What is good kerning?

Erakez's picture

I have recently really started to doubt my own typographic eye after certain critique from a older designer about kerning. And since there are never hard and fast rules about kerning, i thought a discussion will put my mind at ease!

I just came out of the new Bond movie. And it is not my intention to sound like a smart ass, but i would like to bring two examples to the table for discussion.

First, Did they kern the O so close to the D on purpose? Leaving a a large gap between the O and the N?

Second, In my opinion space between the E and N is too wide compared to N and A. And "ITALY" seems to be really loose compared to "SIENA".

I just wanted to know what other people think, so I know if its the type, or if its just me...

p.s. Apart from squinting... do any of the more experienced typographers in this forum have techniques they use? In particular, I find myself 'lost in the type' after kerning it for a while, and i am unable identify the problematic spacing as easily.

Thanks!

Eric.

Chris Keegan's picture

Eric, your eye is right on.

I agree with all the issues you've pointed out on these samples.

I think kerning is overlooked by many designers, and sometimes it slips by me as well. But, I'm not surprised by this, I've seen poor kerning on book covers, logos, etc. I guess it's something that younger designers aren't trained to pay attention to. Maybe there's an assumption that the computer will do it correctly.

As far as working on kerning, it's easy to get lost after a while, since you can adjust between two letters, which affects another pair, and so on. I think the best thing is to work on it for a bit, then step away. In my earlier days I remember working with an art director who had me kern a headline for an entire afternoon.

hrant's picture

Maybe the older guy meant that those are supposed to look wonkily spaced, in that context?

BTW, better to call this letterspacing, as kerning is more useful to mean what a font designer does in a font, as opposed to what happens in an instance of a font being used.

hhp

charles ellertson's picture

I think I'd disagree on the E-N being too wide. If you look along the top of the line of type, the space between the E-N-A is about as good a compromise as you can get. In this particular case, one could argue that the eye isn't going to look along the upper half of the letterforms on the first line because of the positioning of the second line, but my eye, anyway, does fall there.

As you say, so much is subjective. Many times all one can do is to go with a first impression, or as Chris suggests, walk away & take a fresh look.

William Berkson's picture

In the example of the E and A, a problem here is that the 'falling over' italic A of Caslon (and other faces?) often works very nicely with lower case, but is generally problematic in all caps. You end up having to do compromises, as Charles writes--but they never really work as well as you would hope.

In my new Caslon revival (soon, soon!) there is an alternative italic A that works better with all caps, and automatically substitutes when choosing open type "all caps".

This is illustrative of a general point that glyphs need to be designed to space well; it doesn't just happen.

And yes, my experience is also that going away, and coming back later for a fresh look helps.

innovati's picture

I'm obviously young, but when I hear letterspacing, I think of the equidistant value of space between the letters.

When I hear kerning, I think of the individual space between two specific letters.

For me to adjust letterspacing, would make all the letters closer or farther apart at once, but kerning is the manual manipulation of the space between 2 letters, while leaving the other untouched.

Am I wrong? These definitions seem to be in line with what I read, and they certainly aren't interchangeable in my eyes, they represent two very different concepts...

brett jordan's picture

sloppy kerning in films... it would appear to be rampant at the moment

http://www.flickr.com/photos/x1brett/3047882002/

SuperUltraFabulous's picture

Also, people tend not to baseline shift hyphens and parentheses.

hrant's picture

> For me to adjust letterspacing, would make all
> the letters closer or farther apart at once

I call that "tracking".

If you use "kerning" to mean -what I'm calling-
letterspacing, then what do you call my kerning? :-)

But it's not really a matter of wrong/right, just terminological convention.

hhp

Mark Simonson's picture

I think it's funny they chose Caslon to represent Italy. Oh, I get it! It's italic! :-/

William Berkson's picture

I don't think the terminology for spacing is totally fixed. There are different things you can do in different applications to adjust the space between letters. In FontLab you can set the side bearings--their distance from the extreme left and right of the black. You can also specify kerning: the further adjustment of specific pairs. In InDesign you can globally increase or decrease space between letters--tracking. And you can adjust spacing between specific letters--kerning. As I understand it, in Quark Express, you can also globally adjust pairs, such as AV.

