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.
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.
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.