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U&lc Online Issue: 40.1.1

Captions, Part 1




For Your Typographic

A caption is the brief text description accompanying a photograph, illustration or cartoon, most often as part of a longer article. Neither body text nor display text, captions require special treatment to be set for optimal effectiveness. It’s worth the trouble, though: captions tend to be among the most-read portions of any printed piece.

Harmony and contrast
A properly set caption should be distinct from the body text, yet still be in visual harmony with it. To achieve this, try these approaches:

  • The most foolproof strategy is to use a corresponding italic or oblique of the body text. This almost always works well
  • Try a corresponding bold weight. Make sure it’s heavy enough for good contrast with the body text, yet still readable (see below for more on the subject of readability)
  • A clean, simple bold sans often works well as a caption font with serif body text
  • Captions are slightly subordinate to the body text, so set them anywhere from .5 to 2 points smaller

Legibility and readability
Captions are usually set fairly small, and yet they’re prime real estate on the page when it comes to drawing the reader’s eye. Therefore, it’s vital that captions be set for both maximum legibility (the design characteristics of the font) and high readability (the size and arrangement of the text).

Some typefaces hold up very well at small sizes, but others do not. Watch out for these pitfalls:

  • Thin strokes that begin to disappear (a danger in high-contrast typefaces)
  • Counters that fill in, especially with bold weights
  • Design details that suddenly become a deterrent to high legibility at small sizes

The key to finding an effective caption treatment is preliminary testing. Take the time to set several different typestyles and point sizes on a dummy page with some actual body text. Print the page on a high-resolution printer for an accurate representation of the final outcome, and let your eye be the judge: choose the one that offers the best combination of contrast, visual harmony, readability and legibility.

Read Captions, Part 2.

Editor’s Note: Ilene Strizver, founder of The Type Studio, is a typographic consultant, designer and writer specializing in all aspects of typographic communication. Read more about typography in her latest literary effort, Type Rules!, published by North Light Books. This article was commissioned and approved by Monotype Imaging Inc.