Thinking with Type



Kerning is an adjustment of the space between two letters. The characters of the Latin alphabet emerged over time; they were never designed with mechanical or automated spacing in mind. Thus some letter combinations look awkward without special spacing considerations. Gaps occur, for example, around letters whose forms angle outward or frame an open space (W, Y, V, T). In metal type, a kerned letter extends past the lead slug that supports it, allowing two letters to fit more closely together. In digital fonts, the space between letter pairs is controlled by a kerning table created by the type designer, which specifies spaces between problematic letter combinations. Working in a page layout program, a designer can choose to use metric kerning or optical kerning as well as adjusting the space between letters manually where desired. A well-designed typeface requires little or no additional kerning, especially at text sizes.

metric kerning uses the kerning tables that are built into the typeface. When you select metric kerning in your page layout program, you are using the spacing that was intended by the type designer. Metric kerning usually looks good, especially at small sizes. Cheap novelty fonts often have little or no built-in kerning and will need to be optically kerned.

optical kerning is executed automatically by the page layout program. Rather than using the pairs addressed in the font's kerning table, optical kerning assesses the shapes of all characters and adjusts the spacing wherever needed. Some graphic designers apply optical kerning to headlines and metric kerning to text. You can make this process efficient and consistent by setting kerning as part of your character styles.

Kerning Headlines

The subtle differences between metric and optical kerning become more apparent at larger sizes. Most problems occur between capital and lowercase letters. The spacing between H/a, T/a, and T/o improves with optical kerning. The optical kerning applied here in InDesign has created tighter spacing for large text and looser spacing for small text. Look at both effects before choosing a kerning method.


Adjusting the overall spacing of a group of letters is called tracking or letterspacing. By expanding the tracking across a word, line, or entire block of text, the designer can create a more airy, open field. In blocks of text, tracking is usually applied in small increments, creating a subtle effect not noticeable to the casual reader. Occasionally, a single word or phrase is tracked for emphasis, especially when CAPS or small caps are used within a line. Negative tracking, rarely desirable in text sizes, can be used sparingly to help bring up a short line of text. White type on a black background is considered more legible when it is tracked.

Birds of the World Book, 2007. Author: Les Beletsky. Publisher: The Johns Hopkins University. Art Director: Charles Nix. Designers: Charles Nix, Whitney Grant, and May Jampathom. This book, set in Adobe Caslon and Caslon 540, uses tracked small capitals for caption headings.

Tracking Headlines and Logos

Designers most commonly apply tracking to headlines and logos (where kerning adjustments are also frequently required). As text gets bigger, the space between letters expands, and some designers use tracking to diminish overall spacing in large-scale text. Loose or open tracking is commonly applied to capitals and small capitals, which appear more regal standing slightly apart.

eros Logotype, 1962. Design: Herb Lubalin. Ultra-tight letterspacing was a hallmark of progressive commercial graphics in the 1960s and 1970s. Here, the letters cradle each other with an intimacy appropriate to the subject matter.

cruet & whisk and thymes Logotypes, 2006. Design: Duffy & Partners. The generously tracked capitals in these logotypes give them an affable, antiquarian flavor while imparting an overall lightness to the designs.

Project: Space and Meaning

You can express the meaning of a word or an idea through the spacing, sizing, and placement of letters on the page. Designers often think this way when creating logotypes, posters, or editorial headlines. The compositions shown here express physical processes such as disruption, expansion, and migration through the spacing and arrangement of letters. The round Os in Futura make it a fun typeface to use for this project.

Examples of student work from Maryland Institute College of Art

download hi-res pdf: Word: Experimental Typography

Line Spacing

The distance from the baseline of one line of type to another is called line spacing. It is also called leading, in reference to the strips of lead used to separate lines of metal type. The default setting in most layout and imaging software is 120 percent of the type size. Thus 10-pt type is set with 12 pts of line spacing. Designers play with line spacing in order to create distinctive typographic arrangements. Reducing the standard distance creates a denser typographic color, while risking collisions between ascenders and descenders. Expanding the line spacing creates a lighter, more open text block. As leading increases, lines of type become independent graphic elements rather than parts of an overall visual shape and texture.

Line Spacing: Variations


Choosing to align text in justified, centered, or ragged columns is a fundamental typographic act. Each mode of alignment carries unique formal qualities, cultural associations, and aesthetic risks.

