Kerning Rescue Needed

TypophileGirl's picture

I went to a state college in Georgia (what I could afford), where 1/5 instructors taught students how to kern properly, a Typophile himself. That being said, I didn't have him as an instructor and managed to go through college without anyone mentioning the correct way to do it.

I've looked at books such as Thinking with Type and A Type Primer but I find myself in situations where things still don't look right and I'm confused where I went wrong.

Am I missing something?

oldnick's picture

First off, it's dangerous to offer the job of critic to anyone: unfortunately, many people will take the ball and run, and find problems even where they don't exist. There is no "correct" way to kern, other than being consistent; and the less kerning, the better.

Nick Shinn's picture

You can study the subject in InDesign, by entering "0" in the kerning field of the Character palette.
This removes all kerning, so compare it with "Metrics", which is the kerning that has been built into the font by the type designer.

TypophileGirl's picture

Oldnik— I do agree, however, when I hear from multiple, skilled people that I'm missing areas that should be kerned, I feel better to ask for some general opinions than none (or my own for that matter!) The idea of less kerning makes a lot of sense.

Thanks Nick. I'll work with "Optical" and see what I can figure out. Studying is exactly what I need right now.

blank's picture

Read the sections about spacing and kerning in Tracy’s Letters of Credit. But honestly, I think the best way to figure out is to kern an entire family of fonts.

kentlew's picture

> Thanks Nick. I'll work with "Optical" and see what I can figure out. Studying is exactly what I need right now.

Beware! — comparing and learning from “Optical” will teach you what an algorithm thinks it knows, not what an experienced typographer or type designer knows.

Adobe’s “Optical” spacing is a misnomer. A designer sees that and thinks “Yes, of course, now why wouldn’t I want this setting to be optically correct?”

But it is not. This ‘feature’ completely overrides the fitting and spacing that the type designer has incorporated into a font and supplants it with it’s own assessment. It is a computer algorithm, and it is frequently way off base, IMNSHO.

I have ranted about this elsewhere before.

dyana's picture

I have a few suggestions.

When you find yourself frustrated, take a deep breath and step back. Sometimes you'll make mistakes that other people catch - that happens to all of us and is just part of being a human. Don't beat yourself up over it. And you definitely don't want to overthink your kerning, or you'll stop seeing the forest for the trees.

That might be a good metaphor for kerning... you want to focus on the forest, not the trees. Focus on the piece you are kerning as a whole, and try to find a good rhythm of the spaces within it. Try to think less of the letters as letters, but as shapes. If one of those trees is too far away from the other trees, just get it as close as you can without breaking the rhythm of the rest of the forest. If a particular pair is really bothering you, put it in a long string of Hs and Os so you can get a feel for the rhythm without getting caught up in reading the words. But then check the pair back in the word (and then the entire piece) it's in to make sure you haven't kerned the pair too tightly. Don't worry about measuring. It's a visual process, not a mathematical one.

Hard to describe without images... but I think the suggestions here are good so far.

I hope this helps.

.00's picture

May I suggest you pick up a copy of Type Rules! by Ilene Strizver. Arguably the best "How-To" book on professional typography available today.

Angus R Shamal's picture

There are really several ways to approach kerning. Different for small text or for headlines, Serif or Sans fonts, Regular or Italics. But from experience, what worked for me as essential every time is prior to working on kerning, working the hardest on the actual basic spacing of each character. Trying out the most likely spacing that will work in most cases for that particular font. Indeed flip it, make negative space more visible and comparable, measure, even tweak the design, print out, look from a distance, stand on your hands...

And then when you think the spacing is right, only then use kerning to compensate the shortcomings of each font.

You see, once you study and measure to adjust the spacing, you have a much much clearer *feel* of the right kerning needed. And most likely you'll need less kerning pairs than you thought.

Good luck,

.00's picture fast

Nick Shinn's picture

Beware! — comparing and learning from “Optical” will teach you what an algorithm thinks it knows, not what an experienced typographer or type designer knows.

I didn't suggest "working with optical", but working without it.

However, that may be the wrong advice for display setting.
Most fonts are kerned for "zero" tracking at text size.
The game changes if you're doing a headline with close letterspacing (negative tracking).
For the tight-but-not-touching style of setting a sans like Helvetica Bold, "Optical" is better than "Metrics".
"Manual" is best, though.

.00's picture

"Manual" is best, though.

Says who? You?

IMO they all leave much to be desired.

oldnick's picture

IMO they all leave much to be desired

A demonstration of your superior powers and abilities would be in order...

Nick Shinn's picture

Says who? You?

I do.
And so do you, although your taste in "manual" may differ from mine.

Robert Trogman's picture

I teach my students to scan the horizontal middle of the line and then optically space for even negative space.

.00's picture

A demonstration of your superior powers and abilities would be in order...

That would require me owning a copy of Helvetica. I trashed my font library years ago. The only fonts I have are the ones I make and a few system fonts. It may be screen rendering, but the different distances between the He and ic combinations in Nick's manual example make me uncomfortable. Also that el combo is a bit off. But on a more global level I think the entire approach is misguided since that the lv and ti combinations are the keys to the whole word and all of the remaining kern pairs are too tight.

tourdeforce's picture

IMHO you should start with some squarish looking font first (like this one and try to understand spacing first and after that go on kerning.

Everyone have doubts, just someone won't admit that, but everyone makes a mistakes in this.
As someone said... best process of learning is by making mistakes.
So, just relax and start doing it like you have all the time in the world.

Nick Shinn's picture

The only fonts I have are the ones I make and a few system fonts.