In adjusting the spacing of a title people usually say 'kerning' but whichever way you slice it it's a species of spacing.

BruceS63's picture

What makes kerning good is that it is visually consistent, be it tight, wide, or in between. It should also be appropriate to the application--kerning for an outdoor board must be wider than for a brochure you're holding two feet from you face.

Ron Arnholm (studied under Rand at Yale), designer of Legacy and Legacy Sans was my typography teacher at the University of Georgia. Not only did he have us squint, but he had us look at the type upside, backward, and upside down and backward. That practice has served me well.

kentlew's picture

"Kerning" is the manual adjustment of space between two individual letters. The overall spacing of a word or title or whatever is, well, the overall "spacing."

So, for instance, in the comment Bruce just made (and not to pick on Bruce in particular, just by way of example), I would say, "spacing for an outdoor board must be wider than for a brochure you're holding two feet from your face."

So, what is good kerning? Good kerning is that kerning which makes spacing visually consistent (as Bruce also said, basically). Wat is "visually consistent"? Ahh, well now, there you get into the realm of some subjectivity.

If a typeface is spaced well, and depending upon the combination of letters under examination, a title setting might not need any "kerning" at all. If the spacing of the face is overall consistent and even, but too loose or too tight for the particular application, then that setting might need overall "tracking" or "letterspacing," positive or negative (i.e., adding or subtracting, overall) but no individual futzing (i.e., "kerning").

-- K.

Erakez's picture

Thanks all for your helpful posts. Some good tips in there too!

Bruce and Kent makes a good point, maybe the designers didn't expect such scrutiny over their letterspacing within the 5 seconds that they were on screen.

Little do they know young, confused and kerned-out designers come watch movies too...

hrant's picture

T-shirt: "I'M ALL KERNED OUT"

hhp

Clint-Anglin's picture

Kerning/letter-spacing is something that conscientious typographers/designers will always struggle over, because there are multiple approaches that can be taken.

With typefaces that have relatively heavy thin-strokes, it generally works well to try to visually balance the space on each side of the characters and to try to have the inter-character space throughout the text to appear more-or-less even.

On the other hand, when fonts have very light thin-strokes (as in the Sienna Italy sample above), it becomes necessary to also take into account the visual space WITHIN the characters, as well as the space on either side of them.

To further complicate things, you can choose to focus primarily on the negative space around the characters or you can draw an imaginary line down the center of each character and try to visually balance the space on each side of the character (sometimes called "optical letter-spacing"). Strange to say, both approaches produce text that appears even spaced, but with difference spacing -- and those who prefer one approach will generally not care for the results of the other approach.

The result of all this is that even when you try to carefully kern your type, you can be certain of never satisfying everyone -- but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't make every effort to do so.

Clint-Anglin's picture

PLEASE IGNORE MY PREVIOUS POST, WHICH DOESN'T MAKE MUCH SENSE UNLESS CLARIFIED WITH SOME ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS THAT I HAD IN MY MIND, BUT FAILED TO SPELL OUT IN THE TEXT. HERE IS A REVISED (A SLIGHTLY EXPLADED VERSION):

Kerning/letter-spacing is something that conscientious typographers & designers, as well as type designers & typesetting system programmers will always struggle over, because there are various approaches that can be taken.

When a typographer/designer is working with a line or two of display copy and is using typefaces that have relatively heavy thin-strokes, it generally works well to try to visually balance the space on each side of the characters and to try to have the inter-character space throughout the text to appear more-or-less even.

On the other hand, when fonts have very light thin-strokes (as in the Sienna Italy sample above), it becomes necessary to also take into account the visual space WITHIN the characters, as well as the space on either side of them.

What to do with the vast array of fonts that fall in the middle, is where the art of kerning, and the individual taste of the typographers/designer comes in.

