Visual Organization + Communication Design
Excellent letter spacing makes the difference between good type and great type, and it displays the difference between a good designer and a great designer. Inappropriate or unconscious letter spacing can make type difficult to read, difficult to comprehend, and can undermine the credibility of the message or the messenger. Paying attention to details like Kerning makes the difference between good and great design.
Here is an example of good and bad kerning. The good kerning on top creates a compact group of characters that looks and feels like a cohesive visual unit. It gets to the gestalt in typographic form. The bad kerning on the bottom has too much spacing between the wide characters like the capital W the lower case e and o and the result is a too loose collection of characters which looks careless and sloppy because the proximity of the characters is unbalanced giving it a slightly halting look and “sound.”
InDesign has controls for kerning, tracking, letter spacing, and word spacing, and all of these individual controls are affected by the justification, hyphenation, and composition settings.
Let’s look at the preference that controls kerning values. Change this preference while no document is open on your screen and it will set the value as the default for all new documents.
From the InDesign menu (PC: Edit menu), choose Preferences > Units & Increments. You’ll notice that the default Kerning value is 20/1000 em. This means that if you take the point size of the type (called an em), say 24-point, and divide it into 1000 parts, each default kerning space is 20/1000, which is way too much. Let’s change Kerning to 5 units and click OK.
Certain pairs of letters always need kerning, such as “To” or “Va.” A well-designed face has the kerning built into the font metrics so that when you type certain character combinations, they tuck into each other nicely. These typefaces include a number of these “kern pairs.” In fact, a font might have anywhere from 50 to several thousand kern pairs.
InDesign applies these kern pairs by default, as you can tell by the Kerning field in the Character palette, which typically says “Metrics.” This means that it’s using the font metrics and applying the kerning value built into the font. That’s why, when you click the insertion point between two characters, this same Kerning field displays a number in parentheses—that’s the kerning value of the auto pair. (That’s also why type automatically looks better in InDesign than it does in most word processors, which don’t usually apply the kern pairs.)
If you use a typeface that doesn’t have built-in kern pairs, or if you use a combination of fonts, styles, or sizes, that’s when you want to use the Optical option in the Kerning field. Optical looks at the shapes of the letters and tries to adjust them as well as it can—without eyes.
What we mean by manual kerning is adjusting the space between two characters, which is the most important letter-spacing feature as it’s the only one dependent on your eyes. Manual kerning is what you’ll use to fine-tune your text after all other options have been adjusted.
When you use keyboard shortcuts to kern, InDesign applies the amount that you set in the Preferences dialog box at the beginning of this article. Say, for example, when you’re using the Type tool in InDesign, if you place the insertion point between two characters and use the keyboard shortcut Option-Left Arrow (PC: Alt-Left Arrow), each tap of the left arrow removes 5/1000 em. Option-Right Arrow (PC: Alt-Right Arrow) increases the space 5/1000 em.
If you hold down the Command key in addition to the Option and Arrow keys (PC: Ctrl-Alt-Arrow key) to remove or increase the kerning, this will remove or increase 25/1000 em instead of 5/1000.
Any manual kerning you apply is added to the kern pair that might be built into the two characters. The Kerning field then displays the total amount of the kern pair and any manual kerning you apply.
Note: The kerning value is always applied to the character to the left of the insertion point. You can copy-and-paste that character and the kerning value will go with it. If you delete the character, then the character and kerning are deleted.
Read more about Kerning in InDesign Kerning and tracking in InDesign CS5 & 5.5
In more recent versions of Illustrator’s CS series, three automatic kerning options are available: “Auto” (also known as metric), “Optical” and “Metrics – Roman Only.” In addition, manual kerning is available. All have their place in design, but knowing which one to use when can be confusing without some basic knowledge.
Auto, or metrics, kerning is built into type using kern pairs; for instance, all PostScript fonts have kern pairs built into them. Illustrator interprets this kerning code to determine how much space to put between certain letter combinations, such as “WA,” “LA,” “To” and “Ty.”
Optical kerning is also an automatic kerning option built into type but slightly different than the Auto option. It uses the shapes of the letters to determine the space to put between characters. Optical kerning works well when combining letters of more than one font or when a font has little to no kerning built in. Use manual kerning where possible, since it provides the highest level of control. Most often, though, one would use manual kerning only in display copy, headlines, business cards and other short blocks of text.
The “Metrics – Roman Only” option, which was added into Illustrator in the CS4 version, is for Japanese typography. This option adds kerning only to Roman glyphs or any character that rotates in vertical text. Basically, it works with Latin characters, such as Basic Latin or Latin Extended, and the half-width Katakana. To switch to Optical kerning, first select the text you wish to change. Then, under the Characters palette (
Character), click on the Kerning drop-down menu. Then select “Optical.”
Or, if you would like to manually kern letters yourself, place the cursor between two letters, and choose a value in the Character palette:
To turn off kerning between selected characters, set it to “0”:
Keep in mind that to adjust the value between entire groups of letters, you will have to use the tracking settings in the Character palette. The tracking is adjusted in the drop-down menu located to the right of the Kerning drop-down menu. Hover your mouse over the menu to see “Set the tracking for the selected characters,” as in the screenshot below:
Illustrator’s default kerning is “Auto,” so simply select this if you would like to turn it back on.
Useful Tip: One excellent way to save yourself some time while designing is to use Illustrator’s keyboard shortcuts to change manual kerning and tracking settings. To change the kerning between two characters, simply place the cursor between the two letters. Then use
left/right arrow. The kerning will decrease with
left arrow and increase with
To change the tracking for an entire group of letters, first select the letters you want to change. As with kerning, use
left arrow to decrease tracking and
right arrow to increase tracking.