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How to adjust tracking and kerning for correct typography that doesn’t suck

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As a professional graphic designer, there’s one common typography error that just makes my brain go absolutely sideways. While there are plenty of design principles, understanding how to use fonts in your designs is important. In this post, I’m going to teach you how to use tracking and kerning so that your letters are always correctly spaced.

How to adjust tracking and kerning for beutiful typography

 

What is tracking?

Tracking (not to be confused with Kerning, which we’ll get into later), is the the consistent increase or decrease of space between letters. Basically, it’s when you tell your designing program of choice (hopefully Photoshop or Illustrator) that you want all of your letters to have a degree of equal spacing between them.

Have you ever seen someone use a script-style font, but the letters aren’t even touching? This is the result of improper tracking. It’s an all too common error and it makes designs look terribly unpolished.

Here is an example using a script font (which I think best represents why you need to be mindful of your tracking):

Tracking typography examples

 

HOW TO ADJUST YOUR TRACKING

Of course I’m not about to tell you what you’re doing wrong without explaining how to fix it. Here’s a step-by-step look at how to adjust your tracking using Photoshop.

 

The first thing you need to do is get acquainted with the Character Panel if you aren’t already. This panel has all of the settings that control anything typography related – choice of font, font size, kerning, tracking, etc. If you don’t see this setting in Photoshop, you can bring up the panel by selecting Window >> Character. It should look something like this:

Photoshop Character Panel Tracking and Kerning

 

For the purpose of this tutorial, I am once again going to use a scripted font (I’m using a premium font called Hide Away, in case you’re interested). I’ve chosen to type out “Pink Hexagon” and for the purpose of the example, my Kerning Adjustement is set to Metrics (the built in kerning adjustments for that font – which we’ll get into more later), and my Tracking Adjustment is set to 100.

Pink Hexagon Kerning Example 1

 

As you can see, the letters are not touching in the way we would expect them to with a script font. Typically, this is an easy fix – one that can be made by just changing the Tracking to 0. By changing the Tracking from 100 to 0, we decrease the space between all of the letters and we get a scripted word with letters that touch correctly.

Notice the letters are now touching how we’d expect them to. Of course not all fonts were created equal and this fix isn’t always perfect. Sometimes it requires some fine tuning and that’s what Kerning is all about.

 

CHECK OUT THE VIDEO TUTORIAL

 

What is kerning?

Kerning is often confused with tracking (and truthfully, even some seasoned designers use the terminology incorrectly). Kerning is the adjustment of space between individual letters to achieve a visually pleasing result. Basically, it’s when you have a font that is otherwise proportioned, but the letters need some adjustment in order to make them look better.

There are sets of letters that are often seen together that may look strange without an adjustment to the kerning. One excellent example of this would be “WA”.

On the left the Kerning Adjustement is set to Metrics. This is the default, built in spacing for the Google font, Lora. Now, this isn’t actually too bad visually speaking. The line shows you what the spacing is between the W and the A and how the serifs (the little tag ends on the font) overlap.

At right, we see the same font with the Kerning Adjustment set to Optical. This ignores the built in kerning and instead automatically adjusts the spacing between characters based on their shapes. So in this specific example, we see that the serifs have a little more of an overlap. This creates more visually appealing typography.

Some fonts have what’s called Kern-pair specifications. It’s built in information specifically for pairs of letters (like WA) so that the kerning is correct by default. Unfortunately, a lot of fonts include minimal built-in kerning, or none at all. That’s when you will need to utilize the Optical kerning option… and maybe even make manual adjustments.

 

HOW TO ADJUST YOUR OPTICAL KERNING

You may find that small adjustments need to be made, even with the best of intentions of Photoshop. You can individually adjust the kerning of the letters to create more visually appealing typography that looks intentional.

Check out the example below:

A. Original text with kerning set to Metrics. This doesn’t look too bad – some fonts are much worse.

B. Kerning is set to Optical. The font is bypassing its built in kerning information and instead attempting to adjust the space between the letters based on the shapes.

