What is kerning and how to apply to typography

As a graphic designer, you know the importance of typography in your designs. Typography is not just making the text readable, but also how it looks visually. And one of the critical components of typography is kerning. Kerning is the process of adjusting the space between characters to create a visually pleasing design. In this blog, we will delve into the basics of kerning and how to apply it to typography.

What is kerning?

What is kerning

You may have heard the term “kerning” thrown around quite often. But what is kerning in typography, and why is it an essential aspect of design? Simply put, kerning refers to the spacing between individual characters in a font. It’s all about achieving balance and harmony between letters, ensuring that they are spaced evenly for optimal legibility and readability. Understanding the kerning definition and how to execute it effectively can elevate your designs from mediocre to magnificent. It could be the very thing that tips the balance when pitching for your next project.

When to use kerning

After finding the right font for a branded project, designers with skillful application of kerning fonts can adjust the spacing between individual characters, making them appear more balanced, visually appealing, and easier to read. This, in turn, will refine projects that heavily rely on clear and precise communication, such as books, website blogs, and presentations. In the case of presentations, an audience is likely sitting far away from readable information, so making the text as clear and readable as possible, yet keeping a good look is a high priority. Check out these tips for using fonts in presentations to get the most out of your slides.

World-renowned fonts like Helvetica, Times New Roman, and Gotham tend to not cause too many issues. However, independent fonts found on the internet can sometimes prove to be problematic with the spacing between certain characters. This can look shabby, unpolished, and unprofessional.

Rules of kerning

Rules of kerning

While kerning is an art form that requires some trial and error, some basic rules can guide you. For example, characters with straight lines need more space between them compared to curved letters. Round letters such as O, C, and G need less space. Kerning adjustments are minimal but can have a significant impact on the visual appeal of the text. Let’s take a look at some key spacing rules, focussing especially on those letters that tend to step out of line:

Slanted letters, such as A V K Y W, can cause a nuisance due to their extended profile, causing unsuspecting characters to be pushed away. Check out some of these examples:

Slanted letters kerning

Top heavy letters such as Ps and Ts can also cause mischief, especially when paired with lowercase rounded letters. Check out these harrowing examples:

Top heavy letters kerning

One more nail-biting scenario no designer wants to witness is the uncomfortable closeness of some characters. This typically exists when two straight-edge letters are sat next to each other:

im,mp and il kerning

The spacing between letters can often make or break a design, and it is the designer’s mastery of spacing characters that sets them apart as true artisans. With their superior knowledge and expertise, designers have the power to take typography to a whole new level and create stunning visual experiences that captivate and engage their audience.

Types of kerning

There are three main types or methods of kerning available in all industry-standard software that are essential for creating on-point typography:

Metric kerning

Metric kerning relies on pre-set spacing values provided by the font. This is more of a quick-fix solution in comparison to the other methods, as it heavily depends on the quality of the font. Well-known fonts such as Helvetica, Times New Roman, and Gotham are world-renowned styles that will space out perfectly using this method. However, more independent fonts, upon closer inspection, may show untidy results.

Optical kerning

Optical kerning adjusts the spacing using design software to automatically adjust kerning based on the visual spacing between each letter. This can be particularly useful when using an independent font design with questionable spacing. A great option for fixing a lot of spacing problems at once, but lacks the intelligence to make finer adjustments.

Manual Kerning

Manual kerning entails adjusting the space between individual letters by hand. Time-consuming, maybe, but it gives the designer total control of their font, especially for those more intricate design projects like logos, posters, and letterheads that need a more personalized touch. That said, it is not the method of choice for kerning large amounts of text, as this could be a huge waste of your time, so reverting back to Optical or Metric may be in your best interest.

It is highly recommended that you master all three types of kerning to add depth, texture, and harmony to your typography projects. Such detail won’t get unnoticed as you strive toward perfection. You never know who it might impress.

What is the difference between kerning, leading, and tracking?

Kerning, tracking and leading

Kerning, leading, and tracking are fundamental elements that define how letters and words interact with each other.

  • Kerning refers to the space between two individual letters.
  • Leading is the vertical space between lines of text.
  • Tracking is the overall space between letters in a selection of text.

By understanding the nuances and differences between these elements, you can craft a visual message that is both effective and elegant. As a knowledgeable designer, you know that every detail matters, and mastering kerning, leading, and tracking is an essential step toward creating powerful and impactful designs.

