Typesetting in wood

9 tips for kerning in typography

By BBC Maestro

Have you ever looked at a word and thought, “Hmmm, that doesn’t look right…”? You can’t quite put your finger on it, but there’s something about it that just isn’t comfortable.

It could be that the kerning hasn’t been adjusted to suit the letters. 
 
Kerning is about how letters are spaced relative to each other, and it’s a little detail that can have a big effect on the finished piece. It’s one of the finer points of typography, but one that every graphic designer needs to be aware of.  
 
In this article, we take you through our top tips for kerning in typography, making sure that your headlines and slogans never look “a bit off”. 

Jump to:

What is kerning in typography? 

Kerning in typography refers to the space between two characters, and how you can adjust this space to make the text clearer or simply look better. You’re unlikely to kern a large chunk of copy, but rather invest your time in making sure that the stand-out text, like the header, looks fantastic. 
 
You’ll notice the use of “feels” there because kerning is about the perception of spacing rather than a technical and accurate measurement. There are no hard and fast rules for kerning: a lot of it is about tweaking the characters until your designer’s eye is happy.  
 
In typography, tracking vs kerning is a big debate. ​Tracking is also about adjusting the spacing between characters, but while kerning deals with the gaps in between individual characters, tracking looks at the whole word. With tracking, you adjust the spaces so that they’re all equal in size. It relies less on instinct than kerning, which is either more or less helpful, depending on how you like to work.

flat-lay photography of stamp lot

Where does kerning come from? 

As with many typographical terms, kerning dates from the early days of typesetting. “Kern” comes from the Latin “cardo”, meaning “hinge”, and originally referred to the part of the “sort” (the individual printing block) that hung over the edge of the type block.  
 
When you look at the sorts in the picture above, you can see how there’s a space around each character. In the old days, typesetters would simply cut notches at the edges if they thought the gap between characters was too big. These days, you still need the typesetter’s skills to spot an uneven space, but happily, you don’t need to use their knives. 

9 Tips for kerning 

Learning how to adjust kerning comes with time and experience. We’ve collected some of the most helpful type tips to introduce you to kerning techniques. 

1. Lead with your leading 

Before you begin to check the kerning, make sure you’re happy with your leading. While kerning is the spacing in between letters, ​leading is the vertical gap between lines of text, measured between baselines. If you adjust the kerning and then decide that the leading isn’t right, you’ve just made the job longer for yourself, because you’ll need to revisit the kerns after tweaking the leads. 

2. Be aware of point size

The same goes for the point size of your font. If you change the kerning and then change the font size, you’ll have to start all over again. Smaller point sizes tend to have looser kerning so the text doesn’t look too cramped, while you can keep the characters tighter if the font is bigger.  
 
Think of kerning as the finishing touch to text design, and you should remember to get everything else in order first. 

3. Learn how to kern 

While most graphics packages will have a kerning option, learning how to adjust letters manually is a great skill to have and gives you more control over the finish. In most programmes, this involves going to the Characters panel and then double-clicking on the space you want to kern. You’ll get the best results simply by playing around with this function and learning how to use it. 

4. Know your tricky letters 

Some letters are just harder to kern than others, and capitals can be especially tricky. Letters with arms and cross strokes like F, L and T can be tricky, as can letters with slanting anatomy such as A, W and V. These can create unbalanced-looking gaps within a word, which you’ll need to adjust during the kerning process.  
 
Look at the large space around the bottom of the V in this picture below, for example. This could be unpleasing; however, it’s balanced by the straight lines of the I and the E. 

a pink brick wall with the word five painted on it

You’ll soon get to know which letters will cause you trouble and adjusting for them will become second nature. 

5. Watch out for challenging letter combinations  

This is one of the main reasons why kerning is important: to keep the characters clear and distinct. For example, two consecutive lowercase “n’s” can look like a single “m” if the spacing is too small. Then, of course, we’ve all seen the photographs on social media where poor kerning leads to accidental swearing… It’s your task to make sure that words are legible and read as intended. 

6. Kern your type upside down 

This is an excellent tip from professional designers: turn the page or flip the document before you start to print. That way, you won’t be distracted by the words or even the letters, but will purely be looking at the balance between form and space. 

7. Work in threes 

Again, you can focus better on the shape of the characters if you work on them in smaller sections. Start with the first three letters, blocking out the others. When you’re happy, move one letter to the right, blocking out the first. Keep shifting one to the right until you reach the end of the word, then look at it as a whole again before signing it off. 

KERNING 

KER 

ERN 

RNI 

NIN 

ING 

KERNING 

8. Print out your words 

Sometimes you have to see your work printed out to properly appreciate the finer details. This gives you a new perspective, and it can also help to ask someone else to cast their eyes over it, too. Unless you’re working very close to the deadline, a bit of distance can help, too. Kern the day after you finish the design, if you can. 

9. Kern last 

This is an important point worth returning to – make kerning the last adjustment you make to the text. You can apply all the measurables, such as point size and leading, and then cast your eye back over the characters for that final adjustment.  
 
Kerning finished, take a step back and look at your headline or strapline again. Does it feel right? As a graphic designer and now experienced kerner, trust your instinct.
 

Find out more about the finer details of typography from graphic designer Paula Scher. In her BBC Maestro course, Graphic Design, Paula Scher explores the role of typography within graphic design, along with lots of helpful examples. 

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