That would include "Helvetica.dfont"
If you work on a Mac...

.00's picture

Well whaddaya know!

I guess that's what that font menu is for huh?

Bert Vanderveen's picture

Manual does look best in this comparison, but you'd be able to achieve that by using Metrics and a bit of positive Tracking (I am talking InDesign here) — which would imply that the basic kerning of Helvetica aint very good. Another discussion altogether, I know…

And on another note: the smaller the type, the looser the kerning; so what size was used for the sample? 100% Reproduction here or?

@tourdeforce: Setting your kerning values you always start with the most problematic pair in your line of type. And after fixing that you continue with the rest. And that is completely irrespective of the kind of type you want to kern (with the exception of connecting scripts, of course)… In a way a lot of display typefaces are very easy to kern, while sans's are probably the most difficult.

The whole purpose of kerning is to achieve ’even color‘ — the appearance of a pleasant tone on the page, where tracts of type stand out from other bits, because of the intent of the designer, and not because of the faults of the programmers at Adobe or the defects of a type designer (need I mention double spaces after a sentence?).

peter_bain's picture

OP: back in the day when I used to spec, check, and correct/respace many, many headlines, Nick's "Manual" version would be a great "tight no touch" setting from the best NYC jobbing typographers. But James' comment is also valid, since the principle of optical spacing is balance above all else. Yet OTOH, much of the charm of setting a sans ultra tight is the uneven, frankly staccato negative spaces that result. This is exactly what is abhorred by those that encourage touching and overlapping letters at display sizes as a far less heinous crime than unbalanced counters.

I've never seen 100% agreement on "perfect" kerning or display spacing. Check out Michael Harvey's Letterform Design, and Geoffrey Dowding's Finer Points in the Spacing and Arrangement of Type, and Herb Lubalin's work with Benguiat, Carnase and DiSpigna for the touch, overlap, and razor-blade-edit-the-junctions school.

Start with a target interletter space interval and try to replicate that throughout a word and then a phrase, adjusting wordspacing, then linespacing as needed.

peter_bain's picture

Oops, should be Harvey's "Lettering Design". His Creative Lettering books are worth a look as well.

Alex Kaczun's picture


Kerning is completely subjective.

But, I think most individuals who have trained their eyes, and art directors or those in this business, can tell when a typeface is poorly spaced or fit improperly. Hopefully, if the type designer has done a good job, you shouldn't have to adjust the kerning that he/she has incorporated into their font(s). However, as I said, this is purely subjective, and even though the type designer does a good overall job kerning for average text usage and general overall body copy reading, does not mean that you cannot adjust the spacing or relationship between letters based on your sense of aesthetics.

That being said, the easiest way to review and adjust letter kerning combinations is to type out a word that uses a wide range of letters (with ascenders and descenders) in order to visualize and get a good sense of what id going on.

I have always used this phrase in particular when kerning:

"Haightens 3246"

This short phrase has a good combination of letters (with a few numerals) which will give you a good overall sense of word spacing in the font.

Then, I would change the first letter "H" to every single other capital letter... (A, B, C, D, etc.) all the way to cap Z.

Also, change the second letter after each capital (a, b, c, d, etc.) all the way to z.

And observe the spacing and adjust (kern + or minus) when you feel that something needs an adjustment.

However, in my opinion, I think that many people use much too much kerning.

Pay particular attention to these cap to lower case combinations (Fa, Ka, La, Pa, Ra, Ta, Va, Wa, Xa, Ya).

And don't forget the punctuation between all capitals and lower case.

These usually require an adjustment depending on the point size when typesetting.

And, that is pretty much it.

However, if the initial font was spaced incorrectly or poorly, you may need to use the default 'optical' fitting scheme in most applications, or go back and adjust the 'key' letters first.

These are capitals... "HHOHOO", l'case "nnonoo" and "00" two zero's.

Unless these square to square, and square to round, and round to round, are not set up properly, kerning the entire font manually will be a nightmare.

I hope you find this little lesson helpful.

And do not second-guess your own individual sense of what looks good and what does not.

With time, anyone can become better at kerning. Good luck.

charles ellertson's picture

First question: Is what you are setting small enough (in length) where you can be expected to kern everything by hand? Or is a lot of text involved, where the only sane thing is to use programmatic kerning?

Second thing: There is a lot of bad advice floating round out there. While kerning strictly occurs between two letters, the whole point is to make the words fit, look, and read better. General advice about, say, how much to kern an "A" after a "W" depends on what follows that "A".

Which is the reason for my first question: if kerning is programmatic, you don't know. It has to work for WAVE as well as WAREFARE. Programmatic kerning has to be looser, the kern must accommodate any following character. Etc. On the other hand, if you are adjusting things by hand, you can use slightly different amounts of kerning with the same pair, as that pair falls in different words.

The only exception to this is when reading the words is not as important as the graphic design. It does happen, but not as often as some designers think.

Opinions by me.

tourdeforce's picture

@ bert_vanderveen - My point is that she could start doing kerning (and spacing) of some font that's easier to be done (like in some block, square font for example) - just for purpose to learn the process of doing it and what's important and having that done could give her a little more confidence in doing metrics for example serif/sans font.
I agree with you about what you said.

poonpoon's picture

Designing Type by Karen Cheng is the best book that I've found to this day that explains kerning in quantifiable terms (link below).
Although the majority of the book covers letterforms and creating a typeface step by step near the end of the book it explains kerning as well as the proper distance between each individual letter. Give it a try it definitely helped me out a lot.


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