Would You Like Butter on Your Kern?

Kerning, leading, tracking, orphans, widows… Do these terms leave you puzzled?

Unless you’re a professional designer, these terms may seem like a foreign language. With the prevalence of computers, many users now crank out their own newsletters and flyers, so it’s time to learn a little about the art of typography.

First things first. The computer is NOT a typewriter. I know your typing teacher (if you’re old enough to have had typing) drilled it into your head to put two spaces after a period, but this is because the characters on a typewriter are monospaced. Each character takes up the same amount of space whether it is a skinny letter “i” or a fat letter “m.”

Characters on a computer are proportional. A letter “i” takes up less space than a letter “m.” So, you no longer need extra to separate sentences. Stop typing two spaces after a period. Period.

Now, here are a few word definitions you may find helpful in your quest to create better-looking documents.

Kerning is the process of removing small units of space between letters to make a word look visually appealing. For instance, a capital “A” next to a lower case “l” as in the world “All” will benefit from kerning between the letters.

Leading is the space between lines of type. Generally, desktop publishing software automatically sets auto leading at 20% the point size. (e.g. 10 pt. type gets 12 pt. leading). Keep your leading consistent throughout your document for a professional look.

Widows and Orphans. Don’t worry, no one dies using good typography. When a paragraph ends and leaves fewer than seven characters (not words, characters) on the last line, the last line is called a widow. When working with text in columns, sometimes orphans can occur. When the last line of one column is too long to fit and ends up at the top of the next column, it’s referred to as an orphan. Avoid both of these.

So, are you tracking? No, not following what I mean…I mean tracking, as in applying space evenly to an entire word.

If I’ve piqued your interest in learning more about improving the look of your documents, I highly recommend reading either The Mac is Not a Typewriter or The PC is Not a Typewriter by Robin Williams (no, not the comedian). Although originally published in 1990, these books still address many typography issues that plague computer users today.