ALL CAPS: To set or not to set?

March 23rd, 2013

One of the most common detriments to typographic readability is the overuse of ALL CAPS. Setting text in all caps (especially lengthy blocks) decreases the ease, speed, and appeal of reading, and can cause a reader to quickly lose interest, albeit without realizing why.

What causes this? The most common explanation is that we don’t read letter-by-letter, but rather by word shapes, which are in part created by the position and frequency of ascending and descending characters. But in all cap settings, such word shapes are lost, making it more challenging, and slower going, to read. Some recent research has disputed this ‘word shape’ explanation, but it is widely acknowledged that all cap settings are more difficult to read than lowercase. What we read most often (mostly lowercase) is what we read more easily.

The notion that we read by word shapes, as illustrated above, is widely cited, though not universally accepted.

The notion that we read by word shapes, as illustrated above, is widely cited, though not universally accepted.

So when, if ever, is it appropriate, or even desirable, to use all capitals? The use of all cap settings for running text (differentiated from abbreviations, acronyms, company names and other branding functions, etc.) can seem appealing because of the symmetry and emphasis it creates. But unless you are setting only a few words, such as very short headlines, subheads and phrases, readability will suffer.

All cap text is more difficult to read than primarily lowercase settings, as can be experienced in the above examples.


Another notion in favor of the use of upper- and lowercase vs. all caps, is that lowercase takes up less space. Because more words can be put on a line, a block of copy looks shorter and seems like less material to be read.

These cautions regarding all caps hold even more true for emails and other uses on the Web (including blogs, comments and other types of postings), where it is considered SHOUTING, which is unprofessional and a sign of poor etiquette (or, netiquette).

So the next time you are tempted to set text in all capitals, weigh the pros and cons, and consciously make your decision to use all cap settings — if at all — sparingly.

Category: fy(t)i

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One Response to ALL CAPS: To set or not to set?

  1. Alvin Martinez says:

    If something needs to be set in all caps—whether it is due to the personality of the piece, or context—I prefer to use meticulously spaced small caps. Even if the font doesn’t have that feature built in, reducing the overall size of the all caps setting and adding a bit of letterspacing, usually does the trick and doesn’t come off as shouting. But unless I need to do all caps, I prefer U&lc more. Good article!

    ~ A

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