Typography is a vital aspect of design that often goes unnoticed when executed flawlessly but becomes glaringly apparent when poorly managed. Kerning, a core technique in typography, plays a crucial role in refining the visual appeal of text. 

If you’re looking to boost your design and typographic skills, learn the definition of kerning, explore its various types and discover when and how to use it like a pro.

Kerning Explained

The word ‘kerning’ typed in white text on a purple background. Dark purple vertical lines occupy the spaces between each letter, demonstrating how some letters are closer to their neighbors than others. 
In the Skillshare class “Typography is Everywhere: Navigating Fonts, Tone & Composition,” teacher Carolyn Owsiany cleverly exemplifies kerning’s meaning and application. 

At its core, kerning is the adjustment of space between individual characters in a font. It aims to create a visually pleasing and harmonious balance by ensuring optimal letter spacing, with no letter being too close to or far from its nearest neighbor. 

Graphic designers, typographers and typography enthusiasts can all utilize kerning to enhance text’s readability and overall aesthetic appeal. When executed with care, kerning can make designs look seamless, professional and polished.

Types of Kerning

A slide from a presentation with the title ‘kerning’ in the upper left corner. Toward the center of the slide, we can see the text ‘A W’ labeled ‘default spacing,’ and the same text repeated but labeled ‘after kerning.’ The ‘default spacing’ text contains letters that are farther apart than those labeled ‘after kerning.’
In the Skillshare class “Typography Theory – Create Strong Designs,” teacher Lindsay Marsh shows students how kerning can change the appearance of otherwise identical text. 

Kerning comes in various forms, and each serves a specific purpose with the goal of optimizing the spacing between characters. Sometimes the types of kerning you can apply will vary based on the software program you’re using, such as Adobe Illustrator or After Effects.

These are the key types of kerning you should know about: 

  • Positive kerning: When you increase the amount of space between characters, you’re using positive kerning. 
  • Negative kerning: Conversely, when you increase the amount of space between characters, that’s negative kerning. 
  • Metric kerning: Automatically utilizes predefined kerning pairs to create specific spacing. These predefined pairs are specified in the font metrics, and are more likely to be present in high-end or established fonts. 
  • Optical kerning: Automatically adjusts the spaces between characters based on their shapes. This can be particularly useful for fonts that don’t include predefined pairs, such as free fonts with minimal included metrics. 
  • Manual kerning: This type of kerning involves manually adjusting the spaces between specific letter pairs for a customized and ultra-precise result. While manual kerning is typically too time-consuming for use with long pieces of copy, it can be ideal for fine-tuning shorter snippets of text. If you’re working on creating a logo, for example, manual kerning can ensure its textual elements look flawless.  
  • Contextual kerning: A type of kerning that takes into account more than two characters at a time and adjusts their spacing accordingly. For example, instead of using kerning pairs to determine spacing, contextual kerning could use groups of three letters. 

When Should You Use Kerning?

The words ‘Portland Oregon USA’ repeated twice on a computer screen, once on the left and once on the right. In the text on the left, some of the letters are so close they appear connected, while others are too far apart. In the text on the right, all the letters are close to each other but are evenly spaced and never appear to be connected. 
In the Skillshare class “Customizing Type with Draplin: Creating Wordmarks That Work,” teacher Aaron Draplin demonstrates how even subtle kerning can make text more readable. 

Kerning can be a valuable tool in a variety of design scenarios from the casual to the professional. When you’re working with headlines, logos or any type of text intended to capture attention, for example, kerning can help boost the message’s impact and drive its point home. 

And in any project where space is limited or typography is a prominent design element—such as a flyer, greeting card or event invitation—kerning can help you achieve a balanced and aesthetically pleasing composition. 

In short, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a beginner who’s just learning the essential elements of graphic design or a seasoned pro looking to deepen your appreciation of typography as an art form or digitize your lettering—no matter the case, the thoughtful use of kerning can help you achieve your goals in a multitude of scenarios. 

How to Kern Like a Pro: Tips and Tricks

The software program FontLab open on a computer screen. The letters ‘o o g o o’ are displayed within it, and the letter ‘g’ is a lighter color than the rest. 
In the Skillshare class “Making a Font from scratch in Adobe Illustrator, Fontself and Fontlab,” teacher Emma Make demonstrates how to kern in FontLab.  

You’ll need both technical knowledge and a keen eye for design to master the art of kerning. 

Use these tips and tricks to enhance your kerning skills:

  • Zoom out to check the big picture: Viewing the design from a distance can help you identify spacing issues that might not be so obvious up close.
  • Blur your vision: Intentionally blurring your eyes may help you focus on the shape of each letter rather than the text’s meaning. 
  • Be mindful of certain letter combinations: Depending on the typeface and font you’re using, certain letter combinations may require special attention. Experiment with your current choices and adjust your kerning approach accordingly.
  • Print your design: A physical print-out can provide you with a fresh perspective and reveal potential issues that may not be apparent on your computer or tablet screen.
  • Isolate kerning pairs: Focusing on specific pairs (or trios) of letters can help you zero in on spacing in a methodical fashion. 
  • Rotate your design: Rotating your design left, right or upside-down can reveal irregularities in spacing that you might overlook when the text is upright.
  • Create multiple versions: At a minimum, you’d be wise to create a copy of your original design so you can compare it to the version you apply kerning to. And if you’re not sure which style of kerning you prefer, consider creating even more separate versions so you can view them side-by-side.
  • Don’t forget to fine-tune spacing between words: While kerning generally refers to the spacing between individual characters, remember to pay attention to the spacing between entire words too. 

Create Outstanding Designs and Build Your Skills

Mastering kerning is a key skill for any designer looking to create polished, striking and unique designs. By understanding the types of kerning, knowing when to apply each type and implementing the right tips and tricks, you can significantly enhance the visual impact of your work with just a few minutes of effort. 

Want to keep improving your design skills further? With Skillshare’s graphic design resources, guide to learning typography and wealth of online graphic design classes, you can do so at your own pace and on your terms. 

Written by:

Carrie Buchholz-Powers