Somewhat congruently, when a type designer is setting up the overall kerning for a font, or a typesetting system programmer is devising the kerning algorithm that will output large blocks of text, he or she can choose either to focus primarily on the negative space around the characters or to draw an imaginary line down the center of each character and try to visually balance the space on each side of the character (sometimes called “optical letter-spacing”). Both approaches produce text that appears fairly evenly spaced, even though the resulting spacing is somewhat different — and those who prefer one approach will generally not care for the results of the other.

The end result of all this is that even when you try to carefully kern your type, you can be never be certain of satisfying everyone — but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t make every effort to do so.

gerald's picture

i don't understand why hrant is constantly trying to tell everyone to call this letterspacing.

everywhere i have ever heard or read, kerning is the spacing between specific individual letters and tracking is the general spacing between multiple letters

no disrespect meant to hrant, who is obviously a way better typographer than i am; i have just never heard letter-spacing defined like this before. i would maybe interchange letter-spacing with my definition of tracking (ie a line of text, with multiple words), but not kerning

hrant's picture

You should have heard the discussions
about the meaning of "readability"! :-)

I just think my scheme is more sensical, more versatile.
Basically because -like I said- if you use "kerning" to
mean the spacing between glyphs that a typographer does
in a setting, what do you call the activity that a type
designer does in a font? Since "tracking" is the standard
term in apps to mean the overall tightness/looseness of a
setting, we have "letterspacing" in between the other two
terms, and it might as well fill that in-between role, no?

Or I guess we could overload the term "kerning", relying on
context. But then wouldn't "tracking" become redundant?

hhp

gerald's picture

if you use “kerning” to
mean the spacing between glyphs that a typographer does
in a setting, what do you call the activity that a type
designer does in a font?

i call that kerning as well. manually adjusting the kerning is a setting is merely "tweaking" the original as far as i'm concerned

Mark Simonson's picture

Your definition of kerning is too broad and at odds with its traditional meaning. In developing fonts, kerning is used to correct pairs of characters for which the standard spacing is not sufficient. These pairs are exceptions to the normal spacing of a font.

Check out these screen snaps from Adobe Illustrator:

The first image shows that this text is tracked 60 units and that the kerning is set to "auto", meaning that the font's built-in kerning pairs will be used. The second image shows that the "T" and "e" are kerned -71 units. In other words, this text has both tracking and kerning applied. If you call them both kerning, you'll go crazy trying to figure out what's going on.

Spacing is simply the normal spacing of a font.

Kerning is an exception to normal spacing between two characters.

Tracking alters the spacing of a range of characters, separate from and in addition to any kerning between pairs in that range.

gerald's picture

i'm not sure who you're directing that too, mark, but i agree with you 100% (if you were directing that at me, i did not word my thoughts very clearly at all)

innovati's picture

I love you Mark.

kentlew's picture

> if you use “kerning” to mean the spacing between glyphs that a typographer does in a setting, what do you call the activity that a type designer does in a font?

Hrant, in my opinion, they are essentially the same thing. Both are kerning. Both activities, whether by type designer in the course of developing the font or by the typographer in the course of fine-tuning a particular setting, are "kerning" -- that is, they are creating pair-specific exceptions/overrides to the basic spacing of the glyphs.

The only significant difference is that one is done at a systemic level, the other is situational.

When the type designer does it, the result is the set of kerning pairs built into the font. When the typographer does it, then you could call it "manual kerning."

-- K.

cuttlefish's picture

When the type designer does it, the result is the set of kerning pairs built into the font. When the typographer does it, then you could call it “manual kerning.”

You could also distinguish them as "pre-consumer" and "post-consumer" kerning. That's probably not a good generic label but it works as a concept.

Ngoc Ngo's picture

My two cents...I consider "the activity that a type
designer does in a font" as Hrant has put it, as adjusting the sidebearings since this is performed by the type designer.

hrant's picture

But we also do kerning after/during -what I call- "spacing",
which is not just adjusting, but determining, sidebearings.

hhp

imageWIS's picture

Is the 'Siena Italy' picture from the new James Bond movie...?

