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10 Kerning Tips to Improve Your Typography

Igor Ovsyannykov April 9, 2024 · 8 min read

What’s your pet peeve? For regular people, pet peeves range from the improper use of their, there, and they’re to loud phone conversations people have in public places. When it comes to designers, they have their own set of pet peeves as well. Some of the biggest and most common are kerning mistakes.

Kerning measures the space between two different letters. A kerning mistake could make a word difficult to read, and might affect how natural the text looks. From this definition alone, you can probably understand what a huge role kerning can play. Sadly, a lot of designers fail to see this impact and end up making kerning mistakes that can cost them projects and clients. Some rely on what their software dictates, while some focus too much on the images surrounding the text.

To make sure that you avoid having all these kerning mistakes, here are a few tips that will surely help you out.

1. Find out what kind of fonts you’ll be using.


Various fonts have different widths and styles, which means that they will fit differently given the same amount of space. You can’t figure out kerning using your default letters and replacing them with the actual font later; that’s graphic suicide. Make sure you kern using the actual fonts you’ll be designing with.
Another important consideration is that your headline will most probably have a different font than the subheading. In this case, it is important to note that each of these has a different kerning as well.

2. Check on leading and tracking first, then move on to kerning.

Leading? Tracking? I thought we were talking about kerning here? Well, in the world of design, all these aspects fit together to make the whole. Leading refers to that vertical space in between two different lines. Tracking is similar to kerning in that it deals with the amount of space between letters. The only difference is that tracking maintains a uniform width between letters.

Once your vertical lines and the equal spaces between letters are all set, this is the best time for you to start kerning. Why only now? With this organized layout, it is easier to see how much kerning you actually need.

3. Kern each letter individually. Yes, seriously.

Sure, Illustrator, Photoshop, InDesign — they all have automatic kerning settings. So why bother to manually adjust the spaces between letters one by one? There is no denying the fact that the human eye is a better judge than a computer’s mind. After all, actual human beings will be looking at your design, not computers. So it is more important to consider what humans will see instead of what computers think.

Yes, it’s hard work, but it’s going to get better as you get used to this practice. After all, when you end up with a huge kerning disaster, you can’t blame Illustrator, Photoshop, or InDesign for it. It’s all going to come down to what you did, instead of what those programs failed to see.

4. It’s all about visual space and not actual space.

This is where people with extreme OCD would probably take a fall. It’s going to be an endless battle between knowing that everything looks perfect visually and knowing that the distance between letters are not the same.

When it comes to a stare-down between the two, visual space wins hands down. People are not going to approach your design with rulers, trying to see if you spaced everything equally. People are going to look at it and see if they can easily read it, and that’s all that’s going to matter.

5. Think about the spatial relationships between letters.


Each letter is different. An ´o’ takes up much space than an ´i’, but you can make up for the lost space if the o is placed right next to a v.

>How does this work? Ever noticed how much negative space there is around letters with slanted sides? A, V, Y — they all leave space around them because of the way their corners extend. The great thing about the negative space they leave is that you have the chance to lessen it if placed side by side with the right letters. As with our previous example, if you place the ´V’ right next to the ´O’, you can actually kern them in such a way that the top right tip of the ´V’ is found right on top of the leftmost edge of the ´O’.

6. Do your kerning in groups of three.

When you look at a group of words as one whole, it is often easy to miss seeing a few small details that are not in place. This is especially true for longer words. To make sure your eyes do not deceive you, create groups of three letters each and kern one trio at a time. If you are kerning the word ´alphabet’ for example, go for the ´alp’ first, then move onto ´lph’, then on to ´pha’, and so on. This method allows you to see the small details because you drop other letters that may distract you.

7. Less is always more.

Sure, you have to make sure that everything is perfect. But stop being over-analytical and don’t overdo the kerning. Remember that the more you kern, the tighter the letters will be. And excessively tight letters can become unattractive and difficult to read. Quit while you’re ahead. Don’t obsess about it. If it looks fine to you visually, then leave it as it is.

8. Don’t neglect the spacing between words.

Many designers get so caught up in kerning their letters that they forget to look at the words! Just because a lot of emphasis is placed on visually measuring the spaces between each letter does not mean that the spaces between words have to take the back seat. The spaces between words matter too, you know.

If you kerned your words tightly and left wide spaces between the words, it is not only going to make entire sentences or lines look awkward and impossible to read. Make sure that as you kern your letters, you also mind the spaces between words. It all has to be consistent.

9. Try flipping the typeface upside down.

Yup, you read that right. Sometimes designers get distracted with the meaning of words. You may not even realize that it’s been happening all this time. But it’s a fact. When you are able to read the word, there is always a chance that your perception becomes affected. Take words like thin or heavy for example. The word thin could play tricks on your subconscious and make your eyes feel like there’s a need to kern them tighter – even tighter than the rest of the words around it.

If you flip the words upside down, you get to focus on the characters and the white space around them instead of the definition that they have when put together. You can even go about it in different ways. Don’t just flip them over, you can mirror them sideways too. Look at it from different angles and perspectives. There’s no limit to what you can do.

10. Always have at least two versions of the design.


When it comes to presenting the final design, don’t always come up with a single version. Always have a smaller version and a larger version so that clients will have a general idea of what it would look like in any size. What does kerning have to do with this? If your design is to be adjusted in the future, there is a chance that the readability of the text is affected in the process. If the design has to be reproduced in a smaller size, you’ll have to adjust kerning just a tad bit looser to make the words more readable.

These tips may be basic, but are also the ones that are often forgotten. Have these rules posted right next to your work area, or use these as a mantra before working on your next project. It doesn’t matter what you do to make yourself remember. All that matters is that you do keep them in mind, and the rest of the spaces will follow.

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About the Author
Igor Ovsyannykov

We create fonts, graphics, and produce aesthetically pleasing photos.

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