Tracking is adjusting the overall spacing of a group of letters, words or even whole paragraphs and blocks of text. Along with kerning, tracking is the most used feature when adjusting body text. Although tracking is also widely used in headlines and other textual elements, especially if the text element is bigger in size.
Tracking, just like kerning is font dependent. One measure does not fit all text sizes and font types. Again, playing with the settings gives us the best results and good eye judgement is crucial, but unlike with kerning, it is much easier to spot the right or wrong tracking values.
Let’s go through some text elements and see how the tracking can be applied to them.
Tracking the headlines
Tracking the larger type elements, like the headlines is common practice. Along with kerning, it produces the desired result.
Large text sizes have to be tracked, always in negative value, because as the text grows in size, the space between letters gets bigger. Tracking in positive value is good when you want to emphasize the words and is commonly used for capitalized or small capital words.
The effect that you want to achieve depends on the look you are after. If you want tightly displayed type, then negative values should be adjusted and if you want a more spacious look, positive tracking should be applied. This is self explanatory and nothing new.
Tracking body text
There are some rules when tracking body text, which you can avoid, but they are there for a reason.
Tracking lower case italic text in positive value does not look good, because this kind of text is designed to sit close together.
It is good to give some positive tracking to white text on a dark background. Loosening the tracking helps the legibility in this unnatural text environment. The reason for this is because the background when printed, will consist of small raster dots, which can, and often will nibble the edges of white text, creating unpleasant noise around edges of type.
Negative tracking is rarely used in body copy but there are some occasions when it is unavoidable. Those situations happen when you have few orphan letters or words and you what to bring them up with the rest of the paragraph.
There is one rule that I use when dealing with orphans in this way and it is never to track desired paragraph more than -15 (-15/1000 em). Few examples below show us how the text looks cramped together if you use larger negative value.
Also when adjusting orphans in this way, select the whole paragraph and not only the last line or two. Because if you select, for example, only the last two lines you will have to use bigger negative value so that the orphaned words or letters come up. If on the other hand you select the whole paragraph you can use smaller negative value, which will alter the text spacing just slightly and it will be unnoticeable.
If you cannot alter the text with tracking values up to -15, and even this number is sometimes too much, you don’t have any other option than to call your copy editor or journalist to alter the text so that if fits.
Never squeeze too much text in a small space because this is a type crime and it will look horrible.
Tracking other text elements
As mentioned above, positive tracking can be used on small caps letters to achieve desired effect which we usually see on text elements like bylines. You can see in the example above how this kind of treatment gives a elegant spacious look to the type set in small caps.
Script type is designed in a such way that its elements overlap each other and if you track it in positive value there will become separated and this is not the natural look for script type.
As you can see, tracking can be used in vast number of situations but do not over do it and use your eye judgement to determine if the applied values produce good, desired result or a bad one.