An introduction to kerning.
Kerning adjusts letterspacing to make type more readable. Discover ways to use kerning to elevate your designs and improve your typography.
Explore the typographic art of kerning.
Design is full of detail-level concepts that matter more than their superficial simplicity would suggest. Kerning is a great example. When used effectively, kerning can be a powerful tool to influence aesthetic and communication through type. It’s a tool that, when used well, won’t be noticed by the average reader.
“If you start to look for it,” says designer Madeline DeCotes, “you’ll realize there’s so much more to letters than you thought possible.”
What is kerning?
Kerning is the spacing between individual letters or characters. Unlike tracking, which adjusts the amount of space between the letters of an entire word in equal increments, kerning is focused on how type looks — creating readable text that’s visually pleasing. While typeface designers build in spaces around each letter, and sometimes between pairs of letters, those spaces don’t always work in all situations, especially if you’re using a typeface in a way the designer didn’t foresee. That’s when manual kerning comes in. Because beauty is in the eye of the beholder, no two kerning jobs will be the same.
“Kerning is a strikingly subjective art form,” explains DeCotes. “The designer needs to look at the space between each letter in a word and ask, ‘Does this look like enough space? Does it look like too much? Are the letters too tight?’”
Determining when to use kerning.
There are a number of situations where you’ll want to manually kern your type. Text that looks good at smaller point sizes, such as in a paragraph on a magazine page, may look awkward at larger sizes, like an article headline or a billboard. This is because smaller text sizes need more space between letters to maintain legibility. If you enlarge the text size without manually shrinking the space between characters, you probably won’t like the results.
Logos are another example where a font’s automatic kerning may not cut it. Designing a logo demands that you consider your kerning for a variety of applications — signs, websites, mugs, and pencils are all possibilities — and a good designer will kern with these potential uses in mind.
“If you’re not a designer, it’s not something you think about,” DeCotes says. “People don’t realize anytime they see giant text, whether it’s on a poster, a billboard, or a website, headline fonts have probably been thoughtfully kerned.”
Fonts downloaded from the internet for free can be problematic for designers, as their default kerning (also called metric kerning) is not set professionally. Designer Nick Escobar notes that free fonts are usually produced by amateurs. “They often have pretty bad kerning, so you have to go in and manually adjust it.”
As a general rule of thumb, Escobar says, “The better drawn a font is, and the more seasoned the artist is, the less you have to adjust the kerning.”
Kerning lessons to help you build your skills.
Learning to kern is all about developing your eye through practice and repetition, but drawing on expert knowledge is a crucial part of advancing in your typography journey. Behance and the Adobe YouTube channel are great resources for learning more and getting inspiration from other artists, while articles can provide you with technical know-how. Explore these tutorials and begin developing your skills:
Line and character spacing in Adobe Illustrator
Dive deeper into working with kerning in Illustrator and learn about related typography concepts like tracking, baseline, and leading.
Kerning and tracking in Adobe InDesign
Learn the difference between metric, manual, and optical kerning as well as keyboard shortcuts for working in InDesign.
Using OpenType to customize fonts.
Discover how to make fun, custom adjustments to type using OpenType. Ligatures, swash characters, and contextual alternatives are just a few of the features you can play with in OpenType. Custom adjustments offer unique kerning challenges. You’ll find many OpenType fonts through Adobe Fonts.
Making letter-based art in Illustrator.
In this step-by-step tutorial, you’ll learn how to create typographic art through custom kerning and OpenType adjustments.
Ways you can play with kerning.
The lack of set rules for kerning becomes the designer’s biggest advantage when working on more creative applications with type, such as logo design or editorial work. In these mediums, kerning becomes a way to influence the look and tone of your design.
“If you want to create fun shapes or energy in your logo, you can mess up the kerning and start to see how letterforms interact,” says designer Jimmy Presler. He offers the example of the FedEx logo, with its hidden arrow formed by the negative space between the letters.
DeCotes points to Nike as another example of intentional kerning. “If you look at the classic ‘Just Do It’ ads, you’ll notice the letters are kerned so tightly it’s obviously not the default font. But if they weren’t so tightly kerned together, it wouldn’t be as bold or impactful.”
The takeaway? Use the flexibility kerning offers to your advantage. Get creative and you could find new ways to control the look, feel, or even the meaning of your type.
“Whether things are tightly kerned or they’re spaced out, airy, and comfortable, you get different feelings, just like if you’re listening to a punk rock song, a jazz song, or a piece of classical,” Presler explains.
A few more kerning tips.
While kerning is subjective, keep these tips from the pros in mind as you set out to improve your skills.
1. Break it down into pieces: Working with just two letters at a time is a great way to hone your eye. By isolating kerning pairs, you can more easily spot where adjustments need to be made.
2. Get outside input: It’s hard to spot your own mistakes, especially if you’re just starting out. “When you're new to it, get eyes on it,” advises Escobar.
3. Distance yourself from the work: No matter how experienced you are, getting space from your work is crucial. “It’s a rabbit hole you can fall into, because you can get really into the minutiae of making sure everything is perfect,” says Presler. “Work on it, then step away for a little while.”
4. Print it out: Another way to get a fresh perspective is to print out your work. “Printing something out at varying sizes can really help you understand where you might need to adjust kerning,” explains Presler.
5. Memorize common troublemakers: Certain letter combinations — like letter pairs with diagonal arms or legs such as the A or V — typically need adjusting. Capital letters followed by lowercase letters are also potentially problematic kerning pairs. “The first letter after a capital tends to need more adjustment, especially with a serif font,” designer Robin Casey says.
6. Practice: Kern Type, a kerning game for practicing letterspacing, is great for getting instant feedback, while tutorials can dive into more advanced techniques in Illustrator or InDesign.
Practice and exposure are the key ingredients to fine-tuning your kerning expertise. Now that you have these tips and tricks in your back pocket, it’s time for you to put your kerning know-how into practice.
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