Kerning vs tracking

When it comes to choosing between the only two methods of spacing characters, the choice is as plain as black and white. Although both actions share the same function, kerning is the method used for adjusting the spacing between individual letters in more elaborate tasks such as designing logos, titles, and custom typography that could be used for marketing campaigns.

On the other hand, tracking edits the spacing of entire paragraphs. Naturally, this method will overlook any font style issues, as previously discussed. However, for blocks of text that appear too tight for light reading, this spacing method will clear up problems quickly and effectively. You can always comb through any inconsistencies using the kerning method afterward if you strive for perfection.

Tools for kerning

It’s all very well understanding what kerning is, but how does one put it into practice? Luckily for all of us, most, if not all industry-standard software supports some form of kerning editing tool. Here, we are going to focus on the Adobe suite. However, programs like Coreldraw, Sketch, and Figma all have these basic font tools that are relatively easy to master.

Kerning in Photoshop

You may think Photoshop is all about editing images. Well, you’d be wrong. This pixel-based editing software is the king of special effects, artificial lighting, and general creativity, an environment in which experimental typography thrives. So what is kerning in Photoshop? Naturally, the platform has a progressive type tool that allows you to select typographical styles from your font library and edit them as you wish. Once you are happy with the font spacing, you can turn your type into a raster image and go crazy with the special effects and textures available in the effects gallery.

Kerning in Illustrator

Like its bitmap based counterpart, Illustrator likes to push creative boundaries using the mathematical precision of vector graphics instead of pixels, perfect for creating stunning logos and graphics, all of which can be scaled up to gigantic proportions. Again we find ourselves in a highly creative environment for progressive typography where learning how to adjust kerning in Adobe Illustrator could unlock your potential. Simply select the type tool from the left toolbar and start typing away. You can select individual letters and space them accordingly using the kerning tool found in the type tool window.

Kerning in InDesign

Since this program is mainly used for editorial projects, its options for type formating far surpass those of its more visually oriented counterparts, Illustrator and Photohsop, offering more options for type orientation and formatting of blocks of text. Kerning within InDesign is a basic feature, easily accessible via its type editing tool. Yet, with all this formatting pleasure, it lacks creativity for progressive typography.

Kerning tips

Kerning is a crucial aspect of typography that involves adjusting the spacing between characters to create visually balanced and legible text. Here are some tips for effective kerning:

  • Understand Its Purpose: Kerning adjusts the space between characters to achieve a balanced and visually pleasing result. It’s most noticeable in logos, headlines, and large text.
  • Trust Your Eye: While some software offers automatic kerning, it’s not always perfect. Use your eye to judge if the spacing looks even.
  • Kern in Pairs: Focus on two characters at a time, adjusting their spacing before moving onto the next pair.
  • Watch for Problematic Combinations: Certain letter combinations, like “AV” or “WA”, often need more attention due to their shapes.
  • Use Optical Kerning: If available, use this feature in design software. It adjusts spacing based on the shapes of characters, not their widths.
  • Don’t Overdo It: Subtlety is key with kerning. Over-kerning can make text hard to read.
  • Practice Makes Perfect: Like any design skill, mastering kerning takes practice. Try exercises online to hone your abilities.

Pushing the boundaries

Titles, logos, and experimental design kerning

Not all text is made to be read in the traditional sense. Titles, logos, and experimental design projects tend to push boundaries wherever possible to gain intrigue and heighten engagement. This is where methods such as kerning can be used for an adverse effect over their intended use.

Squeezing and loosening space between characters will break the status quo, doing exactly the opposite of what the word gods expect of all of us. This playfulness, when done with artistic flair, can produce a style that resonates with certain emotions. Tight spacing can create a sense of urgency, a feeling of clumsiness, or even stress. Whereas loose kerning evokes a more tranquil response from the reader, quite literally feeling spaced out.

There is a time and a place for this kind of behavior. As much as we want to go out and play ball with letter spacing, as designers, we must address the importance of kerning and the relationship readers have with text. At the end of the day the sharing of information should be the highest priority, and delivered efficiently and effectively.

Kerning typography is an essential skill in typography that separates professional designers from amateur ones. It takes some practice and attention to detail to get it right, but mastering it will make your typography more visually appealing and effective. When applying kerning to your design, always consider the typography’s overall message and purpose. Remember, spacing is a critical factor in typography, and proper kerning can make it visually appealing and easy to read.