Kerning typography may not be something you’d usually associate with cool, but it’s something that some find interesting. For those who need a refresher, kerning is the typographic process of adjusting the space between characters. For example, moving the characters closer makes combinations such as VA, MW, TA, and WA, look better. And what’s not ‘kool’ about that?

History

Technology has significantly altered, but not eliminated, the art of typography. Many terms and conventions have fallen by the wayside but, on a multi-lingual typesetting team, typography is still a crucial part of what we do and you’ll frequently hear us talking about:

  • Tracking
  • Font and leading size
  • Baseline shift
  • Ragged line endings
  • Horizontal and vertical scaling
  • Kerning (of course)

Typesetting

When letters were made from blocks of metal, they couldn’t be kerned past the point where the blocks touched. Desktop publishing (DTP) changed all this, and allowed us typesetters to get a lot more creative and flexible, especially with foreign alphabets. Here’s how …

In a digital font, each character (or glyph, to use the ‘proper’ typographical term) takes up a fixed amount of space. But built into each font is a list of kerning pairs that can override this space. Most good-quality fonts contain a few dozen kerning pairs that cover the most common glyph pairings, but really good fonts can contain thousands of these kerning pairs – each adjusted by hand by the typeface designer, and much appreciated by us busy typesetters.

Fonts

The magic doesn’t end there … font creation software has algorithms for automatically determining kerning pairs and the amount of kerning (letter spacing) for each. But although this is helpful, these algorithms can’t really compensate for the manual adjustments necessary to offset the endless optical illusions that challenge us, especially when working in multiple languages. Font designers can’t possibly create kerning pairs for every conceivable pairing and character set, or know how those pairings might look in different words. So we must manually kern important words, in headlines and taglines for example, to fine-tune adjustments that were automatically made.

To kern or not to kern?

Why do we go to such trouble? Type must be clear and easy to read. But letters, numbers and symbols, that should carry equal weight, often don’t fit all that well together. So we use our many years of expertise and knowledge to make visual compromises and adjustments, that leave the pages looking balanced and perfect. Kerning is not an exact science. It’s a skill that takes years of practice, and an art that designers achieve over time and often in very different ways.

How ‘kool’ are you?

Did you know there is a game that tests your kerning ability? http://type.method.ac/. Give it a go, and let us know your score. How ‘kool’ are you?