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» The Letterville BullBoard » Tips & Tricks » Workshop on Kerning

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Author Topic: Workshop on Kerning
Donna in BC

Member # 130

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The kerning subject is a big one, and makes such a big difference in one's final output of work.

Nettie's kerning post made me cringe while I thought about my earlier days when designing. So, if this info can help anyone, I've done my job here.


I still have ringing in my ears when my graphics teacher bellowed down at me for not kerning one letter on a logo I was developing. I tried in vain to look for what he was referring to. The computer had done a good job executing the text, and I failed to see the problem.

Here was the problem. An upper case A was in front of an upper case T. As seen in sample 1, some fonts type out each letter in their own 'slot' so to speak. The A and T in close proximity create an airpocket of space that may need to be tightened up with some fonts.

Think like a painter... would a painter have painted those letters like that? NO.

I do have a question at this point. What should one do with the space between the T and the E in the lower area? Is the 2nd or 3rd WATER the appropriate way?

Something else stayed with me. During class my instructor was showing the students some award winning logos. Later, he referred to our kerning efforts as either award winning or not, no inbetween was allowed.

Would a painter think like that? YES.

In sample 2, it shows the computer generated version and the hand kerned version to the extreme. The latter has a designer feel to it.


From that day on, I was a kerning fanatic. Ah, but not only kerning, (spacing between the letters), but leading (spacing between lines of text) was another trick in the ol' art guy.

The two samples under 3 can both be practical, depending on what effect you're after. I was encouraged to not fear lots of leading space, so it's always fun to experiment.

For the handpainters out there, this is common knowledge. I had to learn to think like I was painting the letters in order to understand. So a painter I became, even if in spirit only.

And because of this, my experience is limited. If someone else can shed some light on the subject, I'm already rolling up my sleeves waiting to dive into a learning frenzy.

Graphic Impact
located in BC Canada

Season's Greetings everyone!

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Dana Aaron

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I know I don't have the practical experience that alot of you have, but it has been a fairly short time since I was in school.

We covered alot of this in first year. I always remember the kerning like this...

You look at the areas as being filled up with water or sand (or concrete ) and that all the spaces between the letters should hold the same amout of stuff. Two straights are farthest apart of them all. L & A together are a pain.

I also like to print something off, then hold it in front of a mirror. Then you don't get so stuck on what it says - you can look at the overall shape balance of everything. Sometimes even upside down in front of the mirror (the paper, not you... well, ok, that depends on the day...)

Dana Aaron
Nevis, MN
ICQ# 37949659

When you're swimming in the creek,
and an eel bites your cheek,
that's a moray!

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John Novicki
Member # 955

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Interesting post Donna,

This is probably one of the things that drives the serious sign people crazy...seeing signs knocked out w/o any knowledge or caring of what it should look like. If I understand your question correctly, I'd go with the 3rd "WATER". Letter spacing is a visual thing, not a mathematical science.

Another point the word "WATER" brings up is the visual center. My program will point out the mathematical center of the word, but to make it look like it is in the center of a substrate, the whole word would actually have to be moved abit to the left. That's because of the slant of the 1st stroke of the "W". This is true with rounded letters also (C,O,Q,etc). They do not appear to extend to the right or left as far as a straight letter, so if a line of copy starts with a straight letter and ends with a round letter, it may have to be nudged abit in the direction of the round letter.

Just my thoughts,


PS I went back to look at that word "WATER" again after posting. 2 or 3 is a closer call than I originally thought, but I'll stick with 3, 'cause the visual spacing in the middle of the letters (half way up the letters) seems better. Actually, this may be one of those words that requires kerning more than one letter to make it look right.

John Novicki
Sign Painter
Minot, ME

[This message has been edited by John Novicki (edited December 11, 1999).]

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bill riedel

Member # 607

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As an old timer, we simply looked at the spaces between the letters and they all should be approximately the same. We called this optical spacing as opposed to mechanical spacing. This is the entire area, not the distance between the letters.
The other post about filling up the spaces with something is good. You eyes can usually tell you if it looks right instead of too much area or too little. What you are looking for is a good balance of space.
OOnce you get it, you'll do it automatically.
Good luck.
Bill Riedel

Bill Riedel
Riedel Sign Co., Inc.
Little Ferry, NJ

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Cam Bortz
Member # 55

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I live for this kind of post!
Number three is correct on WATER. A painter will adjust the spacing between the E and T to tighten it up. One thing I might do is "cheat" by making the cross bar of the T a bit longer in this particular situation (easy while painting, a lot more problematic on the plotter). I do just the opposite with the LA combination; that is, I make the horizontal of the L just a bit shorter, and pull the foot of the A in to where it just touches the bottom of the L. On an RA combo I will often create a ligature, that is, actually weld the serifs or the points of the diagonals.

