When working with type there are several things you must take care of. One such thing is kerning. By definition kerning is adjusting the spacing between two characters. It is commonly confused with tracking which is adjusting spacing between more than two characters. We will write about tracking in one of our next articles.
Let’s get back to kerning. The origin of the word kern is from French word carne and it goes way back to the times when the type was cast in metal or wood. Even at those times some letters like T, or V were cast in metal or wood in a way that top corners of the letter were notched to a consistent height so that this corner area would reach into another letters area. Allowing letters to move closer to one another when needed.
In digital typography kerning is applied by font designer when making a font, by kerning pairs which specify spaces between different letter combinations, as a number by which the default spacing should be increased or decreased.
Let’s look at some examples. Image above shows us the gap between two characters that needs to be adjusted. These types of gaps are more visible when you enlarge your type. For example in headlines. The bigger the size of the type the bigger the gap. This is why you always have to adjust your kerning manually and some letters are more problematic than others.
Image above shows you some of the letter combinations that are almost always in need of special attention. Generally speaking these letters are the ones with diagonal lines, like V, Y, W and letter T, usually with A. Other common combinations of adjusted kerning pairs are AC, FA, or OA. Especially when these letters are written in upper case followed by lower case letter.
Type set in lower case if often fine but there are some combinations that need special attention and some of those are “ly” or “ry“, “ro” and when period sign (full stop) is followed by letters f, y or r.
Today’s layout applications have two options for kerning. Optical and metrics kerning, but in my opinion you should not always rely on them, but lets first see what are the differences between the two.
Metric kerning uses the kerning pairs table that is built into the font. So when you are using metrics kerning this will be the default kerning set in the font by the designer. This type of kerning is good for smaller text sizes, like body copy. It is really unusual to apply manual kerning to body copy.
Optical kerning is the default kerning applied by your layout software. Instead of using a default kerning pairs table, the software adjusts the spacing between letters by recognizing the shapes of letters and applying its own kerning. This type of kerning is good for larger text sizes, like headlines.
As you can see both methods are useful, but if you are working with some cheaper fonts that were not produced at the highest level you will have to take special attention to your kerning. This is where manual kerning comes handy.
No matter how good or expensive fonts you use, on some occasions you will always have to do some fine tuning to correct the gaps between the letters at larger sizes. As I mentioned this is more obvious as the size of the letters increases.
Before you start to kern your letter combinations you have to decide on your final size of the letters. If you are satisfied with the size of your letters you can start to adjust the gaps between them. If for example you do the kerning and then you decrease or increase the size of a letters those kerning adjustments will not fit this new letter size. You will have to do it again.
Also if your doing adjustments on few or several words do your tracking adjustments first and then adjust kerning. It is good to mention that you will need to zoom in on word that you plan to kern because the representation of the spacing will be more accurate. But do not go too close. Do not zoom only those two letters that you wish to kern. Zoom in the whole word so you will get a better picture about the spacing of the whole word and not just the two letters that need kerning.
Always trust your eyes. Do not depend on the numbers, because some spacing needs one amount adjusted and other spacing needs another amount adjusted. Also do not over kern your letters. They should not be squeezed. Your goal is to create even spaces between letters. Trust your judgment and common sense since there are no rules here how much to kern each letter combinations.
To conclude, manual kerning is almost never done on body type and almost always on large type sizes. Kerning adjustments should be one of your default operations when setting type and with time you will get a hang of what letter combinations need special attention.
If you have some additional questions or if you think I missed something, please comment or send me an email.