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What is kerning?

Maryam Taheri March 31, 2021 · 3 min read

Anybody interested in design– whether it be web, graphic, or multimedia– should know the ins and outs of kerning. It’s an element of typography that is extremely difficult to notice when you don’t know what you’re looking for, but obvious if you do. Learning how to use kerning effectively trains your eye for detail.
So What is it?

kerning

Kerning deals with setting the space between letters and fitting them together to form a word. Because of the all the different ways letters can take up space (case, stems, tails, serifs, etc,) spacing each one properly becomes an intricate puzzle. Here are some easy ways to start noticing kerning in fonts along with some websites to help you learn to kern.

Kerning-vs-tracking

 
When there is no kerning in a font, a new character is placed next to the preceding letter precisely where it ends. This can be seen in the top “AWE.” It creates a great amount of negative space between the A and the W, but leaves the W and the E with hardly any. The end result looks sloppy and is often confusing– is it A WE or is it AWE?

typography-kerning

Most computer word processors have an automatic kerning algorithm that calculates a basic kerning for fonts. There are two different programs for kerning: metric or optical. The latter uses values taken from a kerning table that was programed in with the font. This is standard for most programs and gives the font a very even look. Optical kerning is only used on advanced word processors and text manipulation programs. It uses information from the outline of the individual letters to calculate the optimal spacing between them.

Obviously, if you are designing a typeface, you want to have full control of how the letters fit together on the page. This is where manual kerning comes into play. Notice how the A and the W have been pushed closer together then in the automatic kerning to balance the negative space that the two diagonal lines create. Manually adjusting your kerning will give you complete control of your design down to the very last detail, and good designers go the extra mile to finish their product in every way possible.
Learn to Kern!
Before you start designing your own typeface, acquaint yourself with the skills you’ll need at these websites:

Practice spacing classic fonts and then see how well you did.

Get helpful hints on kerning in JavaScript
What I covered in this blog and more, plus some handy tips and tricks all in a short video.

Lettering Worksheets
Getting started with hand lettering?
Free lettering worksheets

Download these worksheets and start practicing with simple instructions and tracing exercises.

Download now!
About the Author
Author
Maryam Taheri

I'm a recent graduate of the University of San Francisco with a degree in Biology and a passion for the creative arts. I love building websites, trying new things, and I have a passion for social media.

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17 Comments
  • Thanks for the great article! The kerning game is fun... in a kind of nerdy way! Typographic geeks rejoice! 8 years ago
  • Very helpful article! Thank you :D 8 years ago
  • Thanks for the info! Newbie right here and I appreciate the tips and info! 8 years ago
  • Ah Kerning...for me is the most important part in the process of creation of a type! 8 years ago
  • Great article, very useful stuff! If you're comfortable with css, this little snippet is also particularly useful as it turns on kerning for custom fonts that support it:

    body { text-rendering: optimizeLegibility; font-feature-settings: "kern"; -webkit-font-feature-settings: "kern"; -moz-font-feature-settings: "kern"; -moz-font-feature-settings: "kern=1"; }