This is the kind of improvisational kerning that gives painted lettering the "look" or "feel" that is so often missing in computer-generated copy; that is often spoken of but rarely analyzed. Our eyes see the word as a whole, as a visual image; the computer cannot "see" anything, it is solving a mathematical formula based upon information that is provided.

Here's an example of a "painters trick". Take the word MATERIALS. In it are two A's in very different settings. The first A is flanked by the M, which has a vertical stroke facing the A, and a T, which has the overhanging horizontal. Standard kerning puts the right foot of the A beneath the overhanging T. The painters trick is to slightly vary the angles of the diagonals which make up the A, making the side toward the M a bit steeper than the side toward the T. It's not enough difference to see when you are reading the sign; you have to look at the letter itself to notice. The other A is between two verticals (I and L) and is centered between them. To "think like a painter", these are the subtleties you will notice and the adjustments that you will make while executing the work.

"A wise man concerns himself with the truth, not with what people believe." - Aristotle

When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. - Raoul Duke (Hunter S. Thompson)

Finest Kind Signs
256 S. Broad St.
Pawcatuck, Ct. 06379
"Award winning Signs since 1988"

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Ken Henry
Member # 598

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I think that the last version is more correct, but then I'd also increase the spacing between the W and A.

Ken Henry
Henry & Henry Signs
London, Ontario Canada
(519) 439-1881
e-mail kjmlhenry@home.com

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Dan Sawatzky

Member # 88

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Great post!

This is the stuff of letterheads no matter what the medium. Keep the knowlege flowing!


Dan Sawatzky
Sawatzky's Imagination Corporation
Chemainus, British Columbia

"Back in beautiful British Columbia and lovin it!"

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Janette Balogh

Member # 192

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My eyes tell me number 3, and I'd do the same as Ken. Nudge the W over just a tad and let alittle more air in between.

Donna! Good girl! Another winner post!
I usually judge the spacing of a layout by sitting back and looking for the "gaps" or "crowding" that seem out of place.

There is one rule of thumb that I feel is pretty basic, and yet I see it broken time and time again. It's one of my major layout pet peeves. I like to see more air in the margin areas than between the words in a line of copy. I cringe when I see things running out to the edge of any panel area, while big gaps appear between the words in a line.

Also, if there are punctuations, like comma's , periods and apostrophe's that take up less visual space in a line of copy, I compensate by tightening the kerning in those areas too.
In regards to periods or multiple dots (as in etc ... ) I will often times adjust the centering in a group of lines as the added air space will usually make the layout look off center even if technically is centered.

Biggest Law of Layout I can advise?
Use your eyes!!!


"When Love and Skill Work Together ... Expect a Masterpiece"

Janette Balogh
Sign Studio
in Sunny Florida
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Steve Shortreed
Deceased Mayor

Member # 436

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Great post Donna! This one's a keeper. Poor kerning is one of the most obvious faults I see in many layouts today. A real test of kerning skills is the word LAWYER in all caps. Try it and see what I mean.

Steve Shortreed
144 Hill St., E.
Fergus, Ontario
Canada N1M 1G9
ICQ 316338

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Brad Ferguson

Member # 33

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Hi Donna,
I would probably let either of the last two 'WATERS' go out the door on a painted sign. Except for doing very large lettering, or if I am designing a logo for reproduction, either one would be close enough for me. Of course, when using the computer, it's so easy to adjust spacing with the keyboard that it doesn't hurt to go for perfection most of the time.

Since the spacing between 'WA' and 'ER' are both so tight, I would tighten up on both sides of the 'T'. I would combine the 'AT' spacing of #2 with the 'TE' spacing of #3. If this were light letters on dark, I would generally open all the spaces a bit.

It's true that some combinations just can't be made to look pleasant, no matter what you do.

Brad in Arkansas

Brad Ferguson
4782 West Highway 22
Paris AR 72855

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Michael Gene Adkins

Member # 882

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For reasons that are so obvious I won't even mention it, kerning is not only near and dear to my heart, but it can sometimes turn into a living nightmare.