Alignment: Classic Variations

The four modes of alignment (centered, justified, flush left, and flush right) form the basic grammar of typographic composition. Each one has traditional uses that make intuitive sense to readers.


the works of virgil Printed for Jacob Tonson, 1698. Title pages are traditionally set centered. This two-color title page was printed in two passes of the press (note the off-kilter registration of the two colors of ink). Large typefaces were created primarily for use on title pages or in hymn books.


the complete writings of elbert hubbard, Volume two Printed by the Roycroft Shop, 1908. This neo-Renaissance book page harkens back to the first century of printing. Not only is the block of text perfectly justified, but paragraph symbols are used in place of indents and line breaks to preserve the solidity of the page.

Flush Left

charles baudelaire/les fleurs du mal Printed by Bill Lansing, 1945. Traditionally, poetry is set flush left, because the line breaks are an essential element of the literary form. Poetry is not ususally set centered, except in greeting cards.

Flush Right

Layout in advertising Designed and written by W. A. Dwiggins, 1928. In this classic guide to commercial art practices, Dwiggins has placed callouts or subject cues in the margins. On the left-hand (verso) page shown here, the cues are set flush right, drawing them closer to the content they identify.

download hi-res pdf: Alignment (justified, flush left, flush right, centered)
download hi-res pdf: NY Times (all manners of alignment on a single page)

Project: Alignment

Use modes of alignment (flush left, flush right, justified, and centered) to actively interpret a passage of text. The passage here, from Walter Ong's book Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, explains how the invention of printing with movable type imposed a new spatial order on the written word, in contrast with the more organic pages of the manuscript era. The solutions shown here comment on the conflicts between hard and soft, industrial and natural, planning and chance, that underlie all typographic composition.

Examples of student work from Maryland Institute College of Art

Vertical Text

Roman letters are designed to sit side by side, not on top of one another. Stacks of lowercase letters are especially awkward because the ascenders and descenders make the vertical spacing appear uneven, and the varied width of the characters makes the stacks look precarious. (The letter I is a perennial problem.) Capital letters form more stable stacks than lowercase letters. Centering the column helps to even out the differences in width. Many Asian writing systems, including Chinese, are traditionally written vertically; the square shape of the characters supports this orientation. The simplest way to make a line of Latin text vertical is to rotate the text from horizontal to vertical. This preserves the natural affinity among letters sitting on a line while creating a vertical axis.

Vertical Text: Photo Essay

mexican street signs Photographs by Andrea Marks. Stacked letters often appear on commercial street signs, which often employ thin, vertical slices of space. The letters in these signs were drawn by hand. Wide characters and squared-off Os stack better than narrow letters with traditional rounded forms. In some instances, the letters have been specially aligned to create vertical relationships, as in the "Optica" sign at right, painted on a sliver of flat molding inside a door frame.

Marking Paragraphs

Paragraphs do not occur in nature. Whereas sentences are grammatical units intrinsic to the spoken language, paragraphs are a literary convention designed to divide masses of content into appetizing portions. Indents have been common since the seventeenth century. Adding space between paragraphs (paragraph spacing) is another standard device. On the web, a paragraph is a semantic unit (the <p> tag in html) that is typically displayed on screen with space inserted after it. A typical indent is an em space, or a quad, a fixed unit of space roughly the width of the letter's cap height. An em is thus proportional to the size of the type; if you change the point size or column width, the indents will remain appropriately scaled. Alternatively, you can use the tab key to create an indent of any depth. A designer might use this technique in order to align the indents with a vertical grid line or other page element. Avoid indenting the very first line of a body of text. An indent signals a break or separation; there is no need to make a break when the text has just begun. Despite the ubiquity of indents and paragraph spacing, designers have developed numerous alternatives that allow them to shape content in distinctive ways.

nerd alert: Use the Space After Paragraph feature in your page layout program to insert a precise increment of space between paragraphs. Skipping a full line often creates too open an effect and wastes a lot of space. Get in the habit of inserting a full paragraph return (Enter key) only at the end of paragraphs; insert a line break when you don't want to add additional space (Shift + Enter).

