There’s no denying that the vast choice of free and retail typefaces overwhelms us all as digital creators. But have you ever used a new font and felt like something’s a bit off? In a situation of working on a paid design project for a corporate client, that’s a serious no-no.

For an untrained eye, proper spacing between individual letters might come as a given. However, more often than not, kerning is overlooked, and that’s when all unfortunate typography disasters happen.

So, how do you handle bad kerning if you’re not a professional font designer

Whether you explore new fonts for your collection or you’re stuck with a typeface with bad kerning, this checklist will teach you some neat tricks to end all keming fails once and for all.

Here are the kerning mistakes to look out for:

  1. Confuse not with leading or tracking.
  2. Missing out on kerning letters individually.
  3. Neglecting straight and curved letters as measuring tools.
  4. Underestimating tricky letters and challenging combinations.
  5. Overlooking the method of trios.
  6. No room for letters to breathe.
  7. Not kerning yourself, but letting software do it for you.
  8. Unequal perceived space between letters.
  9. Inattention to word spacing.
  10. Disregarding optical illusion rules.
  11. Insufficient practice with keming.

Before we dive deeper into curious examples, fails, and tips, there’s an important question you might be struggling with.

What exactly is kerning?

Kerning is the spacing (or spatial distance) between individual letters or characters.

In case the vague explanation didn’t do much for you—the purpose of kerning can be summed up in the creation of legible, functional, and visually pleasing typefaces. While it follows some strict rules and general guidelines, the kerning process is quite subjective. It all comes down to each individual designer’s feel and artistic judgment.

1. Confuse not with leading or tracking

A common mistake in design projects is to not tackle leading and tracking first. 

  • Leading is the vertical spacing between lines of type. 
  • Tracking (or letter-spacing), on the other hand, is the overall spacing between groups of letters. Unlike kerning, tracking is optically consistent when increasing (or decreasing) the visual density in a line or block of text.

Before manually kerning, it’s imperative to make the adjustments to leading and tracking first, so you wouldn’t lose the balance already achieved.

2. Missing out on kerning letters individually

It’s not always the case that when constructing a font, type designers check the spacing of individual letters before they focus on kerning. Before you decide which font to buy or download, test some control pairings and look at the overall spacing of the characters included.

Spot bad kerning by using the typical control pair “VA” and check the spacing of letters using the control character “H”.

3. Neglecting straight and curved letters as measuring tools

Bad kerning comes from a lack of knowledge about spatial relationships between letters. All letters fall down into one of the following categories:

  • Straight-edged (H, I); 
  • Rounded (O, C, Q); 
  • Diagonal-sided (A, V, Y).

It’s important to note that when combining 2 straight letters, the distance in-between is slightly bigger than the distance between straight and round letters.

Two round letters, on the other hand, should feature an even smaller distance between them.

The diagonal-sided letters are trickier, as they create a large negative space, that requires specific kerning values and high attention to detail.

4. Underestimating tricky letters and challenging combinations

Inexperienced font designers often struggle kerning problematic letters like the uppercase A, W, Y, V, T, L, and the lowercase y and k. Due to their structure, characters feature the so-called “trap” space—the large gaps on one or both sides.

When testing a new font or manually kerning one yourself, adjust space between difficult letters first. Remember to do that for all caps, with lower and uppercase pairings. With non-Latin scripts, like the Cyrillic for example, watch out for the following letters: Г, Д, Л, У, Ч, г, д, з, у, ч, ь, ъ.

5. Overlooking the method of trios

When it comes to terrible kerning, more often than not we observe whole words starting out well, only to lose their balance by the end, and vice versa. A quick fix of bad kerning in a font is the handy method of trios. 

Focus on the first three letters of a word and hide the rest of the characters. Once you adjust the first group of three, follow through with the same technique until you reach the end of the word. 

A common slip-up is when designers forget to kern diacritical marks common for languages such as French, Spanish, Italian, etc. Include such words in your testing phase, so you don’t end up with kerning fails.

