The Trouble With Kerning

Kerning is a typographic term that refers to adjusting the spacing between two letters to make them more visually pleasing and legible. Graphic designers are highly attenuated to kerning, we can spot bad kerning a mile away. We take delight in pointing our poor kerning everywhere we see it—restaurant menus, billboards, food packaging, birth certificates, anything with type on it is subject to our harsh judgment of typographic detail. Understanding kerning is to understand visual design, in that small nuanced details make the gestalt of a project better or worse. Kerning is less about how two particular letters sit next to each other, and more of an indication about how this small discrepancy can subvert the entirety of the typesetting on a project.

Kerning becomes a mascot for graphic design—it's the calling card of a "good" graphic designer who can spot bad kerning immediately. (These are also the same designers who can immediately identify a given typeface anywhere, anytime). We even have games dedicated to testing your kerning acumen. Designer James Victore has said that "typography is graphic design's secret club,"1 and he is right—instead of a secret handshake, we have secret words and knowledge. Typography hides in plain sight, unless you know the secret esoterics of kerning, leading, ligatures, and the rest. Typography is what we know and what they don't. Typography in some ways is graphic designer alchemy—literally turning lead into gold.

The trouble with kerning is that, by itself, it is not design. Kerning a badly designed piece of graphic design does not make it good—it makes it properly kerned piece of bad graphic design. Paying attention to minutiae like kerning instead of questioning if what we are kerning is any good is something that needs serious consideration. Therefore, kerning can become a mascot for what can be wrong with graphic design: a concentration on tools, tips, techniques and trends instead of ideas, concepts, processes and outcomes. As designers, we have to make sure to pay attention to not only the micro (kerning), the macro (big picture ideas and the narrative arc of design), but also the tangential and the ambient: the things that happen around a piece of design as it is being created.

When we are concentrating too much on the details, we can miss the other stuff that happens during the design process. The accidents, the discarded scraps of paper, even the curious pile of stuff on the edges of our InDesign artboard. It is important to look not only close and far at what you are working on, but to the left and right as well. The trouble with kerning is not just missing the forest for the trees, but missing the forest for how closely two particular leaves sit next to each other, and missing the road in the forest that leads to another, more interesting forest.


1. Quote from a lecture by James Victore at Virginia Commonwealth University in April of 2011.