Basic Kerning

When type designers draw type, the amount of space each character (or glyph) takes up is carefully set. This includes not only how wide the character is inside its box, but how wide the box is, or how much space is required on either side of the character. Done well, a typeface’s spacing maintains a consistent rhythm between positive and negative forms and along with the letterforms themselves gives the face its texture and distinct color. Its spacing values are intended to work under general conditions, like with like, (meaning lowercase with lowercase, figures with figures, etc.) and within a given size range. Of course, general conditions often don’t apply.


So what’s kerning?

A kern is a spacing exception. Kerning is determining which specific pairs of letters (or glyphs) need adjustment to their spacing, and either tightening or loosening the spacing by adding a negative or positive spacing value, respectively. Generally speaking, all professional fonts have kerning built in. Some designs rely very heavily on kerning, such as script faces or tightly spaced display faces. Some, such as monospaced faces, require no kerning. Most text faces, I’d say, employ kerning only to fix the major problems, such as the large gaps in To, Ta, Vo, Va, etc., and to cause punctuation characters such as dashes and commas to land in the correct spot. See below that when the cursor is placed between the T and o in Valentin Brustaux’s Tiina that the kern value is -64 units. The value is in parentheses because it’s supplied by the font’s Metrics, which should be your default in this field. I mention all this just to reiterate that in most cases, the kerning has been done for you. From there, whether it’s suited to your taste or up to the task you give it is largely a matter of your, the typographer’s, discretion.

Screen Shot 2013-09-05 at 5.55.24 PM

When do graphic designers kern?

Kerning is commonly required when a typeface is being used at a size or scale outside the range for which it was designed and tested. It’s also advisable to check and perform kerning when the tracking or letterspacing of the type you’re working with has been adjusted. Lastly, when you’re stuck with it, you’ll need to kern stuff that wasn’t done properly or at all.

Wait, what’s tracking?

Tracking, or letterspacing is the uniform addition or subtraction of space between all characters in question. In the Character dialog above, it’s the zero value just to the right of the (-64) kerning value. Track type open by highlighting it and using the key command Alt + Right Arrow.

Is it time to kern something yet?

Yes. We’re taking this word ‘WOULD’ set in Mark van Bronkhorst’s Sweet Gothic and kerning it so that it works better large. Note that at the small size it works great, but in the large size immediately following, it begins to fall apart.


To remedy this I track it tighter (shown in the second large sample above) but there’s still something wrong with it. See if you come to the same conclusions by first observing with your own eyes and then highlighting to reveal mine in the hidden paragraph below.

Making it tighter created some new problems. The space between W and O needs to tighten up some. Also the LD combination now feels kind of tight, and needs a little extra space.


There. The top part of the above image remains the same for reference, but the bottom portion is now kerned consistently with my findings above. The word is still somewhat loosely spaced, but unified throughout.

How did we get from there to here?

There are differing techniques, but the main idea is to look at the composition the word or line creates as a whole. If that’s too much to focus on at once, try looking at three characters at a time. When you find a pair that needs adjusting, just put your cursor between the two characters, and Alt + Left Arrow to kern tighter, Alt + Right Arrow to kern looser. Remember to refresh your eyes occasionally by printing out your work or changing the distance between you and your screen. Sometimes it helps to focus on just the form by decoupling form from its meaning with a shift in orientation. Look at it upside down or backwards for a second opinion. You can, by the way, overdo it. The 1970s were marked by a generation of overwrought ad comps. Not to suggest that that particular approach was wrong, only that it’s now tied to a specific period, and, in retrospect it seems to have sacrificed purpose for style. I’m of the more pragmatic school of thought that function should take precedence, and that kerning, when done right, should remain invisible.

What else do I need to kern?

If you’re using multiple fonts on the same line, chances are good you’ll eventually run into a combination that needs kerning. That goes even for a Roman and italic of the same typeface; there’s still no way to kern between fonts. (Though there are some crazy ways to put multiple typefaces into a single font and kern all those with each other.)

Okay, that’s it. Please add your questions. I’m also taking requests. Using Type continues here Thursday.


  1. Posted September 6, 2013 at 4:46 AM | Permalink

    David, just wanted to say this series has been fantastic. The students in my introduction to type course this year are going to benefit tremendously from the Using Type posts. And their instructor has picked up some tips as well. 🙂

  2. Paramjeet
    Posted September 7, 2013 at 12:52 AM | Permalink

    Hi David, do you think using text in optical kerning is a crime, as opposed to metrics mode; And using optical kerning destroys the spacing of the characters?

  3. Posted September 9, 2013 at 11:39 AM | Permalink

    Hey Paramjeet.
    ‘Metrics’ should be the kerning field default in InDesign (it’s called ‘Auto’ in Illustrator). ‘Optical’ shouldn’t be used unless the person using it understands what it is, and what the ‘metrics’ setting is. That said, the ‘optical’ setting has its uses—chief among them working with display type that’s not spaced well to begin with. But even at large sizes its results aren’t very good.
    ‘Optical’ kerning should never be used with properly designed type within the range of its intended use, nor monospaced fonts that you wish to remain monospaced.
    But is it a crime? Perhaps. And if so, seeing the result is punishment enough.

  4. Paramjeet
    Posted September 10, 2013 at 12:17 AM | Permalink

    Hi David, very fruitful answer.
    When we create a typeface (through FontLab), there must be an option to kern the space with optical kern setting?

    I used the word crime because when I read the book Thinking With Type by Ellen Lupton, she used the term “type crime.”

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