I Love Typography

ILT Investigates: type torture

Warning: readers may find some of the images in this article disturbing.

It was 2am when the call came in over the radio. Italic rain lashed down against the wind shield, liquefying the neon sign’s reflection. Clarendon looks good in Neon, but perhaps…

The radio interrupted my thoughts, bearing a voice that had woven itself through distant thunder…

“We’ve got a BK over on Lucida Avenue, opposite the Emigre Foundry. This one’s ugly, real ugly….”

By the time I arrived at the crime scene, the rain had subsided. I’d been on the force 25 years, but nothing had quite prepared me for this:


A week later, after an anonymous tip off, we brought in a guy for questioning. David Terrence Paine had a string of previous convictions. He was one sick puppy; got his kicks out of this kind of thing.

Yes, “BK” or Bad Kerning can be found everywhere. But before we get into bad kerning, let’s remind ourselves of what kerning is.

Sometimes there appears to be some confusion over what kerning actually is; it’s sometimes confused with tracking. So this is what kerning is:

av-kerning1.gifKerning refers to the spacing between pairs of characters or glyphs.

So, for example “A v”: the upper-case “A” is bottom-heavy, while the lower-case “v” is top-heavy; kerning can be used to reduce the space between this letter combination to make it look better and to improve readability.

Kerning should not be confused with tracking which is about the letter-spacing between a series of characters in a line, paragraph, or block of text.

In tech-speak, Kerning is “pair-wise adjustment of horizontal glyph metrics.”

For those of you interested in the etymology of the word “kern”, there’s an interesting discussion over at Typophile on the subject — it starts out as a discussion about parallels between kerning and life; but if you scroll down, you’ll learn something of the origins of “kerning”.

In the screen shot below you can see some of the kerning pairs on the right (this screen shot is taken from FontLab Pro, one of the applications you can use to design type):

FontLab Pro Kerning Pairs

Note that for the “AY” pair — highlighted in blue — the value is much lower (-64) than, say, for the “Ac” pair; because basically the “A” is bottom-heavy, while the “Y” is top-heavy, so they need to be brought closer together.

Well, we could talk all week about kerning, but we’ll save it for another day (“the excitement is killing me”, I hear you say). In fact you never have to look far for examples of poor letter spacing. This is from today’s National Newspaper:

poor kerning

Can you spot it?

In a future article we will revisit this topic, and look at the difference between metric and optical kerning; and, why it’s sometimes necessary to get our hands dirty and manually adjust kerning. We’ll also look at kerning for the Web (is it possible?), and alternatives to kerning pairs.

In the meantime, can you think of letter combinations that might require extra space (a positive kerning value)?

And finally, a TypeNuts cartoon, only I’ve omitted the captions. Perhaps you can come up with something better than mine:

typenuts typographical cartoon

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  1. MarkeeO

    “Can you spot it?”

    Trick question.. It should be “Can you spot them?”.. :D

  2. Markeeo
    Extra points for you! Thanks.

  3. Type Monkey

    Without being picky, there’s at least four or five. Unless “ar” is a new ligature glyph…

  4. Fates

    The news article is indeed, poorly kerned. It’s horrible to look at! :D
    I can spot twelve by the way.

  5. And it’s from an award-winning Newspaper! It certainly won’t win the National Kerning Awards ;)

  6. Fates

    Oh, as for the cartoon:

    Girl: “Ever noticed that our heads could have better kerning?”
    Boy: “Shut up, I’m enjoying the view.”

    That was the first thing that came to mind.

  7. Fates
    That’s pretty good (well, made me laugh). I’ll reveal my own captions next week…

  8. D Schorno

    for the cartoon: I think you should just have a thought cloud from one of them saying “It’s times like this that I seriously regret becoming a graphic designer.”

  9. Tony

    In addition to poor kerning throughout the example, the word “Vaseline” has an actual space character between the V and the a.

  10. For the comic:

    Girl: “Someone erased the ‘ach’ from that sign.”
    Boy: Stop thinking about food, we just ate.

  11. Somehow, I just knew you’d all come up with better captions than me. Some very furtive imaginations!

    I’m not sure that it’s a space, but either way the “V a” combo wins the prize for worst kerning pair. The more I look at that Newspaper sample, the worse the kerning appears. I should have asked, “spot the correctly kerned pairs”—would have been easier ;)

  12. Well, I spotted 14 spots that grated. But, to be fair, at the original printed size of a newspaper, I don’t imagine they would all have raised my ire.

  13. Actually, the bad kerning(s) in Matthey had caught my eyes before Vaseline.

    As for the comic:

    Girl: “So, what did you say you blog about?”
    Boy: “How to design signs better than the one we’re looking at now.”

    I really liked the beginning of your detective story. You’re quite a writer. More such stories, please.

  14. Girl: “That sign is completely un-justified. We can totally swim here!”
    Boy: “That’s where you are wrong hunny. That sign is fully justified! I mean look at the horrible space between the N and O!”
    Girl: ” I swear to god, the next time you point out bad typography while we are together, I am going to kick your face.”
    Boy: “I’m sorry…. I think I have a problem.”

    A little long, but I can relate to it 100%. Haha.

  15. Damn! Cody beat me to the caption contest…
    I was heading towards some kind of “justify” based pun (right up my street by the way), but was having trouble coming up with a good one…

    Maybe the next in the series could be a Madonna pun - “Justify my love”.

    Heaven help me.

  16. Well I figured that the post was about some sort of spacing, so I might as well try to use some kind of spacing term. Haha.

    PS - the Madonna one is great!

