 230pt Helvetica Neue caps on Page 1:
It was a story about a shopper who had damaged a tyre in a supermarket car park and was cross because the store would pay up the £66.30 to replace it. Barely worth one deck of 14pt, let alone hitting the poor reader across the head with a dull mallet. 
Marsh mentions the lower case font now used on British road signs. When you are darting between the lorries on the A1 in the rain and dark. legibility is critical. A wide open sans, lower case, with plenty of background space is just what is needed. He might have also mentioned the warning notices on cigarette packets - all lower case by edict of European parliament. 
Caps are still needed of course, as Marsh's column illustrates vividly. 'I had to help my uncle Jack off a horse' really does need a capital J. 


  1. 230pt? Are you sure, Peter?

  2. Figure of speech Mike. It was 126pt, but you get the drift.