Discourse by Design: The Joy of Kerning

by Michael Opsteegh on 10 July 2013

I was reading a menu last year that said, “Heal thy Choice.” Perplexed, I couldn’t understand what that was supposed to mean. Finally, it occurred to me: “Healthy Choice.” How did I come to misinterpret what the menu was saying? The answer is bad letter spacing.

Last month, we examined the importance of the space between lines of text and how setting lines too closely together or too far apart makes your text more difficult to read. Likewise, bad letter spacing interferes with how the eye perceives word shapes. This month we’re discussing how the interstitial spaces between letters affects legibility. There are two types of letter spacing:

  • Tracking. Tracking affects the spacing between a range of letters. If, for example, you were designing a logo or title page, you might set the type so that all of the letters were spaced equidistant (usually very tight or very open) regardless of letter shape. While tracking can be a useful design gimmick, it’s not our focus today.

  • Kerning. Kerning addresses the space between individual letter pairs. The objective is to give the appearance of equal space between each letter. Often, this means fitting letters together like puzzle pieces. As you can see in the image the T and the y in the kerned type are scooched closer together to make the space between letters more even.

The idea behind kerning is giving your text an even tone and hopefully avoiding a “heal thy choice” situation. There are a couple of popular tricks for eyeballing how well text is kerned. One is to imagine that you are pouring a glass of water over the text. Ideally, even amounts of water would fill between each letter. If you aren’t that visually or imaginatively inclined, turn the page upside down and look for an even tone of text on the page. Turning the page upside down makes the word shapes unfamiliar and ensures that you paying attention to the “color” of the text rather than the text itself.

Practical Guidelines for Kerning

Obviously, no one has time to manually adjust each letter pair for the optimum kerning. It would be a tedious task, indeed. Fortunately, most software programs take care of kerning for us, and we only need to be on the lookout for those “heal thy choice” exceptions.

The most important thing you can do to ensure proper kerning is to use professionally designed typefaces. Fonts, when professionally designed, contain a lot of metrics about the lettershapes and spacing. This information helps your page layout and word processing software interpret how to optimally display the type. Free fonts generally don’t have much or any information about letterspacing and ultimately lead to bad kerning.

Here are some additional hints about kerning text in some popular tools and technologies:

  • Microsoft Word. Surprisingly, Word has a lot of advanced typographical features like kerning, but they are disabled by default, and their controls a buried deeply in dialogue boxes. To turn on kerning, open the Font dialog box, click the Advanced tab (may be called Character Spacing in some versions), and select the Kerning for Fonts check box.

  • Adobe FrameMaker. Again, kerning is not enabled by default. To turn on kerning in FrameMaker, open the Paragraph Designer, click the Default Font tab, and select the Pair Kern check box. This applies kerning only to the individual paragraph style.

  • Adobe InDesign. InDesign is a design application and, therefore, kerning is enabled by default. While, you have infinite control over kerning in InDesign, there are two settings that most of us will rely on. Set the kerning to Metrics if you want InDesign to rely on the font designer’s specifications within the font file. Set Kerning to Optical to rely on InDesign’s own interpretation of the letter shapes to dictate spacing. I often get better results with Optical kerning.

  • Web. The prior options are great if you’re distributing PDFs, but that may no longer be your deliverable of choice. Support for kerning online is still fairly limited. The font-kerning property is proposed in the CSS3 specification, but is not currently supported by many browsers.

Review your application setting to ensue kerning is enabled. Turn the page upside down to scan for even text color or awkward spacing. Avoid those “heal thy choise” moments in your own work.

Further Reading

  • “CSS Font Module Level 3” World Wide Web Consortium. 2013. <http://dev.w3.org/csswg/css-fonts/>.
  • Craig, James Scala,Irene Korol.Bevington, William. Designing with Type : The Essential Guide to Typography. 5th ed., Rev. ed. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 2006.
  • French, Nigel. InDesign Type: Professional Typography with Adobe InDesign CS2. Ed. Douglas Cruickshank. Burkeley: Adobe Press, 2006.

Michael Opsteegh has been a technical writer in the software and financial services industries for nine years and is currently a senior technical writer for Eyefinity. Michael specializes in professional and technical communications that include user guides, websites, policies, and procedures. He holds a master’s degree in English, rhetoric, and composition and a certificate in technical and professional writing from California State University, Long Beach. He has written articles on comics and typography in technical communication that have appeared in STC’s Intercom. Michael occasionally blogs on the topics of typography and page design at bestfontforward.com.

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