Understanding the Differences Between Kerning and Tracking

Tweak your type to perfection

Vector image displaying the difference between tracking and kerning

Sherbyte / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Kerning and tracking are two related and frequently confused typographical terms. Both refer to the adjustment of space between characters of type to improve readability and appearance. Most instances of kerning occur automatically in fonts nowadays, while tracking is available in most type settings.

People who aren't in graphic arts or publication fields rarely need to worry about kerning or tracking. However, if you publish a company newsletter, prepare files for publication or PDF distribution, or manage a web page, you can occasionally benefit from using a manual approach for special effects or emphasis.

Kerning adjusts the space between two letters. Tracking applies the same amount of space between each character in a selection. Tracking can be adjusted on web pages using CSS, but kerning cannot.

Kerning Is Selective Letter-Spacing

Kerning is the adjustment of space between a pair of letters so that the spacing looks correct. The letters "AV" are one example of two characters that are kerned to move them closed to one another; otherwise, they appear with an awkward space between them. Kerning adds or subtracts space between two letters to create visually appealing and readable text.

Kerning information for many commonly kerned character pairs is built-in with most fonts. Some software programs use the built-in kerning tables to apply automatic kerning to text. Each application provides varying amounts of support for built-in kerning information.

Anywhere from 50 to 1000 or more kerning pairs may be defined for any single font. A handful of the thousands of possible kerning pairs are Ay, AW, KO, and wa.

Headlines usually benefit from kerning, and text set in all caps almost always requires kerning for best appearance. Depending on the font and the actual characters used, automatic kerning without manual intervention is usually sufficient.

Tracking Is Overall Letter-Spacing

Tracking differs from kerning in that tracking is the adjustment by the user of space for groups of letters and entire blocks of text. Use tracking to change the overall appearance and readability of the text, making it more open and airy or condensing it for a special effect.

You apply tracking to all text or selected portions of text manually. Selective tracking squeezes a few more characters onto a line to save space or prevents a single word from carrying over to another page or column of text.

Tracking often changes line endings and shortens lines of text. It is used on individual lines or words to improve hyphenation and line endings.

Tracking should not replace careful copy fitting. Use tracking adjustments carefully and avoid extreme changes in the tracking—loose or normal tracking followed by a line or two of tight tracking, for example—within the same paragraph or adjacent paragraphs.

Creative Letter-Spacing With Kerning and Tracking

Kerning and tracking can be applied to text to create special text effects for headlines, subheads, newsletter nameplates, and logos.

Exaggerated tracking is a design tactic to produce an effective and eye-catching title. Extreme kerning or over-kerning creates special effects with tightly spaced or overlapping characters.

Customized Kerning

In addition to the standard kerning and tracking methods found in word processing and desktop publishing software, some programs allow additional adjustments. For example, QuarkXPress allows the user to edit the kerning tables to improve the kerning information in a font or add new kerning pairs so manual adjustment is minimized for other occurrences of a kerned pair when it repeats throughout the document.

Users can permanently customize the kerning information for a font using a font-editor kerning utility. However, this can cause variations in the appearance of the text when the document is shared with others using the same font but not the customized version. Custom kerning data is preserved when fonts are embedded in an Acrobat PDF document.