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What is the difference between kerning vs. letter spacing?

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Linked: graphicdesign.stackexchange.com/questions/257/… –  e100 Jan 24 '12 at 12:16

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up vote 39 down vote accepted

Any font has built-in spacing determined by the "side bearing" of each character. In metal type, the side bearing is the physical right or left edge of the individual piece of type that determines its spacing from the characters on either side. Digital fonts mimic this in the basic design process.

"To kern" means to adjust the spacing between a pair of letters, numerals, punctuation, etc. (properly "glyphs") so that their spacing looks correct. The letters AV, for example, have to overlap in any usual typeface, otherwise at least one them ends up looking lost and bewildered. Their kerning is tightened to snug them up to one another. An italic f will collide with a following question or quote mark in some fonts, so the kerning must be opened up from the default spacing.

An ancient scribe could kern effortlessly with pen and ink, and if you read old manuscripts you'll see lots of places where a letter intrudes into the space of the one next to it. With metal type, it wasn't so easy. Kerning required cutting away some of the metal base, or table, of the character. The amount of time, skill and work involved is left as an exercise for readers whose minds are in need of a little boggling. The shapes of the letters in metal type intended for long passages of text such as books, or especially newspapers, were designed to minimize the amount of kerning that would be necessary.

Kerning tables built into a digital font assign preset kerning values to specific letter pairs, according to the designer's best estimate of how they should look. There can be a dozen or so pairs (or none!) in a cheapo font, thousands in a high-end one. No matter how thoroughly and well a kerning table is built, though, there will still be situations where some awkward combination requires that the kerning be loosened or tightened from the preset values of the glyphs.

Letter spacing (often "tracking" in software applications) adjusts the spacing between all the glyphs in a piece of text. This can help to make a page look a little more open and inviting, for example, especially with a similarly open leading. Very large type, such as a big headline, almost always benefits from tightening the tracking. Tiny type, such as in captions or footnotes, is made more readable by opening the letter spacing a bit, especially if the paper is absorbent and will allow the ink to spread a little.

A final note: Use caution with both kerning and tracking. Tracking is very often wildly overdone, kerning is seldom done enough.

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After designing my first few business cards/brochures, I sort of stumbled upon the power of kerning. It makes a huge difference. –  Michael Jun 26 '11 at 2:15
    
In lead type, certain letter pairs would be cast as a single block so as to facilitate overlap, even when the letterforms did not touch; this was quite common with uppercase "Q" followed by a lowercase "u". Also, I've seen lead type where letter forms extended outside their "block", though from what I understand such type had to be used with care, since pushing together characters which would overlap could easily break the type. –  supercat Jun 26 at 3:14

From the Wikipedia article on letter spacing:

In typography, letter-spacing, also called tracking, refers to the amount of space between a group of letters to affect density in a line or block of text.

Letter-spacing can be confused with kerning. Letter-spacing refers to the overall spacing of a word or block of text affecting its overall density and texture. Kerning is a term applied specifically to the spacing adjustment of two particular characters to correct for visually uneven spacing. Kerning adjusts the letters closer together (negative spacing), tracking adjusts the letters further apart (positive spacing).

Example:

example
Kerning contrasted with tracking. While tracking adjusts the space between characters evenly, regardless of the characters, kerning adjusts the space based on character pairs. There is strong kerning between the V and the A, and no kerning between the S and the T.

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It should be mentioned that whether the kerning / trackng is positive or negative does not always matter (at least, not in Adobe InDesign). Though it is true that kerning always refers to the spacing between two characters, while tracking corrects overall density. The former is useful, for example, when you're fine-tuning words in a title or logo, while the latter can come in handy if you're working on a larger piece of text. Also, most fonts have 'kerning pairs' between characters like "a" and "v" in above example defined by default (software lets you adjust kerning relative to these values). –  Anton Strogonoff Jun 23 '11 at 7:31
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Fun little note: "Keming" is bad kerning between individual letters, such as the 'r' & 'n' in "kerning" :D –  joshmax Jun 23 '11 at 16:30
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+1 nice example. –  Ryan Miller Jun 24 '11 at 12:40
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@joshmax "pom". –  tohecz Jan 9 '13 at 22:10

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