C. Text with manual kerning between the W and A. Removing the unnecessary space creates an easy to read, visually appearing text.

To adjust it for yourself, use your cursor to highlight one of the letters, then use the Tracking Adjustment panel to manually control the kerning between that letter and the letter to the right of it.

 

Here are some other working examples of fonts that need manual kerning. Don’t get me wrong… it’s not that the optimal kerning is really all that bad, and if you just don’t feel like you have the eye for this, don’t feel like you have to go in and make the adjustment. But it’s one of those things that once you see it, you can’t stop seeing it… and wanting to fix it so it looks right! #sorrynotsorry

 

🖋 BLACK DIAMOND

Being that I am a huge fan of Set Sail Studios fonts (seriously, it’s like… a #fangirl sort of way), this first example might surprise you. It’s not that the built in kerning is wrong – this is a stylized font that is made to be edgy, handwritten, and more “natural”. I chose to show you the difference between the built in kerning (A), versus some manual kerning (B) because I think this font makes for a good example of the sort of differences you can make.

Compare A and B. Can you see the differences? At first glance, they may not seem all that different. If you look closely, you’ll see that I have manually increased the space between the following letters:

  • B and l
  • a and c
  • D and i
  • o and n
  • n and d

And I have decreased the space between:

  • m and o

These subtle differences make the words a bit more legible, which is especially important if you plan to use the font for a logo that will eventually be scaled down even smaller than this.


 

🖋 SAILOR JACK

This font has a few glaring improvements that need to be made. Version A shows you the built in kerning for the font, while B shows you how the font can look with manually kerning.

I have manually increased the space between the following letters:

  • S and a
  • J and a

And I have decreased the space between:

  • l and o

 

🖋 RUMBLE DECO

Some fonts can be a little tricky because of their swashes – a decorative replacement for a serif in a capital letter, like the R and the D in Rumble Deco. The built in kerning may not seem terrible at first – until you really start to scrutinize it.

Setting the kerning to optical in this case doesn’t really help much, but it gives you a better adjustment to work with. There’s a a few adjustments you have to make so that the letters are all correctly spaced apart.

I have manually increased the space between the following letters:

  • L and E
  • C and O

And I have decreased the space between:

  • R and U
  • B and L
  • D and E

 

“But Kimi, I use Canva…”

Wherever you are, you probably just heard my long, drawn-out sigh.

I get it. Canva seems a lot less scary than Photoshop or Illustrator. There’s less buttons and there’s a bunch of boxes and other design elements already made for you. Even as a professional, I understand the appeal of tools that seem easier to use.

Having said that, it’s features like manual kerning in Adobe programs that make it a more professional tool. Canva has a built in metric tracking system, but doesn’t offer the ability to kern. And while that may not be a big deal in a lot of situations, it never fails that I see someone using a script/handwritten/brush font in Canva to create graphics – with glaringly incorrect letter-spacing.

It’s my solemn duty as a professional graphic designer to encourage you to try Photoshop for yourself. In addition to being cheaper than Canva (seriously… it’s only $10/mo and you get Lightroom with it too!), as a whole, the usability isn’t all that different. It just seems kind of scary because there’s a lot more buttons to play with.

Did you know? Free elements in Canva may not be used commercially. So all of your Pinterest graphics, business cards, and logos that utilize Canva’s elements are prohibited by its terms of use.

Get Photoshop Now

 

Are you using correct tracking and kerning?

Not everyone has the designer eye for it, but it’s an important element of design. What graphics will you improve thanks to this tutorial?

How to adjust tracking and kerning for beutiful typography

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Rachel Fearon

I've read my share of design material on the internet and elsewhere, but I could tell from lesson 1 that Kimi's [graphic design] course is a cut above. Her visuals clearly show you what NOT to do, as well as how to make your design elements look as clean and professional as possible.
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