  17. I’d guess that one way to fix bad-kerning can sometimes be turning it into a good use of ligatures.

    Looking at your A & V example up above and based on your recent article on ligatures John, it seems like one natural possibility to fix that is to instead create a new combined glyph.

    Be interesting to see if there is any sort of relationship between the two concepts in a followup article.

  18. Fantastic article Johno! You’ve got a great writing style. And these insights into typography are always interesting.

  19. Thanks to everyone for their captions. I should have made it a competition with a prize!

    You raise an interesting point. In fact the AV ligature does exist in some typefaces. In fact, I’m sure that I read somewhere that AV and the AV ligature is used in coin catalogues. That fact has been retrieved from deep inside my head somewhere, so I’ll need to check. However, although ligatures are sometimes a good solution for more legible (and I use the term legible cautiously), kerning is often an easier way to accomplish the same aim. Yes, there’s more to come on ligatures.

    Good to see you here again. Thanks very much for the compliment.

  20. SallyYi

    Please tell more about the software for making fonts. What is the best for starting to make fonts. Thx.

  21. I’d been concerned with my own choice of typefaces for the books I work on for some time, how I have a tendency to think of the same one or two each time I start something. So when I began to blog on book design and freelancing, etc., it was one of the first things that got my attention. (That and choosing page size, which I’ve revisited recently.) This led to lurking and looking at typography and type design haunts on the Web.

    I ended up taking the plunge and installing the open-source package FontForge, along with the open-source autotrace program potrace. Now, tho’ I’m a technology junkie, I’m not a techie. And so it was a project—but a small project—getting it done. I found big-league help on Typophile, along with debate on whether it was foolish to install FontForge, when many think the $700 package FontLab Studio is the only software for serious work designing types. (The consensus, by the way was that FontForge is fine and, actually—if I understood correctly—handles OpenType a little better.)

    I’ve only begun to explore FontForge and potrace in a tutorial. This is a big deal for me as I don’t draw—the way some English-speakers simply don’t speak Spanish or French—and I’m no calligrapher. But I have pictures of letterforms beginning to take shape in my mind’s eye, so I need to be able to at least explore at this. I’m beginning to take notes to blog about it on on my blog. This will happen as I have something new to say about the experience; so that means sporadically, as I can get to it while working. (New book design and layout projects have begun to come in after a mostly-fallow July and August.)

    Stephen Tiano
    Book Designer, Page Compositor and Layout Artist

  22. “Hey look at the terrible kerning on that sign! I bet the designer didn’t know how to reduce the kerning value…”

    “Stop criticizing the sign when you can reduce the kerning value between us.”

  23. John, I do hope I’m not going to have to sue for pun-plagiarism!

  24. Coleman
    Very romantic. Thanks.

    Jack (Horrorwood)
    Thanks for reminding me of that. Yes, you came up with Kern Baby Kern. More please.

  25. Well, you live you kern I suppose…

  26. Are the AV and AR ligature used for coins? I have both these ligatures as Monotype matrices, and wondered what they were for. Seem to be listed by Monotype at least as early as the 1920s.

  27. David
    Well, that about the coins was retrieved from somewhere in my head. I will try to find some corroborative evidence. Very interesting that they were listed that far back. I’ll need to research this one.

  28. Johno

    I have pursued your remembered coin info, and found that AR is an abbreviation for argentum, ie silver, and AU for aurum, i.e. gold. I have not established that they are ligatures, however. Of course, the web sites using the abbreviations may not have ligatures in their fonts!

    The AR ligature is Monotype serial 17, i.e. an early sign. AV is serial 63, so not much later. The whole list for A gets to serial 226, and I think dates from the early 1920s. Of course, Monotype probably got up into the 1000s for variations on A, before they stopped making punches.

    Incidentaly,they also show an AH ligature, serial 43, and AU serial 128, but as I have not got those mats, I am not too worried about their meanings

  29. David
    I’ve just spent ages looking through your Alembic Press web site. You do letterpress and even hold Monotype workshops! I hope I can get to visit you on my next trip to the UK.

  30. I spotted 15 originally, but had a look through again and picked up 12. The other 3 were just me being really, really anal retentive.

    Hey, I don’t know if everyone has this constant battle but I’m always arguing with clients about the time it takes me to work on a brochure or anything type related. This is due to the client not understanding typography’s relation to design. In my current job I have to not only design the prettiness, but also take in a lot of body copy and apply it to my designs. Unlike some people I actually spend time going through the copy and adjusting kerning, tracking to minimise orphans and whatnot.

    A common exchange between the boss and I:

    Boss: “David, I don’t like how slow you’re taking, this should be done in 10 minutes! (10 minutes is apparently the time it should take a designer to do anything design related)

    Me: “FUCKING KERNING!” (slightly paraphrased of course, but frustration still just as intense)

  31. @Vig —- LOL! I feel your pain.

  32. TypoJunkie

    I can just count 11, although it took some extra attention (something I never do while reading). And now I know we’re all geeks!

    As for the cartoon:

    Girl: Beautiful sunset, isn’t it?
    Boy: Huh? What?

  33. Lindsay

    hehe!!! what a creative little article, I love it!!
    Thanks, now I understand kerning a bit better and will probably pass my upcoming typography test yayayayay.

  34. steeze

    Hi all,
    I have a question about the kerning option found in Adobe’s application.
    Which one of the two settings available is the best?

    The metric or the optical, or non of them?

    Thanks very much


  35. LL

    Girl: Hmmm. Looks like the A and the T fell off the sign.
    Boy: That explains the radiation which made our FINGERS fall off.

  1. lletraferits—Sep 16, 2007
  2. Tipografiyi Seviyorum!—Sep 17, 2007

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