An introduction to kerning.

Kerning adjusts letter spacing to make type more readable. Discover ways to use kerning to elevate your designs and improve your typography.

Image of text demonstrating good kerning and bad kerning.

Explore kerning typography.

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 realise there’s so much more to letters than you thought possible.”

 

What is kerning?

Kerning typography 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 creating readable text that’s visually pleasing.
 

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 where 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?’”

Picture of word illustrating two different ways to kern letters.

When should I use kerning?

There are many situations where you’ll want to manually kern your type. These include:
 

Enlarging text

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.
 

“If you’re not a designer, it’s not something you think about,” DeCotes says. “People don’t realise anytime they see giant text, whether it’s on a poster, a billboard, or a website, headline fonts have probably been thoughtfully kerned.”
 

Designing logos

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, such as:
 

  • Signs
  • Websites
  • Mugs
  • Stationery
     

A good designer will kern with these potential uses in mind.
 

Adjusting fonts

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:

Infographic demonstrating different line spacings of one word.

 

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.

Visual exemplifying the difference between tracking and kerning.

 

Kerning and tracking in Adobe InDesign

Learn the difference between metric, manual, and optical kerning as well as keyboard shortcuts for working in InDesign.

Design of the word 'and' in different styles using custom text adjustments.

 

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.

Photo of framed letter-based art design next to decor.

 

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.

Kerning forms a hidden arrow in the negative space of the FedEx logo.

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. 

 

Kerning tips. 

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.
 

6. Practice:

Kern Type, an online kerning game for practising letter spacing, is great for getting instant feedback. It’s simple to start.
 

  1. You have a word with the first and last letters locked in place.
  2. Move the other letters to form equal spacing.
  3. When done, click ‘Compare’ and also the ‘Both’ button.
  4. See how your attempt (in white) compares to the recommended one (in blue).
  5. 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.

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