Typographic Horrors: The Ghost in the Machine Optical Spacing

Part two in our series of gory design:

In an unassuming office building, in Anywhere, U.S.A., a designer sits, her hand on the trigger. Thunder clashes outside, cold rain falls on her keyboard through a leak in the roof . Though the letters beautifully dance together on the page, their individual forms joining in unison to form words and sentences, she needs to fit in just that much more copy. A dark voice in her head whispers, “Just do this so you can go home. It’ll make it fit more easily, the reader be damned!” Temptation overcomes her and she changes the box from “Auto” and starts clicking arrows left and right. Somewhere a typographer dies a little.

In design programs like Adobe Creative Suite, there’s a built-in default for spacing that’s created to go with the metrics built into the professionally crafted font that you’ve purchased. The type designer carefully spaced and kerned the font: a conscious decision based on experience and know-how instead of a mechanical solution. By setting the kerning/spacing to “optical,” you negate the input of the type designer. Though more difficult to do now than the early days of such applications, sometimes people inadvertently end up fiddling with the setting.  So unless you’re a typographer, leave it as is.

“Ghost” in graphic set in FF Pitu by FontFont


  1. Posted October 25, 2012 at 4:54 PM | Permalink

    Is it that bad? It is very helpful when one is working with two different typefaces.

  2. Posted October 25, 2012 at 6:20 PM | Permalink

    In most cases I agree, but sometimes optical yields better results (especially with system fonts at certain sizes). I wouldn’t say it’s an “all or nothing” type deal

  3. Posted October 26, 2012 at 10:27 AM | Permalink

    What’s bad is using it and not knowing what it is, or letting it become one’s default—something I see all too often. You point out one case where it’s potentially not as bad as using default spacing (when setting a single word in multiple fonts), and there are others, such as when a font’s spacing is bad to start with.

  4. Rosemary
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 6:16 AM | Permalink

    I have some rather old fonts (type 1 ps pre Euro symbol!!) that don’t look good with ‘auto’ spacing. Is it partly a question of the age of the font and when the technology moved on?

  5. Posted October 31, 2012 at 6:25 AM | Permalink

    Optical is a no-no for script, handwriting, grunge, and monospaced fonts. It can be helpful for other cases. For headings, it should never be left as just Optical or Metrics. Take the time and kern it by hand.

  6. Lisa O.
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 12:05 PM | Permalink

    So the article was a bit lacking in explanation of what “optical” means and why it can produce nightmarish typography. Here’s how I understand it – corrections welcome.

    Basically, there are three ways to decide how much space to put between a pair of letters:
    1. The application decides
    2. The typographer (who made the font) decides
    3. You decide

    From what I understand, “Auto” or “Metric” use the kerning tables included in the font files. High quality labor-of-love fonts (such as featured here on FontShop I assume) have equally high-quality, thoroughly thought out kerning tables. All the decisions about what looks the most balanced between letter combinations is done for you by the typographer who lovingly and painstakingly made the font, so it’s a good idea not to mess with it.

    Low quality font files (such as some free fonts you get off of DaFont and its ilk) most likely have equally bad kerning tables. One way to tell this is to use the word WAR, or any other letters whose “forms angle outward or frame an open space (W, Y, V, T)”* Does it look gappy? Does an abyss open up between the W and the A? Or does the R look like the awkward third wheel in what is some obvious PDA by the W and the A? Then you probably have a bad case of keming on your hands. (Ha.)

    With low quality fonts, you have two choices, DIY or let the application decide. “Optical” gives the application the reins to make the best out of an awkward situation. It looks at the letter forms and decides what looks most balanced to the human viewer’s eye. It’s possible that you might do it better.

    So, in conclusion:
    1. The application decides = Optical kerning.
    2. The typographer decides = Auto/Metric kerning.
    3. You decide = Manual (Tap-tap-tap) kerning.

    There may be some special cases when you might want to manually kern particular letters even when using a high quality font. Using the type at a very large sizes MAY need manual adjustments, but high quality fonts should hold up well. As always, use your eye! More often, you will need to manually adjust kerning if you’re doing funky things that the font wasn’t necessarily made for, like putting an italic letter in the middle of a word, or inventive pairings of fonts within one word. At that point you are off the beaten path so good luck and may your eye serve you faithfully. Happy exploring!

    – – –
    * Ellen Lupton is helpful: http://www.thinkingwithtype.com/contents/text/#Kerning (Although she seems more optimistic about optical kerning.)
    * Wikipedia has a nice comparison in Clarendon with “WAR” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kerning

  7. Posted October 31, 2012 at 2:25 PM | Permalink

    Good discussion going here. A few responses and nit picks: Rosemary—the technology hasn’t moved on, no. What’s more likely is that the original spacing wasn’t that good (if as you imply ‘optical’ spacing is an improvement). I’d be interested in hearing about which face you refer to here. E-mail me: research fontshop com.
    John—Exactly right.
    Lisa—”It’s possible that you might do it better.” Let’s hope so! Don’t give too much credit to the algorithms that space type. They may outperform a novice, but at least as of now, October 2012, the output you get from them isn’t that great. “There may be some special cases when you might want to manually kern particular letters even when using a high quality font.” There are, and they’re not that uncommon. When you apply positive tracking or letterspacing, for example, the spacing relationships are often thrown off.
    One more small note: Spacing and kerning aren’t synonymous terms. Font spacing values set the amount of space on either side of a glyph. They exist for every single character in the font. Kerning values only exist if some exception to the spacing is required between a sequence of two characters. ‘Optical’ spacing disregards both spacing and kerning values, substituting its own.

  8. Rosemary
    Posted November 1, 2012 at 1:44 AM | Permalink

    Hi David, an example is Myriad Pro (which one of my clients uses as a house font). eg the word ‘jumped’ set using auto has ‘um’ miles apart and ‘pe’ almost on top of one another. (looked at in Illustrator CS4, Adobe version of otf) Slightly better with optical setting, I think. Maybe this is a problem font??

  9. Posted November 1, 2012 at 1:43 PM | Permalink

    It’s possible, though I doubt it’s the font that’s causing the problem. I assume you’re describing how it looks on screen. What does it look like printed?

  10. Posted November 30, 2012 at 4:05 PM | Permalink

    The same principle less sensationally introduced by Jean-François Porchez: http://typofonderie.com/font-support/kerning-in-indesign/

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