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The Invisible World of Typography Pt.1

Words are everywhere. We see them on doors, posters, sidewalks, signs, and other everyday occurrences. From the moment our alarms wake us up, to the lie of “I promise, this is the last episode before bed,” words are in constant use. Words can be verbal or visible, spoken or written. Though it’s hard to miss them, it can be quite easy to misinterpret them. It’s the art of typography to create a clear understanding of text through subtle techniques.

Kerning

The spaces between letters are vital to communication. The letters can’t be too close and overlap, else you can’t read the word. In reverse, the letters can’t be too far apart, else you no longer have a word, but a group of random letters. It is important to find the right amount of distance between each letter to form a legible word. This process is called kerning.

Different fonts require different spaces between letters. For example, block letter fonts are better with the letters closer together, while a flowy font should be more spread out. Flowy fonts can become difficult at times. A cursive font has to have the end of each letter connect to the next, giving you a limited amount of movement. Luckily, for those who haven’t yet tried kerning, fonts tend to already come with a default kerning for different letter pairs. However, these defaults aren’t always the best to use, as they won’t work with every single word.

Kerning can be difficult at times. Some letter combos, such as a capital R and capital A (RA) are next to impossible to kern well. They are too close together at the bottom and simultaneously too far apart at the top. But just as some combos don’t work, there are some that fit like a glove, such as a capital A and a capital V (AV). Try your hand at kerning with this Kerning Game.

Tracking

Besides kerning, tracking is also a key element to typography. Very similar to kerning, tracking is also the distance between letter, only tracking affects the entire word and not just a letter pair. Tracking is used to differentiate a word or line of text. Most commonly used in logos and advertising, tracking becomes useful to add descriptions and afterthoughts. Logos often have their name big so that it is the center of attention, and then a small one or two word description underneath. In order to have the small description to be noticed, it is often tracked out to be around the same length of the name. This way it’s attention catching and easy to read.

One of the things tracking is a good for is displaying a nice clean text, easily seen and read. Another thing it is use for is to push a lot of text into a small area and hide lesser information. A clear example of this is at the bottom of nearly every movie poster. There are almost always four or five lines of text at the bottom that seems virtually unreadable that displays the actors/actresses as well as producers of the film. Since most people care more about the graphic than the text, the designers try to make the text as small as possible. One of their favorite ways of doing this is by using tall fonts and decreasing the tracking which squishes all the letters together.

avengers-movie-poster-1

Leading

There’s one last technique, though not a commonly used, that deals with the spacing between text. While kerning and tracking have to deal with increasing and decreasing horizontal space, leading is moving the vertical space between lines of text. Leading only really matters when you have text over text in the same bounding box.

Some situations need a bigger leading that usual. The longer the line is, the larger the leading should be, else it becomes intimidating to read. This is one of the reasons teachers often ask for papers to double spaced when written. Another time to increase the space between lines is when using a solid type of font, one that has very little negative space. If the lines are too close together, the text just turns into a giant box in the viewer’s eyes. On the other hand, a very small font also requires a larger leading since more space is needed to distinguish the letters.

Though it may seem small, Typography is vital to creating clean text and a clear message. There are three key techniques designers use to make their text look better: Kerning, the space between a pair of letters; Tracking, the space between all the letters of a word; and Leading, the space between to lines of text. If you have any questions or anything you’d like to add then please leave a comment below!

Shira is a Visual Communication major at Northern Arizona University with an emphasis in Graphic Design. They’ve had four years worth of design experience with real life clients, and is excited to join the Learning and Professional Development team as a student worker. They work with their art to remind people of the beauty and good in this world that are often hidden by day to day stresses.

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