I won't even begin to tell you which kerning techniques are right or wrong. But imagine trying to kern an ENTIRE font so that not only does the word WATER look good, but so does the word LAWYER and JUMP and POLICE, and, well, you get the point. Whilst kerning a font, I have to remember that every single word in the English language has the potential to be typed on the screen. A font designed to meet that criteria, therefore, can sometimes have as many as 6,000 or more kerned pairs, and trust me, that ain't bragging. I say it with a sigh of relief, not an air of attitude.

So if there's two thing I have learned about kerning, in my professional opinion, it is this:

1. No matter how well I kern a font, someone else will hand kern it before it's over. It is literally impossible to foresee every possible combination. I can't kern only one word, so I work at kerning whole alphabets.

2. For signwork, keep the letterspacing a little loose ... it never hurts ... and the reason is simple: Even horrible kerning, if the letters aren't tight (except on logos) looks good enough when read at a distance and read with speed (which is how most people read a sign, very quickly!).

That's my lecture on kerning. I have to go now, because, well, I'm kerning tonite!

Mike @ the Fontry

Letterhead Website Supplier ID# 338
Michael Gene Adkins
The Fontry
Rt 2 Box 238
Watts OK 74964

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Mike Duncan
Member # 316

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I agree with the others, #3 it is, but I would also adjust between the w-a and the e-r. Another thing I do is kinda squint at it-it helps me to see the spaces better.
I also squint at all the sign layouts I do. Sometimes a layout will look great on the screen or a print out, but be hard to read from a distance, squinting will let you know if it will be readable or not. As Monte says, "Werks fer me"...

Mike Duncan
2315 H Street
Bellingham, WA 98225
eves 360-738-9846
days 360-671-7165
$$ Supporter, 1998 & 1999

"Good Luck many times comes disguised as hard work."

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Bob Darnell
Member # 27

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I'm a big on kerning as well. I was just curious if this happens to anyone else: When I'm working on the kerning for a logo for a while, trying to get everything just right, sometimes I've been staring at the word for so long, that I start to question if it is a real word anymore. I can't believe it is spelled correctly etc., even if it is an extremely simple word. Does anyone else get this, or am I insane? I blame kerning if so.

Bob Darnell
London, Ontario, Canada
Online Portfolio available at: www.members.home.net/bob.darnell

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Dana Aaron

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Oh, wow - I'm not the only one that happens to?!?! Gee, either I'm not so psychotic... or you got major problems, man...

Dana Aaron
Nevis, MN
ICQ# 37949659

When you're swimming in the creek,
and an eel bites your cheek,
that's a moray!

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Adrienne Pereira
Member # 1046

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Me too! I think this is common, stare at a word long enough you can't tell WHAT it says.
Anyway, this is facinating to me, the kerning issue. I really struggle with this on my windows, it's hard enough to try and get your spacing correct on a piece of sign board or paper, try it on a 40 foot window...at a diagnal......on a ladder.....I try to get it right, have to rely on my 'eye' to get it somewhat close, but always wish I had got it closer. This discussion has got me thinking now.
Since I'm not really good at standard block letters I use loose, freeform scripts on my splashes a lot. Fancy them up with beveled edges and highlights to distract the eye from my imperfect lettering....if you can't dazzle em with brilliance, baffle em with Bull ****!
This info will help me, and especially now that I have my first plotter.

Adrienne Morgan
Splash Signs/ Rainkatt Studios

"I really should be out painting right now"
Benicia, CA

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Ken Henry
Member # 598

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Hey Bob. Thankfully, kerning isn't the same as "family planning " whereby you attempt to have your kids at planned intervals. If this were the case, I might not be able to recognize a few of my offspring, and mistake them for who knows who. In any case, "family planning" is never quite as precise as kerning, and happy accidents sometimes happen, as was the case in our family.

Ken Henry
Henry & Henry Signs
London, Ontario Canada
(519) 439-1881
e-mail kjmlhenry@home.com

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Curt Stenz
Member # 82

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This is a good one. Just noticing the difference proves you are looking in the right direction. It is easy to see what is good and bad, but arguing over what is perfect is another issue. Typesetting is a very personal thing, as is hand lettering. You are creating something, not just keystroking text. However when in doubt, print it out, turn it upside down and at a distance look at it as an object, not as a word. If it looks good you will know it, if not kern it to suit yourself. Be confident in your decision.


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