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?’”
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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