Marking Paragraphs: Variations

Paragraphs: Classical and Experimental

Different kinds of content invite different approaches to marking paragraphs. In early printed books, paragraphs were indicated with a symbol, such as ||, with no additional space or line break. In the seventeenth century, it became standard to indent the first line of a paragraph and break the line at the end. Commercial printing tends to embrace fragmentation over wholeness, allowing readers to sample bits and pieces of text. Modern literary forms such as the interview invite designers to construct inventive typographic systems.

bible Page detail, c. 1500. In this beautiful arrangement, the dense, unbroken text column contrasts with a flurry of surrounding details, including a dropped capital, marginal notes, and the triangular chapter summary.

commercial pamphlet, 1911. This busy design entreats the reader with an overload of signals: indents, line breaks, paragraph spacing, and ornaments.

museums of tomorrow: a virtual discussion Book spread, 2004. Designed by Franc Nunoo-Quarcoo and Karen Howard. Outdents (instead of indents) mark paragraph breaks in this multi-authored text.

design beyond design Book spread, 2004. Designed and edited by Jan van Toorn. Lines and blocks of text slide into the margin to mark changes of voice in an ongoing conversation.

Enlarged Capitals

In the beginning of a text, the reader needs an invitation to come inside. Enlarged capitals, also called versals, commonly mark the entrance to a chapter in a book or an article in a magazine. Many medieval manuscripts are illuminated with elaborately painted rubrics. This tradition continued with the rise of the printing press. At first, initials were hand-painted onto printed pages, making mass-produced books resemble manuscripts, which were more valuable than printed books. Initials soon became part of typography. A printer could set them together with the main text in wood blocks or cast lead characters, or add them with a separate process such as engraving. Today, enlarged caps are easily styled as part of a publication's typographic system.

a view of the monuments Book page, eighteenth century. This page was printed in two passes: letterpress type with engraved illustrations.

new york times book review Newspaper page, 2009. Art director: Nicholas Blechman. Illustrator: Ellen Lupton. The dropped capital is a separate illustration placed in the layout.

Enlarged Capitals: Variations


A typographic hierarchy expresses the organization of content, emphasizing some elements and subordinating others. A visual hierarchy helps readers scan a text, knowing where to enter and exit and how to pick and choose among its offerings. Each level of the hierarchy should be signaled by one or more cues, applied consistently across a body of text. A cue can be spatial (indent, line spacing, placement) or graphic (size, style, color). Infinite variations are possible.

Writers are trained to avoid redundancy as seen in the expressions “future plans” or “past history.” In typography, some redundancy is acceptable, even recommended. For example, paragraphs are traditionally marked with a line break and an indent, a redundancy that has proven quite practical, as each signal provides backup for the other. To create an elegant economy of signals, try using no more than three cues for each level or break in a document.

Emphasizing a word or phrase within a body of text usually requires only one signal. Italic is the standard form of emphasis. There are many alternatives, however, including boldface, small caps, or a change in color. A full-range type family such as Scala has many weight and style variations designed to work together. You can also create emphasis with a different font. If you want to mix font families, such as Scala and Helvetica, adjust the sizes so that the x-heights align.

Hierarchy: Variations

Hierarchy: Experimenting with Form

yale school of architecture Posters, 2003-2006. Designers: Michael Bierut and team/Pentagram. Produced over a series of years for a single client, these posters apply diverse typographic treatments and hierarchies to similar bodies of content. The black-and-white palette creates consistency over time.

Project: Hierarchy

Choose a text that has a recurring structure, such as a table of contents, a news aggregator, or a calendar of events. Analyze the structure of the content (main title, subtitles, time, location, body text, and so on) and create a visual hierarchy that expresses this structure. Make it easy for readers to find the information they want. For example, in a crime report some readers might scan for location, looking for data about their neighborhood, while others might be more drawn to the lurid details of particular crimes. Use changes in size, weight, leading, style, and column structure to distinguish the levels of the hierarchy. Make a style sheet (in a page layout program for print or in CSS for the web) in order to create several variations quickly.

Project: Long Lists

In the real world of graphic design, managing large quantities of text is a routine challenge. Designers use the principles of hierarchy, alignment, and page layout to make content easy to scan and enjoyable to read. You can try this exercise with any long list of entries: calendar events, dictionary definitions, pithy quotes, classified ads, or a page from a college course catalog. Numbering the elements in the list gives you a graphic element to manipulate. Design a poster that presents the content in a visually interesting way. Work with style sheets to test different type treatments quickly and consistently.

Examples of student work from Maryland Institute College of Art

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