Tips on Kerning and How to Use It

How to remove awkward gaps from headlines

Kerning involves the space between characters, like the larger gap between 'L' and 'E'

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The adjustment of space between pairs of letters to make them more visually appealing is known as kerning. It is normally applied to individual letter pairs in headlines or other large types. Kerning is not usually done with body text because the gaps between characters at body text sizes are generally not as obvious or distracting.

Both kerning and tracking are types of letterspacing, but kerning is applied selectively to just a few specific pairs of letters. Adjustment of spacing throughout body text or for more than just a few letters is done with tracking.

How to Kern

The default spacing between some characters leaves gaps that can be adjusted by kerning the two letters to achieve a more visually balanced appearance. Decreasing space is negative kerning. Sometimes kerning involves increasing the space — positive kerning — between characters to keep them from running together, such as the l's in "Godzilla."

Even though many programs come with automatic kerning, you are usually better off doing it manually. You'll probably be using the Characters panel to kern (or the equivalent in your software). Adobe InDesign, Illustrator, and Photoshop have a Characters panel, for example. In these programs, you open the Characters panel, click between the two characters you want to kern to open the Type tool. Then change the values in the Kerning tool in the Character panel.

You can also kern with a keyboard shortcut: Click between the two characters you want to kern and hold down the Option key on a Mac or the Alt key in Windows and use the left and right arrows to adjust the space between the two letters.

Some typefaces come with kerning pairs — commonly kerned pairs of letters with the spacing between the letters already adjusted. The kerning options in some high-end publishing software can access these kerning pairs. Additionally, some software allows the users to edit the kerning tables to add their own kerning pairs that don't already exist for that font or to adjust the spacing between existing kerning pairs. Anywhere from 50 to 1000 or more kerning pairs may be defined for any font. A handful of the thousands of possible kerning pairs are AY, AW, KO, TO, YA and WA.

Kerning Tips

  • Use caution when kerning headlines that make use of ligatures. These double or triple letter sequences are all one character and can't be kerned as individual letters. Depending on the level of kerning used in other characters in the same headline, spacing could become visually awkward.
  • Use extreme kerning or over-kerning to create tightly spaced or overlapping characters, perhaps for a newsletter nameplate or as part of a logo.
  • Editing the kerning tables (in software that offers that feature) frees you from repeatedly kerning the same groups of letters in a font when they appear multiple times in a publication such as a brochure or a newsletter.
  • Text set in all caps almost always needs some kerning.