The Importance of Letter Spacing

Kerning can change the meaning of a message completely.

Yuisfat opens a new Greek deli, but then quickly closes within three months. There goes another client (and potential free sandwiches).

Amy had grand plans for her antiques shop. She was even going to bring her van in for you to letter. But… POOF! Now she too, is gone. The problem was not their business models. The problem was your signs. Nobody read the darn things! Research shows that most of us are bombarded with at least 1000 commercial messages each day—including signs. Yet only a fraction of those signs actually “stick” in the brain.

Knowing why a sign works or doesn’t is a skill. It’s the key to unlocking the door to successful sign making. I trust you agree that the layout and design is the most important aspect of a sign. Fancy techniques are secondary— if necessary at all. It matters little if the letters themselves are carved, gilded, or airbrushed if the sign itself is unreadable.

If you don’t already have it, get a copy of Mastering Layout by the late Mike Stevens. After reading this book three times through, you will undoubtedly come away with one principal idea: The balancing of negative and positive space is a key to good layout. Although Mike did not write much on kerning or spacing of individual letters, I’m sure that if he were here today and published an updated version of his book in this day of fonts and computer layouts, it would surely include such a chapter.

Which of these is faster and easier to read? The larger spaces between the letters in the bottom version serve as stop points, telling the eyes,”Rest here.” But your brain is telling your eye to move on,”I don’t have enough letters to make a word yet…” This greatly hampers readability.
Kerning the letters so they touch can create a very interesting effect. Moving the letters closer together allows the eyes to decipher quickly. This technique should be used sparingly, though, and in the correct context.

What is kerning?
Kerning is adjusting the spacing between the letters and words. Giving equal space between all the letters in a word is called “mechanical spacing.” Mechanical spacing is not kerning. Optical spacing is kerning. We must rely on our eye to judge the amount of space required and move the letters accordingly.

Kerning lets you control how quickly people will read your sign—or if they will read it at all. While kerning is quite a simple task, few designers take the time to actually do it (or do it correctly.)

Like the skill of carving, gilding or painting, kerning is a skill honed over time. It’s objective is to enable the eye to move freely through the message. This does not always mean that you should space your letters as tight as possible. Often you will want to decrease the amount of space between letters, but there are times when moving letters further apart will assist readability. Let’s not get into the trap of thinking kerning simply means tightening spacing.

Here’s something we see all too often—not kerning script letters so they connect. With the exception of the capitals (and some other characters), script letters should connect. It depends on the font, but it’s safe to say if you see a connection arm sticking out of a letter, it should be kerned to connect with the next letter. As a result of the spaces between each letter (stop points) the eyes stumble and stagger across the word like a confused wino.
With the script letters kerned to connect, the eyes are free to decipher each letter without pausing. Compare the pleasant, free flowing reading of this version with the one above. It didn’t hurt that we used our own LHF Marie Script instead of the tired and (may I say ugly) Brush Script.

How we read.
Have you ever stopped to think about the messages that your eyes are interpreting and how it relays that information to your brain? It’s phenomenal. Experts at Rutgers University have shown that to read well, the brain has only a few thousandths of a second to translate each symbol into its proper sound.

After the letters are deciphered, the brain puts them together and creates the word. Though I don’t have research to prove my theory, I believe that the brain deciphers the first and last letters with more care than the letters between them. But to get to that last letter, the brain must get over the hurdles of negative space within and between the letters themselves.

Two common kerning errors are too much or too little space between the letters in a word. Traditionally, a large space between letters has signified a separation between two words and therefore a stopping point. As the illustrations show, too much space between letters slows down the deciphering process because it tells the brain to rest between each letter.

On the other hand, when letters are crowded together they become hard to recognize quickly or are simply indecipherable. This is not to say that you should never let your letters touch. Combinations such as YV often look better when they are touching slightly—helping to eliminate the large area of space between them.

Here, the letters in HINOI are equally spaced. As a test, squint your eyes as you look at the image. The I gets lost between the H and N. This problem would be greatly multiplied when read a distance from a fast moving car. Straight letters adjacent to each other require more space.
Providing more space on either side of the I allows the eye to read the word faster. Compare this image to the one above. Note that the space on either side of the O was not adjusted at all. This illustrates the uselessness of the “auto kern” feature available in most design programs. Never depend on the font or any program to kern your message properly. Only you know the distance and conditions under which your message will be read.


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