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.
While kerning is subjective, keep these tips from the pros in mind as you set out to improve your kerning typography 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 easily spot where adjustments need to be made.
In some cases, kerning each letter individually can achieve the best possible results. Taking a hands-on approach may ensure even spaces but it can be a slow process at first, so make sure you can set aside enough time for this task.
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.
If you know someone experienced in kerning for fonts, then ask for their opinion of your work early on. They will hopefully be able to highlight any errors, so you can correct them quickly and pick up useful advice for further kerning.
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 into the minutiae of making sure everything is perfect,” says Presler. “Work on it, then step away for a little while.”
After spending time looking at the same set of kerning typography, you can be fooled into thinking everything looks just right or wrong. Ask someone else – whether they’re a kerning expert or not – to have a look as you have a break from it.
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.
This is especially important when the finished work is going to be printed out – whether that’s on a billboard poster, T-shirt, magazine article or anywhere else. It can make it easier to inspect your kerning from different angles - if you flip it to get a different perspective of the spacing – without becoming distracted by the word itself.
5. Memorise common troublemakers
Certain letter combinations can be more difficult to kern and typically need adjusting. Potential troublemakers include:
- Letter pairs with diagonal arms or legs, such as the A or V.
- Capital letters followed by lowercase letters.
- Letters with arms or cross strokes, such as F, L and T.
- Slanting letters, like K, W and Y.
“The first letter after a capital tends to need more adjustment, especially with a serif font,” designer Robin Casey says. When one of these troublemakers appears in the middle of a word, remember to assess how it interacts with both letters either side, as you may need to adjust them as well.
Kern Type, an online kerning game for practising letter spacing, is great for getting instant feedback. It’s simple to start.
- You have a word with the first and last letters locked in place.
- Move the other letters to form equal spacing.
- When done, click ‘Compare’ and also the ‘Both’ button.
- See how your attempt (in white) compares to the recommended one (in blue).
- Check your score (based on how close to the solution it was) and try again to beat it and improve your kerning ability.
Kerning 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.