Font Factor: Leading, Tracking and Kerning

There's No Reason to Fear Fonts

Leading, Tracking and Kerning – how to avoid looking like an amateur and show like a pro.

Before I begin, I’d like to point out that Wikipedia has a terrific set of articles on the three subjects we’re going to discuss today. If you’d like a precise definition, I suggest you start there. Hopefully this article is a little more entertaining and gets to the same point without learning about glyphs and ligatures (that being said, personally, I find that useful knowledge as well).

Leading, Tracking and Kerning. If you’re not familiar with these terms, you should be. That is if you’re serious about creating a professional product. Sure Microsoft and many other programs have their own terminology – which in all honesty may be more lay-friendly. But if your serious – and I mean SERIOUS! Then it doesn’t hurt to know the technical names. Especially if you’ll ever be working with a professional designer or printer.

Sure Microsoft and many other programs have their own terminology – which in all honesty may be more lay-friendly. But if your serious – and I mean SERIOUS! Then it doesn’t hurt to know the technical names. Especially if you’ll ever be working with a professional designer or printer.

What am I talking about? I’m talking about the spacing between your letters. All of them. In this article, in your email, on your website, in your comic and on your resume.

In essence, this article can save your life. Or it could kill you.

It’s true. I could think of a hundred scenarios where presenting a more professional looking, email, website, comic or resume could result in changing your life. Get the good job, score the publishing deal, impress the right editor, etc. Any of that could lead to a better job, maybe doing what you love, having more confidence, finding the perfect person to share it with and it snowballs from there. You get the picture.

Pretty cool right?

I could also think of a hundred scenarios where presenting a shoddy email, website, comic or resume could cost you that job, publishing deal, or an opportunity of a lifetime. Any of that could lead you broke (more than you are now – I know, I’m among you), homeless without a penny to your name, all alone, losing your teeth and it snowballs from there. You get the picture.

Pretty bleak right?

Of course that’s hyperbole and the reality obviously lies somewhere in between…or does it?

Seriously, I need to know…does it? I think the leading was off on my last resume…

Basically, leading refers to the vertical spacing between the lines in a paragraph (technically the baselines). Too much or too little can make your text hard to read. With too little, you risk your lines running together. Too much and it looks like your college paper where you had a 25 pages to fill and 10 pages of it actually written. It’s okay, you can tell us – we know. In silly little simple programs like Microsoft Word it’s called ‘line spacing’. I mean C’MON! I know that’s pretty intuitive, but it lacks mystery! Where’s the intrigue?! Leading was born from the days when people actually assembled blocks of metal letters together. When TYPOGRAPHY MEANT SOMETHING!!

Of course, you can add space before and after a paragraph, but that’s not necessarily referred to as leading. This is a good idea to break up paragraphs.

Then we have tracking. And I’m not talking about following footprints or hunting. Both pretty cool, but not relevant to fonts. Stay with me here. Actually, tracking refers to the horizontal space between all the characters in a single word or multiple words (as in a sentence or paragraph). Again, too much or too little can make your text hard to read. If you make your text hard to read, someone could actually track you down and maybe talk to you about it…or WORSE! Microsoft calls this character spacing. Again, I say “BOOORING”! Why call it what it really is? Who calls a penny “one cent”?

Now we get to the good stuff. You won’t find this in your standard kindergarten textbooks when you’re learning about letters and how to write folks. Noooo, this is insider information – and I mean REEEAAAAL insider information. I’m talking about kerning (the first rule of kerning is that you don’t talk about kerning). Kerning is in reference to the spacing between individual letters. Some letters require less spacing because of the inherent design of the character. For instance, the spacing between the capital letters V and A look like this together: VA. You can see that the top of the V carries over the bottom of the A. This is natural kerning and is set by the person who develops the font.

There are other examples, but that’s pretty evident don’t you think? I mean, why would you need to see something…OKAY, okay… I’ll give you another example. But you’ll have to get more somewhere else. I’m serious. One more. Capital W and lowercase a. Wa. That’s right Wa.

Are you happy now? Now, I don’t have any left for myself. And I have a super hot date tonight – we were going to talk about point sizes and subscript and superscript (she’s a big fan).

I guess if you want more, you can come back in two weeks for another article where we’ll talk about ascenders, descenders (why you shouldn’t cross those streams) – when to use all caps and when just using lowercase makes sense.

Aren’t you glad this article saved your life?

Ken Drab sporting the thin faced lookKen Drab is at it again trying to win you over with his expertise on fonts. If you didn’t think he was a nerd before, his passion for fonts should definitely convince you. Too bad he doesn’t take his own “unique” advice – as evident in his comic’s own logo.

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6 Comments

  1. You need to talk about faux styles as well (bolding, italics, small caps) and how they’re not necessarily a good thing.

    There was a discussion about this at the Making Graphic Novels forums.

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