Jon.

david h's picture

> I just came out of the new Bond movie

How did you take the screenshots -- a digital camera? video?

beejay's picture

the location titles for Quantum of Solace were done by Tomato.

you can see them posted on Tomato's site

but I think these images came from the Tomato flickr.

John Hudson's picture

Hrant: But we also do kerning after/during -what I call- “spacing”, which is not just adjusting, but determining, sidebearings.

Spacing, following the typical font model that we've inherited from previous technologies, is a two-stage process involving, first, the default spacing of individual glyphs for arbitrary glyph sequences (sidebearing setting) and, second, the spacing of pairs of letters for specific glyph sequences* (kerning).

* OpenType extends this model by permitting contexts spacing that extend beyond the pair, but few non- 'complex script' fonts take advantage of this and, if I recall, the Adobe FDK and hence FontLab do not support this yet. I use it in Arabic fonts.

asen Tsvyatkov's picture

if those were done by tomato, i wouldn't doubt for a minute that the decision is deliberate and aesthetically considered.

redpushbuttons's picture

The more I read into this the more uncertain I get.
Why do I keep thinking there must be a science to this?

I get fixated on numbers and have a compulsive urge to calculate stuff knowing this won't actually result in decent kerning.

I seem to trust number more than my eyes.

charles ellertson's picture

Why do I keep thinking there must be a science to this?

It's been 45 years now, but you remind me of Rudolf Carnap. There was a branch of logical positivism that believed, essentially, all science could be reduced to physics. Psychology, for example, could be expressed by laws of physics if only we knew enough (statistical "laws" allowed).

It's the same sort of thing. Maybe kerning could be reduced to programmable numbers, if we only knew enough.

My thinking about Carnap & his followers was always, "So What?" Carpenters who are not physicists will still build houses. The theory is interesting, just not to those who have to do the work; the underpinnings of theory are not always useful.

John Hudson's picture

Maybe kerning could be reduced to programmable numbers, if we only knew enough.

The tricky aspect of automating kerning is determining how much knowledge is enough, given that the amount of knowledge required is likely to vary from design to design. A few years ago, at dinner with some of the clever folk from URW, I outlined how I thought an automatic kerning tool should work: it would accept iterative 'knowledge' from the designer, starting from a set of spacing for key glyphs that are determined by the designer not to need kerning. Then the program runs and presents the designer with a proposed set of kerning, at which point the designer can look at individual pairs and say 'No, this kind of combination should be more like this...'; then that adjustment becomes additional knowledge in the next pass of the program. In other words, the program doesn't seek to replace the informed eye of the designer, but to capture what the designer thinks is appropriate to the design and apply it across the glyph set. To my knowledge, no one has built this yet.

charles ellertson's picture

John, the other part of programmatic kerning is it is between pairs, and the notion that one value between a pair is correct won't fly. As mentioned above -- probably by you -- programmatic contextual kerning is what's really needed. As one move from preventing disasters to aesthetics, ever more contextual kerning is needed...

And the right value changes, depending on the size, esp. for fonts where there is only one master size.

Etc.

Or, just space the font widely. Seems to be a modern trend. That covers a multitude of small sins.

Nick Shinn's picture

You might just as well say there is an ideal way to play a classical music composition.

charles ellertson's picture

Very well put, Nick.

hrant's picture

Ideal, shmideal - perfect, shmerfect. You do it because it helps.

hhp

John Hudson's picture

The fact that there are conditions in which the desired spacing between a pair of letters might differ from that in other conditions is beside the point. That is already the case, and yet we still find it worthwhile to put kerning in fonts. What I described is what seems to me the best approach to automating aspects of what currently requires considerable man-hours while not obviating all the experience and knowledge that a good kerner brings to the job. I know, when I am kerning, that the decisions I make for some pairs have direct implications for other pairs; ergo, it makes sense that if a program can capture those implications and apply them, it can save a lot of time.

Of course, all this still presumes the current, inherited sidebearing/kerning model.

dberlow's picture

"...there is an ideal way to play a classical music composition."