6. No room for letters to breathe

You’ll be shocked (and not in a good way) by the number of fonts with over-kerning issues. It occurs when there’s not enough space between letters left and words end up appearing too “tight”. It’s not pretty to look at and will make your text illegible.

7. Not kerning yourself but letting software do it for you

As we mentioned before, kerning is a subjective process. Font designers adjust the space between letters and characters manually to achieve an overall visually pleasing result.

While this might cover a lot of use cases, you shouldn’t let software kern for you when working on a logotype or a headline, for example. For a polished final result go in and kern manually.

Adobe Apps offer auto-kerning tools like Optical kerning, which helps adjust the spatial relationships between letters when working with a font of poor metrics. For legibility purposes, you’d want to give text set in small sizes (below 10-12pt for example) more space.

Remember that it all comes down to context and quality typefaces might not need additional kerning on your end at all.

8. Unequal perceived space between letters

When a font feels off, it might be because kerning wasn’t a priority in the design process. Low-quality typefaces rarely have (or have limited) kerning, which means more trouble coming your way.

Veteran type designers often speak of kerning as art. The reason behind it is that kerning isn’t the mathematically equal amount of space, but the perceived space between letters according to the human eye. Once you understand the spatial relationship between different letters, you’ll be eyeballing those spaces like a pro in no time.

9. Inattention to word spacing

Many free fonts out there are often poorly constructed, and while attractive at first, unforgivable flaws shine through upon use. In terms of spacing, people tend to focus on the elbow room between characters and forget to include the spacing characters (intervals) between words in their kerning process.

Fixing improper spacing between words adds an unnecessary workload to your design projects, so make sure you check the rhythm of a font before you purchase or download.

10. Disregard of optical illusion rules

This is not so much a kerning mistake, as it is a contextual one. For legibility purposes, you need to think about the spacing between letters against different background colors.

Have you ever wondered why reflective road signs have more room between letters? It’s because of how our eyes perceive white letters in a dark environment.

Optimal legibility requires black text on white background (also called positive text). However, when inverted, the color scheme tends to throw people off and slow their reading. Hence, when using white text on a black background, it’s best to leave more space between letters, as they appear slightly “fatter”.

11. Insufficient practice with keming

Good kerning, just like the pro type designers do it, takes practice. A lot of it. Next time you sit at a restaurant and open the menu, check the kerning and visualize adjusting the letters. Becoming mindful of proper spacing takes time and challenging yourself with different projects is probably the best way to master kerning. We’d also recommend this popular kerning game to test your newly acquired skills.

Bonus kerning tips from pro font designers

  1. Learn your kerning terms.
  2. Choose your typeface at the start of the design project.
  3. Use the blurring technique or flip the type upside down.
  4. Test the kerning in a real context.
  5. Consider the chosen rhythm.

Learn your kerning terms: 

Words like sidebearings, sand fillings, strings, lock symbols, kerning groups (and many more) will help you better understand the kerning process and become more selective in your font purchases;

Choose your typeface at the start of the design project. 

If you’re on a budget, explore acclaimed typefaces that fit your creative direction, and compare their characteristics and kerning details. This will help develop your visual culture and translate it into your own projects;

Use the blurring technique or flip the type upside down. 

Squint (and gently cross) your eyes, or rotate your type by 180 degrees to ensure you’re focused on the shape, contrast, and white space of the letterforms, rather than the meaning of the words.

Test the kerning in a real context. 

Rather than testing with Lorem Ipsum, find real-life texts with a variety of symbols. You’ll be surprised how many fonts lack rich language support.

Consider the chosen rhythm. 

This one goes to the beginner type designers (psst, the Kerning Checklist for Font Designers is coming soon). Kerning is all about rhythm and consistency between letters. Make sure you build suitable strings and proof-kern down to the finest detail.

Have you tried any of these so far? Leave us your questions in the comments and share your personal tricks to spot bad kerning and fix it fast without a font editor.

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