The Art of Kerning

Typography complements and drives a strong design.

Good typography can be lost by the lack of attention given to kerning. It is an art that I think got lost or ignored for whatever reason for many years.

Back in my early days as a paste-up artist (the 80’s) I would get my type from the typesetter, run it through the waxer, cut blocks of type with a tee square, triangle & xacto knife and then position it on the artboard. We would actually kern our headlines by using an xacto knife to cut between the letters of the word and tighten up the lettering. It was a painful process that needed to be done.

Over time I really developed an eye for well-kerned type. Attention to good typography has made a solid comeback, and the younger generation of designers seem to have a new appreciation for it which is really cool.

With the ability to have more control over type online, there is a new focus. In the beginning web designers had very little control over type in their layouts and was often ignored. Fortunately, in the past few years that has changed, giving the web designer greater capability to do more with typography and kerning in their online designs. With that being said I feel that today, both print and web designers have become more aware of good typography.

An important thing to remember about kerning is that it usually needs to be done. Here are a few things that will help you understand and improve your eye for kerning type.

What is Kerning? What is Tracking?

In its simplest form kerning is adjusting the space between two individual letters, and tracking is adjusting the spacing uniformly over a given selection of text. The goal for both is to equalize the appearance of the whitespace between letters. This can get tricky because you really have to develop an eye for it.

typographical kerning and tracking

Sometimes the whitespace between letters won’t look uniform, and you have to fine tune the individual letters until the word looks like you think it should. And someone else may see it different yet. There’s really no magic formula; you just have to eyeball it and decide what looks right to you.

Understanding Types of Kerning

There are three types of kerning: no kerning at all, automatic kerning and manual kerning. No kerning is obvious. Automatic kerning is the kerning applied automatically by a program like InDesign. Manual kerning is applied by the user manually.

There are two types of automatic kerning, metric and optical. With metric kerning, the program uses directly the values found in the kerning table(s) included in the font file that the type designers specify. Optical kerning, is available only in the more advanced systems.

In manual kerning which is available in some systems, the designer is able to override the automatic kerning and apply whatever kerning value the designer wants directly to a pair of characters in the text. When manual kerning is not an option for two characters, I fake it by using tracking. When you know what you’re looking for manual kerning is the way to go.

typographical leading

Letters & Numbers to Watch Out For!

As your eye develops a knack for kerning, you will start to notice that certain letters are more problematic than others. The capital letters T, V, W, and Y really need more attention than most of the others. The number 1 always seems to give me problems whenever used in phone numbers, years, prices ect…

What is Leading in Typography?

Now, to add even more confusion to this equation, we can throw leading into the mix. Leading (“led-ing”) is the vertical space between lines of type. Leading becomes an issue when you are dealing with ascenders & descenders. You want to try to adjust your kerning and your leading to avoid certain letters from touching and so that they look visually appealing.


I hope you have gotten something from this discussion. Kerning isn’t the most difficult thing you’ll ever do in graphic design, but it can get a little tricky and tends to be something that you sometimes forget to do.

Try to always keep kerning in your thoughts and to always inspect your letter spacing. Just a few minutes of kerning on every headline you will likely notice a huge improvement on the overall look and feel of your final product.

P.S. I ran across this website, Kern Type. It’s a kerning game which is a fun and great way to help you see what kerning is, and how it works.

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