In typography, kerning is defined as the adjustment of space between two individual letters. It’s also not an uncommon thing to neglect when you’re reaching the end of a grueling deadline.
Your clients may not know what kerning is, but they’ll know something’s amiss when their design has poorly kerned type. Doing it right helps a design look more professional, so spending just a couple more minutes kerning your type should be second nature for any professional designer.
Here are 10 tips that’ll help.
1. Take care of leading and tracking before kerning
Tracking is the overall spacing between groups of letters. Leading is the vertical spacing between lines of type. It’s important to make the desired adjustments to your leading and tracking first, because doing that after kerning can undo the balance in the kerning adjustments you’ve already made.
2. Don’t let your font software kern for you
When it comes to headlines and logotypes, you need to kern the letters yourself rather than relying on the default spacing provided for you in the font software. Each typeface will have different spatial relationships for its letters, so you’ll have to adjust the kerning differently for each one.
Graphics programs come with auto-kerning tools like the default Metric kerning and Optical kerning, which adjust the spacing between letters based on their shapes. However, kerning manually will give you more control.
To kern your type, you’ll be using the Characters panel, which will look pretty much the same whether you’re working in Photoshop, InDesign or Illustrator. Start by opening the “Characters” panel. Next, double-click the cursor between two letters of the type you want to kern. This activates the type tool. Next, go to the Character panel and change the number values in the kerning tool, experimenting by increasing and decreasing the value, which will change the spacing between pairs of letters.
Keyboard Shortcut: Click between the two letters, hold down the option or alt key and use the right and left arrow keys to adjust the kerning.
3. Create equal perceived space between letters
Kerning isn’t a mathematically equal amount of space, it’s a perceived equal amount of space between letters according to the human eye. Once common kerning technique is to visualize and sand filling the spaces between the letters, and trying to make the volumes of sand equal.
When you’re kerning, make sure not to zoom in too much on your type, or the spacing will appear deceptively larger than the true final result.
4. Understand spatial relationships between different letters
All letters are a combination of straight, round and diagonal edges, so understanding their basic relationships is a helpful starting off point. One way to gauge the proper kerning for letters is to see the distance between 2 straight letters as 1 unit, the distance between straight and round letters as slightly less than 1 unit, and the distance between two round letters as even more slightly less than 1 unit.
Diagonal-sided letters like A, V and Y, are the most challenging letters to kern because of the larger negative space they create. These require special attention, but should not be used as a guide for the spacing of the entire word.
5. Kern your type upside down
Doing this helps you see your type as a group of equally spaced shapes without being distracted by the meaning of the words.
6. Kern in groups of three
Try doing this by starting with the first three letters of a word, and block the rest of the letters with your hand or a piece of paper. Once you’ve adjusted the spacing between the first three letters, shift your gaze over by one letter until you’ve reached the end of the word.
7. Don’t forget that less is more
It’s better to kern too little than over-kern your type. Type that is too tightly spaced is unattractive and difficult to read.
8. Use different kerning solutions for large and small versions of your type
This is especially necessary for displaying smaller and larger versions of a logo. Kerning differences are not as apparent in smaller type sizes, but in headlines and logotypes they become a lot more obvious. Sometimes it’s also necessary to have looser kerning for smaller versions of a logo.
9. Watch out for challenging letter combinations
Letters like the uppercase W, Y, V, T, L, and P, the lower case y and k are some of trickier letters to kern. So are upper and lower case letters that sit next to each other. To fix these spacing problems, try kerning those difficult letters first and then kern the rest of the letters.
10. Practice a lot (and try out this cool kerning game)
All these techniques will take practice before they become second nature. To get started, try out this fun kerning game that tests your kerning solutions against that of a master typographer, and scores you accordingly. We’ve also pulled together a full list of typography games here.
Remember, kerning is all about creating consistent spatial relationship between a group of letters. The more consistent your spacing is, the more rhythm and harmony your typography will have.