Kerning is the space between letters and characters. Kerning adjusts text to make it more readable and visually pleasing. You’ll often hear the term amongst book editors, whose job is to make the text as readable as possible without distractions. However, kerning in design is quite common and useful.
There are hundreds of thousands of different fonts, with new ones appearing regularly. Some are better suited to a design than others, but by utilizing kerning and other adjustments, you can make almost any font fit and look appealing, assuming it is readable and fits the tone of the design.
You might wonder what the difference is between kerning in design and leading. Both can be used at the same time. Kerning is the horizontal spacing between characters and leading is the vertical space between lines. Each can completely change the look of a design and make it more visually appealing.
Why Is Kerning Important?
Imagine you’re working on a logo for a client and they have the letters A and V next to one another. If using a serif typeface, you might run into issues with too much spacing between those two letters.
Many companies use a specific font as part of their style guide. You can’t always adjust spacing by choosing a more suitable alternative. If you’re limited in what you can change, kerning can be a lifesaver to the frustrated designer.
You can use tracking to adjust the spacing between all letters and make it the same, but that doesn’t always work well with some fonts. Kerning in design gives you an opportunity to adjust the space between just a few letters or all the letters. It’s another tool in your kit that allows you to tweak any design and give it a professional edge.
How Does Kerning in Design Work?
How kerning in design works depends upon the program you’re using. You can kern in text-based programs as well as image-based ones. For example, the steps used to kern in Adobe InDesign will differ from how you utilize Microsoft Word.
Tips for Using Kerning
We’ll look at a few ways to effectively utilize kerning in your designs with different software programs. While we can’t cover every graphic design program out there, we will hit on the most popular ones to save you time and get you started.
Anything outside the realm of these options is likely going to require you to do some trial and error to see what works best with that software.
Choose Between Metric and Optical Kerning InDesign
Adobe uses two options for kerning. Metric is the default setting. Metrics kerning is automated and pulls on the kern pairs most fonts indicate, such as LA, P. WA, Yo, etc.
Optical kerning in designs made in Adobe focuses on the shape of letters and spacing. It works best with Roman glyphs. If you use multiple fonts, you may find metric works best with one and optical with another.
When Kerning Goes Bad
There are dozens of examples floating around the internet of when kerning goes bad and designers just don’t get the spacing quite right. There are logos where the word gets changed to something completely inappropriate or makes a suggestion the company would never want to put their name behind.
It’s so important to understand the principles of letters and spacing because not paying attention to the fine details of kerning in design results in embarrassing situations or logos that are difficult to read.
At best, a poorly spaced design makes it difficult to read the text. At worst, it can cause a PR nightmare. A typography fail can ruin an ad or make it so laughable it gets shared more than you’d like.
When to Use Kerning in Design
How do you know when to turn to kerning for your designs? Consider the different uses of the text. Something that looks fabulous in a 12-point font might look absolutely horrendous on a billboard. View your design from various angles and distances.
Also, think about movement. Will the person be driving past as they view your design? Perhaps they’ll be walking, such as at a trade show. Consider how quickly the info can be absorbed and if the spacing looks different while the person is in motion.
Consider where the logo or text might appear and whether you need to make adjustments for different marketing campaigns.
How Do You Learn to Adjust Spacing Effectively?
Learning to kern in design is about developing an eye for the skill. You can play online games that teach you about kerning, but one of the best ways to learn is to check out the work of other designers.
What do you like and hate about spacing in other designs? It’s okay to notice the flaws and think about what you might have done differently. You might even want to pull up your favorite design software and try a few adjustments to see how they look.
Start learning by looking at a few examples of companies who got the kerning just right and it made a statement for the brand.
Continental utilizes some creative kerning for their wordmark portion of their logo. Notice how the uppercase “C” is bumped so close to the lowercase “O” that the two almost form a continuous circle, showing the continuity of the company.
The brand’s tagline is “The Future in Motion” so the “C” and the “L” in the logo almost set the word into movement.
At the same time, none of the letters run together. Everything is easy to view and there are no hidden meanings caused by the spacing of the letters.
Nike pushes the letters of their name so close together that the angles touch in spots. The designers then slant the word to the right to further intensify the effect. By leaving very little space and using heavy, bold block-style lettering, the logo showcases the mental and physical strength the brand promotes for athletes and everyday people.
Most people would tell you never to push the kerning as tightly as Nike did. In fact, it breaks the kerning rules, which goes to prove you can sometimes learn the rules so you can break them. It is a short word with combinations that just work for this type of style.
If you want to break the rules, you must first understand what they are. You can then experiment until you find what works best for your client.
Look at the beautiful, evening kerning in Gucci’s logo. Unlike Nike, this is an example of a logo that follows all the best rules of kerning and comes up with something memorable. Because of all the curves in the letters “G”, “U” and double “C,” it’s important to have enough spacing for the brain to take in the wordmark and process it.
If the designer pushed the letters too tightly together, the middle of the word would become almost unreadable. One thing they could have done to add interest was mirror one of the Cs and intertwine them, but the way they’ve designed it has a classic look that goes with the brand’s image.
You must also consider the personality of the company you’re designing for when choosing what to do with kerning. If the company is cutting edge, try something exciting and new.
Seen uses a really unique font, so the kerning might be a particular challenge for designers. The fat, comic book style of the typography could easily run together and become an unreadable blob. Instead, the designer offers just enough spacing for each letter to stand alone.
With a decorative font such as this, it would be easy to add so much space that the text became unreadable. The kerning has to be absolutely perfect for the spot where the logo will be used.
5. Cave World
Cave World offers some unique challenges for the designer. Not only is the font three-dimensional, looking as though it is carved from stone, but it also is on a curve as though wrapping around a globe.
If you run into a situation where some letters bump up against others while sitting on a slant, you may want to look at the design in small sections. See how each letter appears next to the other, make adjustments.
Step back and look at the design from a wider perspective and make more adjustments. You may find this type of design a lot more challenging, but the ability to change kerning on just a couple of letters at a time will help you get it right. Be patient and keep trying different variations until the design looks the way you want it to.
Check out the kerning for the Kolomenskoe heading on their website. The letters are pushes pretty close together, which might cause readability issues with some typography. However, because the font is a cross between a serif and sans-serif, note how it all appears separated but not so much that you don’t know it’s all a single word.
Again, the font can make a huge difference on the spacing you choose. The best way to get the spacing right is to develop an eye for it. Study as many good examples as possible and experiment. You should also study poor examples, as they will show you what not to do.
The more you practice letter spacing, the better you’ll get at perfecting your kerning skills. Stand back from your computer and take in adjustments. How does the design look with closer spacing? Do some letters stand apart from others that shouldn’t? What needs more space. You can make changes to just a letter pair when needed. With practice, your kerning skills will become second nature.
About The Author
Eleanor Hecks is the Editor-in-Chief of Designerly Magazine, an online publication dedicated to providing in-depth content from the design and marketing industries. When she's not designing or writing code, you can find her re-reading the Harry Potter series, burning calories at a local Zumba class, or hanging out with her dogs, Bear and Lucy.