If you're new to desktop publishing or graphic design, you may be wondering what these terms are that you hear thrown around all the time. Even if you are a veteran, you may pause for a moment when asked to explain exactly what makes up the definitions of leading, kerning and tracking. Simply put, they are the 3 most common ways professionals use to make subtle (or not so subtle) adjustments between characters and lines. Most high-end layout programs have some fairly sophisticated automatic settings that address leading, kerning, and tracking. However, as with anything automatic, these settings, which are pre-set in your software, will not work in all situations. Read on and you'll gain a new appreciation for what "typesetting" is all about.
Leading comes literally from a time when lead type was set manually prior to being loaded on a letterpress. Line spacing, or leading, referred to the strips of lead that were placed between each line of text in order to govern the space between lines. As we've moved into the digital age, this term has stayed with us. Typically, you will want to set your leading to be 20% greater than your font size. For instance, if you have 10 point type, you (or your software) will generally set the leading for 12 points. If you have 12 point type, you would usually set the leading to 14.4 points, giving a nice spacing between lines. If you ever look at a page and feel that it just simply looks too "dark" and text heavy, consider "loosening" the leading slightly and it will likely make the page appear "lighter" to your reader's eye. Also, although overusing this function is frowned on, slight tweaks to the leading are a great way to fit one more line of text onto a page when you don't want the last line to flow onto another page. In the reverse situation, using subtle changes in leading can help you balance a page by increasing the leading of your text so that it extends right to the bottom of a page or image.
Take leading, turn it 90 degrees, and you've figured out tracking! Essentially, instead of defining the line between spaces, tracking adjusts the spacing between characters. Tracking, for the most part, is better left to the professionals who designed your font. Generally, fonts are designed with a set amount of tracking that makes the text as readable as it can be. When you make even slight adjustments, you risk making your text much more difficult to read. Furthermore, in your role setting up a document, it's unlikely you'll sit back and read your text in a relaxed manner, which makes it quite likely that you won't even realize how badly you've mangled your text. That said, there are times when there are practical reasons why you absolutely need to change your kerning. In these situations, don't hesitate to use this tool, simply remember to have a good look (or get someone else to review it) to make sure you have not made the text look overly unnatural.
Kerning is character spacing that is generally applied only to select pairs of characters. Often, automatic character spacing makes little or no acknowledgment of the fact that certain characters, because of their shapes, appear to have gaps between them when they are placed next to certain other characters. Rounded characters next to straight characters or other rounded characters often are particularly susceptible to this phenomenon.
For example, the words "text" and "look" are shown with their default kerning. The word "text" requires little, if any, kerning applied to look its best. Notice the dramatic difference between the non-kerned and kerned examples of the word "look," while the difference between the kerned and non-kerned "text" is much less noticeable.
One of the main areas you will see kerning is in headlines and ads. As a general rule, the shorter the text you're working with, the more impact changes to the kerning will have. If you've followed this article, you are now better equipped to make text look good than a large majority of folks who ever set fingers to a keyboard. If you've followed this article and realized how much these techniques can affect the appearance of your work, you're on track to make your text look truly brilliant! As with anything else, these techniques can be quite a bit more complicated, so try them out, learn from your mistakes, and do some research into how various designers use these techniques. See you next month!
We strive to be as accurate and current with our information as possible. Due to the infinite number of scenarios that occur in print & desktop publishing, we can not guarantee that the above information will be correct in all situations.