Kerning refers to the adjustment of space between two letters in typography. It may seem easy to ignore when facing a deadline, though it’s important to note that kerning plays a pivotal role in a cohesive design. Even if most people don’t know what kerning is, they will certainly be aware when a paper or project has poorly kerned type. The result will be sloppy and awkward looking in appearance.
There are several things designers should consider about kerning before starting a design project:
Prioritize Leading and Tracking
Since tracking and leading can undo the balance of kerning adjustments, it’s important to handle the leading and tracking before kerning. Tracking is the overall space between groups of letters while leading refers to the vertical spacing between lines. For whichever software you’re using, make sure to acquaint yourself early with tracking and leading settings, since they require adjusting before you even consider adjusting it.
Avoid Automatic Kerning
It can be tempting to let your font software kern automatically. For optimal design, however, it’s recommended to kern the letters yourself. The default spacing that software provides can result in a messy appearance since each typeface varies in its spatial relationship to its letters. Graphics programs provide default kerning options like metric and optical. However, manual offers the most control.
Regardless of whether you’re in InDesign, Photoshop or Illustrator, much of the manual kerning operations are within the “Characters” panel. Open the panel up, double-click the cursor between the two letters you intend to kern and then use the activated type tool to change the number values in the “Characters” panel.
Value the Perception of Space
A precise mathematical equation to determine equal spacing for each letter is not realistic. As a result, designers should be more concerned about the perception of viewers, regarding seeing an equal amount of space. Ideally, you can visualize sand filling spaces between the letters, with the intention to make the volume of sand even. Perception trumps mathematical certainty regarding proper kerning.
Consider the Spatial Relationships Between Letters
The English alphabet includes straight, round and diagonal edges, which create variance regarding the spacing between letters. For example, there is a notable difference between two straight letters such as “li” and straight and round letters like “lo” in most type. Designers should regard the distance between two straight letters as a single unit, while regarding the distance between a straight and round letter as slightly less than one unit, with the distance between two round letters being even lesser. Diagonal-sided letters like “A” and “V” can be especially challenging, due to their extraneous space.
Use the Upside-Down Trick
Consider flipping your project over and viewing the type upside down if you’re struggling to view kerning cohesively. The upside-down trick helps you look at the spacing without the bias involving the substance of words.
Another useful trick is to kern in groups of three, starting with the first three letters of each word and blocking the rest with your hand. You can worry about kerning three letters at a time, reducing distractions and helping you hone in on the entire project without disregarding a particular word or letter.
Too Little Is Better Than Too Much
Over-doing kerning can be disastrous, smushing words too close together and creating tight spacing that is very difficult to read. As a result, if forced to choose between the two, opt for too little kerning. Although the spacing may be dramatic, at least the type will be readable.
Vary Approach Based on Font Size
Font size should influence your kerning approach. For example, spacing differences are not as notable in smaller type, though headlines require substantial care since any spacing miscues will be more prominent. The difference between 25pt and 50pt font can be considerable, with 50pt font needing more attention. If you’re in a time crunch for a particular project, make sure to prioritize larger fonts first.
Be Aware of Frustrating Letters to Kern
Certainly, some letters are more difficult to kern than others. Specifically, the uppercase L, P, T, W, V and Y and the lowercase y and k have proven difficult for kerning. As a result, designers can aim to kern these more difficult letters first, so the whole project’s kerning efforts do not require a redo because of some frustrating letters down the line.
Stay Away From Ugly Fonts
The uglier the font is, the more difficult it will be to kern. Ideally, stay away from fonts that are not standard to computers. Custom fonts that are downloadable from websites may have inherent kerning issues that may make your life more difficult. Proceed with caution, my friend.
Play Kern Type
Created by Mark MacKay, Kern Type is a fun game that helps you brush up on your kerning skills. The game has you achieve kerning success by manually distributing the space between letters, with your result comparing to a typographer’s solution. You will be given a score for each attempt. This is the ultimate goal of improving your score to match the typographer.
Although kerning is a straightforward typographical principle, its intricacies involving certain letters and the tendency for software to automate it to ill effect makes kerning preparation essential for many typographic projects. These tips will help designers, marketers and freelancers prepare their projects, so that it’ll easier and ultimately results in very readable typography for their audiences.
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.