For a given performance, per listener, there is. The issue besides taste with kerning, is that glyphs and spacing don't scale linearly. "Modern" font formats hypocritically offer typefaces as scaleable when all are not, and the situation, once thought to be temporary, is now permanent enough to regularly circulate thru here like bad air.

The first example above goes to my first point, I'm fine! said one viewer, with "LONDON". The other example, in the direction of my second point, is so hideously selected and composed, you'd want to be fixing the way these characters were selected, and then how each scaled, before fixing the kerning... I think.

Renaissance Man's picture

No mention of Igino Marini's iKern?
http://ikern.com/k1/

hrant's picture

Some people use iKern because they hate spacing (and don't want to spend money outsourcing it). But I'm surprised that there are some big, talented names among iKern users too. I guess it saves times when you have very large character sets, since the kerning grows exponentially. But personally I would never trust it for "base spacing" (sidebearings).

hhp

Renaissance Man's picture

It has been suggested that if you really hate someone, teach them to recognize bad kerning. That way, they'll be forever doomed to recognize examples of typographic ignorance and carelessness that mere mortals cannot see.... In no time at all, your friend/victim will be so well-versed in kerning that they may join the ranks of people who cannot order lunch from a poorly kerned menu.

But how do you ensnare an unsuspecting victim? One way would be to show them KernType, a kerning game. The site offers interactive kerning practice where you drag letters within words to distribute the given amount of space.
http://www.creativepro.com/article/learn-kern-kern-type

TEST HERE: http://type.method.ac/#

quadibloc's picture

@Nick Shinn:
You might just as well say there is an ideal way to play a classical music composition.

While this is an important point, and it is applicable to font design in general and kerning in particular too, I'm not so sure how applicable it is in the current situation.

There is too much bad kerning out there, and there are hardly any unique creative approaches to kerning. Type design and typography are arts as well as crafts, but they do lie on a different point in this continuum than musical performance.

Nick Shinn's picture

All analogies break down under close comparison, because they’re analogies.
I wasn’t suggesting a close correspondence across the board, merely one common principle!

The classical score is fixed, just as letter shapes are.
Notes are like letters, spaced in time.
In that respect, performance corresponds to setting type.
That’s all.

One doesn’t expect the music maestro to imitate a player piano, so why should the type maestro use default “Metrics” or InDesign’s “Optical” spacing for display when manual kerning is available?

There is even the option of custom kerning a font in Quark XPress.

…there are hardly any unique creative approaches to kerning.

Manual kerning is always unique to the individual doing it.
It doesn’t have to follow a defined methodology, it’s more a matter of individual taste and expression.

(However, as an exception to the rule, I have managed to employ one completely brain-dead method, in Softmachine, in which the closest proximity between every glyph combination is equalized.)

PabloImpallari's picture

The tricky aspect of automating kerning is determining how much knowledge is enough, given that the amount of knowledge required is likely to vary from design to design. A few years ago, at dinner with some of the clever folk from URW, I outlined how I thought an automatic kerning tool should work: it would accept iterative 'knowledge' from the designer, starting from a set of spacing for key glyphs that are determined by the designer not to need kerning. Then the program runs and presents the designer with a proposed set of kerning, at which point the designer can look at individual pairs and say 'No, this kind of combination should be more like this...'; then that adjustment becomes additional knowledge in the next pass of the program. In other words, the program doesn't seek to replace the informed eye of the designer, but to capture what the designer thinks is appropriate to the design and apply it across the glyph set.

To my knowledge, no one has built this yet.

I have played around with a similar idea ( knowledge → suggestion → refinements ) for a Spacing Macro.
It's not a finished product yet... it's more like a "proof of concept" test (It works only on the lowercase glyphs so far)... but the results are quite decent, and far better than the FL autospacing.
I think it has potential if someone else what to improve it... as it is 100% customizable.

Screencast on how it is supposed to be used: https://vimeo.com/45648496
Download Macro and play around: http://www.impallari.com/projects/overview/spacing-macro

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