To kern or not to kern?

Published:  January 3, 2011
To kern or not to kern?

While most fonts have kerning pairs built in, they are usually programmed for a particular point size. With ours at JY&A Fonts, we typically use 12pt as the optimal size for text fonts and 36pt for display. The latter will be slightly tighter (the letters fit more closely together) so with ‘T’ and ‘a’, the ‘a’ will be closer to the stem of the ‘T’.

In InDesign, you don’t have to use the metrics font foundries supply. You can opt for ‘Optical’, and the program will use its own intelligence to kern. However, if you have to do it manually, here are a few tips.

(a) Don’t think of this as a mathematical thing. You can’t expect to have the same distance between all the letters. You can expect ‘Te’ to be closer than ‘Tr’, generally, because the ‘e’ shape is round and needs to be moved closer to give the same impression of tightness.

(b) However, if you go too close you risk a second problem – that the holes in the ‘e’ might become really apparent if you have additional letters in the word. So you need to space each pair in a way that the holes don’t appear too obvious. Words to watch out for include those with two ‘o’s inside them.

(c) It’s an art. You can’t have every word varying too much, so over the course of the line, you have to balance consistency with legibility.

Metrics vs optical kerning

The first line set in JY Alia has the kerning pairs that come with the font. Since it’s a text font, it’s not that well geared for headlines, and the ‘Ta’ pair, in particular, doesn’t look tight enough for a large point size (though it’s fine for small ones). Using the Optical kerning option in InDesign, the program adjusts that space — though the problem now is that the white space under the ‘m’ in ‘Tasman’ looks too obvious.

Metrics vs Optical kerning

Te and Tr on the desktop

The ‘Te’ pair is mathematically tighter than the ‘Tr’ pair for both to appear as though they are equally spaced. This has to be done by eye, but the basic logic is that the ‘e’ is a round shape, and needs to be brought closer in. ‘Tu’ is a tricky one, as it has a lot of white space inside the ‘u’.

Te and Tr on the desktop

Double ‘o’ set too closely

The first line takes a more or less mathematical approach to kerning, where the distance between the letters does not vary much. The holes inside the two ‘o’s become really obvious. The second line is a bit looser so that the holes aren’t as obvious. You need to kern based on the whole word, not individual pairs.

Double 'o' set too closely

3 Responses

  1. Eric S

    I’m gobsmacked. There simply aren’t words to describe how helpful this isn’t.

  2. Nor is your comment. To a beginner who didn’t understand the kerning feature in InDesign or any other program (and whom this was originally intended for in the print edition), this is useful summary.

    The original piece was 1,500 words; this is evidently an edited version.

  3. claire

    I think the top ‘Tooting’ example is kerned better than the one below, regardless of the counters in the two o’s. On the second example ‘ting’ looks like It’s kerned tighter than Too to me, though i’ve never considered myself very good at kerning.

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