    8 years ago
  • One of my first design managers was a kerning nazi. Nearly impossible to please. But I ended up with the a fierce eye for detail. You can tell when a designer has been trained in typography by their ability to kern. 8 years ago
  • What a great article, and great resources. Thank you very much! I would like to know, when a person is starting out to create a font, what is the best/least expensive (both) to start out with and your professional opinion of the best font creating software. Also, Font Managers? I have used TYPE DNA for years now, very inexpensive, (45.00 for life) but honestly, I'm not sure I have the hang of "How to manage" the thousands of fonts I have. How to manage both fonts and other resources, such as "textures" "actions" would be wonderful information to have. 8 years ago
  • this is GD 101, isn't this why trained professional creatives are hired?... are you trying to put us out of business (that is already looming on NO Work, because Mr. Smilth's niece is going to 'do' the company website and brochure, or an unpaid intern who reads GD tip sheets/forums.) 8 years ago
  • Well, Gee, sorry I asked, but isn't this NOT CS201, where trained professionals have spent huge sums of money on a 5 year scientific degree to learn to program a computer properly when some person who has a degree in ART comes along and 'think they've learned to code because they've learned to use a tool that programmers created. Don't they tell their client, "Oh, yah, I can program that website." Have they ever taken a Professional course on how to program? NO, Do they know how to setup a Database properly or identify the entities and attributes and assigning their data field types properly? Have they ever taken a course in ethics so they know just because they can doesn't mean they should relatively to data storage and/or simple cryptos? Just because a person can USE the software that programmers have created doesn't make them a programmer, it makes them efficient in a tool. If no work is already looming then perhaps one should look at one's attitude rather than what they perceive as competition. In this day and age, everyone is in competition, and by 2020 India and China will hold 60% of the global wealth, so hold onto your hat, it's going to be a long hard ride. Learn every skill you can. Because as PROGRAMMERS get more efficient at their jobs, and everyone and their child can create a blog or a website with a few clicks of their buttons, using photos they took themselves on their fancy Phone's, and not bought from a professional photographer, people like the BOTH of us will need all the help, and cross training we can get. And, just one more thing, Nothing, but Nothing can take the place of a professional doing his/her job properly. If you cannot see the difference in a website that was done by a professional team, and one that was done by someone with no training in either Art or Science, well, then gosh, I don't know what to say because to me it's as obvious as night and day. My Apologies Readers, and especially Ms. Maryam Taheri, your article was very informative, and I enjoyed it very much. I felt/feel strongly this is an issue we will all be experiencing in spades as our global markets expand. I simply could not allow an extremely rude comment like the above to go unanswered, as the author needed a little relativity injected as well as food for thought for all of us and the course of our futures. imho. 8 years ago
  • 'elaine' - think you missed my point entirely... your comment/reply appears to be a crusade for programmers. My comment was regarding hacks/newbie 'designers' who have not done their homework (ie. learn/practice visual, info, communication design basics.) How many years have you been in the business of creating/designing visual communications? and as an actual designer or technician?, there is a very big difference regarding skill base and innate talent. ...we can agree to disagree, but 'donating' tips to the un-pros (hacks/newbies) is unethical/unprofessional behavior for our profession. Wish someone could have done ALL MY work for me, what ever happened to experience or honing ones skills/talents? I look to this forum as a relative professional knowledge base, not a "Get your basics here!" forum.... FYI, visual design jobs/freelance gigs have been dwindling for the past 6+ years - are you not living in the US? - with that said, unskilled newbies and/or hacks securing projects and/or jobs for half professional rates, via 'quik' tip blogs/forums is genuinely a 'pass' on ethics for our profession. 8 years ago
  • I've been in this particular business in 1989. Including course curriculum, and multi-continent teaching at a post-secondary level. I would like to continue this, but feel it is rude to do so on this customer centric blog. I feel an open forum would be more appropriate. My Parable of programming was just that, but seemed appropriate in light of your comment taking into consideration everything today telling a Graphic Artist the one thing they need to do is to learn to program and how the tools are now also being built to support that. The comment of global wealth goes to the root cause of specifically 'ours' yet also many other's field of study, and is actually the argument supporting your statement. It is simply a matter of mathematics, our 10% absolute best doesn't equal 1/10th of their 10% best, take into account the difference in living expenses and acceptable wage, and it's an easy calculation that we are on the losing side with regards to talent base and employment opportunity. In addition we are educating our own competition and yet no one from our country goes to study in these others and learn their ways to leverage our skills in their cultures. If you want to continue this.. I've left you my gplus/talk address in your messages here. if anyone else would like to also continue this, just send me your info also. My statistics here and info including the shift of global wealth is verifiable from well, the best in reliable sources. 8 years ago
  • Interesting article about kerning. Unfortunately someone has missed the boat about other general typographic principles. Two hyphens do not make an em dash, which were used throughout the article. Poor typography even if online. 8 years ago
  • I buy things here and hate to see this negative energy. 8 years ago
  • Hi Ruth. Let me apologize. I don't think that feedback or constructive criticism from a designer and typographer means negative energy. I also purchase lots of resources from Creative Market and find the site very useful. I'm a serious designer with skill in typography so -- just doesn't look so great to me—if you know what I mean. :-) 8 years ago
  • You may be right, but when I spend money I hate to see things like this! Maybe send the person a message privately, after all they took their time to write the article. Another thing there are lots of foreign artists on here who are still learning english and why not offer to help them with correct spelling and punctuation? I did just that recently. 8 years ago
  • The following description--quoted from the kerning article, above-- contains a mistake or, at least, a typo. "Most computer word processors have an automatic kerning algorithm that calculates a basic kerning for fonts. There are two different programs for kerning: metric or optical. **The latter uses values taken from a kerning table that was programed in with the font.** " In fact, font metrics are the often, thousands of adjusted letter combination spacing--kern pairs--built into a high quality typeface, by the typeface designer, to head off the most egregious letterspacing problems that can occur in certain combinations of letters. Metrics should never be turned off. "This is standard for most programs and gives the font a very even look. Optical kerning is only used on advanced word processors and text manipulation programs. It uses information from the outline of the individual letters to calculate the optimal spacing between them." Optical kerning implies a visual decision on a letter pair however, in AI and InDes, "optical kerning" is an algorithm that quite often does a bad job at kerning. The best results are achieved by leaving "metrics" on, zooming in to the word to be kerned and adjusting the spacing manually, in precise increments using the arrow keys on the keyboard. A well kerned headline is a thing of beauty. David King 8 years ago
  • Interesting post and helpful comments. Thanks folks. 8 years ago