What is Kerning? (Uses and Roles in Typography)

Shmoon
Head of Creative Performance, Speed & Scalability

The art of typography is intricate and nuanced. One element that significantly contributes to effective typography is kerning. Let's delve into what kerning is and why it's so important in the world of design.

What is Kerning?

Kerning refers to the adjustment of space between individual characters in a piece of text. It's a vital aspect of typography that ensures text is both aesthetically pleasing and easy to read. Kerning should not be confused with leading, which involves adjusting the space between lines, or tracking, which adjusts spacing uniformly over a range of characters.

Kerning is particularly crucial when dealing with letter pairs (known as kerning pairs), where combining certain letters can create awkward spaces if not properly kerned. For instance, the pair 'AV' often requires kerning to reduce the visually unappealing space created by the diagonal elements of the letters.

The History of Kerning

Kerning has its roots in the era of metal typesetting. Printers would manually adjust the space between letters to achieve a harmonious text layout. With the advent of digital typography, kerning has become a more precise and automated process. Yet, the artistic eye of a designer is often required to perfect the details.

Why is Kerning Important in Typography?

Proper kerning is crucial for improving your text's readability and aesthetic appeal. It ensures that characters in a word are spaced optimally, preventing awkward gaps or tight squeezes that can distract the reader.
A text with poor kerning can appear unprofessional and may even convey a different message than intended. On the contrary, well-kerned typography can improve the user experience by making text more pleasing to the eye and easier to read.

How Does Kerning Work?

Kerning is largely about the visual perception of space. It involves adjusting the space between individual characters or kerning pairs to create a visually balanced and harmonious layout.

Different typefaces and font styles may require different kerning adjustments. For instance, a script font where letters connect with each other will have different kerning needs compared to a sans-serif font where letters are distinct and separate.

Kerning vs Leading vs Tracking

Kerning, leading, and tracking are all typographic tools, but they serve different purposes. Kerning adjusts the spacing between two specific characters, improving the visual balance of text.

Leading pertains to the vertical space between lines of text, affecting readability and visual comfort in paragraphs or larger text blocks.

Tracking is the overall letter-spacing in a word, sentence, or paragraph, impacting the density and texture of the text. Understanding the distinctions and interplay between these three aspects can significantly elevate your typography work.

Kerning vs Letter Spacing

Letter spacing, often confused with kerning, is another crucial typographic tool. While kerning adjusts the space between specific character pairs, letter spacing uniformly alters the spacing between all characters in a piece of text. Letter spacing is particularly useful in capital letters, signage, or headings where uniformity and clarity are paramount.

Kerning Use in Design Software

Kerning is a universal tool in design applications, each offering different ways to adjust kerning to suit the specific requirements of your project:

  • Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign have dedicated typography panels where you can adjust kerning manually or use metrics and optical kerning options provided by the font.
  • After Effects and Premiere Pro allow for kerning adjustments in their character panels, essential for creating visually balanced and readable video titles.
  • Canva provides a simple slider for adjusting letter spacing, including kerning.
  • Microsoft Word and Excel, as well as Google Docs and Sheets, may not provide advanced kerning controls like design-focused software, but they do allow basic kerning adjustments in their font or formatting options.

Remember, kerning adjustments in these applications can vary depending on the typeface and context. Therefore, a keen eye for detail and a good understanding of kerning principles remain vital.

How is Kerning Applied in Different Typefaces?

Each typeface has its unique characteristics and may require different kerning adjustments. For instance, with their decorative strokes, serif typefaces might need finer kerning adjustments than sans-serif typefaces.

With their fluid, connecting strokes, script typefaces often require precise kerning to ensure that the letters connect seamlessly. On the other hand, monospaced typefaces have equal spacing between each character, making kerning unnecessary.

How Does Kerning Differ in Various Languages?

Kerning isn't just a consideration for the Latin alphabet. Other scripts, such as Cyrillic or Arabic, have their own kerning challenges. In Arabic scripts, for example, kerning adjusts the positioning of diacritical marks to ensure they are placed correctly in relation to the letters.

How Does Kerning Impact Logo Design?

In logo design, kerning plays a pivotal role in readability and visual impact. Improper kerning in a logo can distract from the intended message and create an unprofessional appearance. Precise kerning, on the other hand, can make a logo more memorable and visually appealing.

The Future of Kerning in Typography

The future of kerning is likely to be influenced by advancements in design software and technologies. Machine learning algorithms might become capable of making sophisticated kerning decisions, although the human eye and intuition will likely remain indispensable in the realm of typography.

Conclusion

Kerning is a crucial component of effective typography and design. Whether it's applied in the text of a book, on a website, or in a logo, proper kerning ensures that the text is visually balanced and easy to read. You can elevate your design work to new heights by understanding and applying kerning effectively.


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