Last Updated on February 2, 2021
You’ve probably looked at a cafe sign or a car logo and thought that ‘something’s a little off’. Either the letters seem too close together, or the spaces between them are too wide.
Well, you’re not alone – typographers notice these nuances, too (and are often irked by them). More than a shared passion against Comic Sans, nothing makes a designer wince in silent pain than seeing bad kerning and spacing. In worst case scenarios, they can even ruin a brand.
But why is this a big deal? And if you’re a typographer, why should you bother learning the basics?
A Brief History on Spacing and Kerning
In the olden days of print publishing, typesetting was an important process where metal or wooden blocks were arranged to form words, lines, and paragraphs. This can require two or more different kinds of fonts, depending on the design. Much like stamping, there would usually be one letter or character per block (these are called sorts in the mechanical system).
The typesetter would pick a sort then place it on the composing stick, arranging the letters from left to right. These are then put onto the press, inked, then placed under the platen to create an impression on paper.
Each character would seem ‘boxed’, surrounded by the shape of the wooden or metal block where it was carved. So if a typesetter wanted less spacing between them, he might sometimes shave a bit off the sides to make the letters fit closer together.
While we don’t use the same process today, the concept remains more or less the same. When you look at type, imagine an ‘invisible box’ surrounding it, representing the old wooden or metal blocks. When placed side by side, you may notice either too much or too little space.
This can be fixed with a few clicks today.
Spacing vs. Kerning
Budding designers usually learn on the job. So it’s common for them to feel bored when presented with facts and figures pertaining to type. After all, kerning and spacing are hardly creative in nature. Still, this is a foundation of knowledge you can’t miss out on, particularly if you’re interested in a design career.
Let’s begin with terms: spacing refers to the amount of whitespace on either side of a glyph (elemental symbol intended to represent a readable character). These values of whitespace are called ‘sidebearings’. In general, the straighter the side of the glyph (as in the letters ‘H’ and ‘l’), the greater the sidebearing.
Kerning on the other hand, refers to the whitespace between specific pairs of characters. This is something you need to correct based on necessity; so this one is highly subjective. For example: in the word ‘AVATAR’ you may notice that the pair ‘A’ and ‘R’ are too close together. Using the kerning process, you can fix that to make the overall word look more visually appealing.
Kerning also affects readability. If some letters are too close or farther apart, it could result in a totally different meaning. The internet is filled with bad kerning examples – and the results are hilarious!
Kerning vs. Tracking vs. Leading
Don’t confuse kerning with tracking or leading. While the differences may be subtle, they don’t refer to the same thing. Understanding how each one works will only benefit you as a future typographer.
Tracking, or letter-spacing, is adjusting the space uniformly over a range of characters (as opposed to individuals or pairs in kerning). Increased tracking means more ‘breathing space’ between letters so texts appear wider. Decreasing tracking means more compacted text, so some words may not appear readable anymore.
Designers use tracking to enhance paragraphs or lines of text, usually for books, brochures, or presentations. It helps remove that extra word at the end of a paragraph (known as a widow) or that awkward one at the top (called an orphan), which should’ve been still part of a previous page.
Leading, or line-spacing, is fixing the distance or space between two baselines or lines of text. When performed properly, this can make paragraphs look easy on the eyes while avoiding those awkward crashes between descenders (that part of the letter that extends below the baseline, as in ‘g’ and ‘y’) and tittles (the dots above lowercase ‘j’ and ‘i’).
When used together, they can make your final product look polished and precise.
Basic Tips for Applying Spacing and Kerning
Kerning, tracking, spacing, and leading can feel overwhelming, especially for young or inexperienced designers. But remember: practice makes perfect. Aside from doing the nitty gritty work, you can always try these tips to make sure you’re getting the most out of your everyday exercises:
1. Practice visualizing space between letters. Kerning isn’t about mathematically equal spaces, but rather, perceived spaces that look aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Zoom in when you’re working so you can check how each letter or pair is supposed to appear.
2. Take note of common problematic pairs/letters. There are letter pairings that are tricky to begin with, such as capitals followed by a lowercase, or straight edges next to slanted or curved edges (ex: ‘lo’ or ‘VA’). Pay close attention once you spot them. One thing you can do is to fix kerning for straight edges first (ex: ‘H’), then use that as a guide for the rest of your characters.
3. Don’t get fixated on the words. Don’t forget that when dealing with spacing issues, it’s not about meaning. Focus on how the overall aesthetic looks like. Try looking at your type upside-down or even printing them on paper to give you a fresh perspective.
4. Track and learn before you kern. Once you take care of those, kerning should follow naturally.
5. Watch out for size. This is crucial for those working on logos or ads for billboards. Don’t assume that kerning for smaller size fonts will be the same when they are enlarged.
6. Kern in pairs or in threes. Work on difficult areas first, then work your way towards the entire word or phrase.
7. Ask for a second opinion. This is particularly useful for those who are just starting out. Get in touch with an expert who can give you handy advice. Or you can simply ask a friend or loved one for feedback. It’s common to be blind to your own mistakes.
8. Take a break! Typography can be a rabbit hole of minute details. So don’t forget to get off your seat and give your eyes a rest. Look at something green, grab a snack, or cuddle with a pet.
Itching to get ahead? Try the Kern Type game to practice. Simply arrange the letters and get instant feedback. It’s a great way to pass the time, too!
There are little things you don’t notice – until you do. And then it’s all you ever see. Such is the case with bad kerning and spacing. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a professional typographer or an ordinary citizen. The meaning of words can change based on these little things.
If you’re a business owner or a branding officer, better pay more attention. The last thing you want is to find your logo on a meme site. So yes: kerning and spacing DO matter. Learn the basics, apply them, and you might go down in design history.