Letter spacing can be a tricky subject for the uninitiated, but all it takes is for a couple letters to get a little too close and suddenly you understand the concept all too well.
Back when design was mainly done via printing press, printers would have to set each letter by hand. They would slide each letter into a straight track. Since each letter was engraved on a rectangular stamp, there was a certain horizontal distance between each letter.
In modern times, our equipment may be much more sophisticated, but we’ve maintained many of the words associated with manual typesetting.
In order to make a space between each line of text, typesetters would place a blank rectangular strip of lead under each line. Depending on how much space was needed, printers would select a lead strip of varying thickness. This process was called leading.
We still do this today, only our leading is accomplished through use of a computer. Whenever you set your English paper at 1.5 spacing in a futile attempt to make it appear longer, you were continuing the timeless art of leading, and you didn’t even know it.
Manual typesetters often needed to increase the spacing between the letters, either for legibility, or to allow the text to more neatly fit the alotted space. This was achieved by placing small strips of metal between each letter. These strips varied in size, and their use depended on how far the typesetter needed to stretch the writing.
This practice came to be known as “tracking,” and in modern times has become a much simpler task through the use of a computer. With a few keystrokes, you can, within reason, stretch or compact a body of text as far as you need
As we discussed earlier, manual typesetting required each letter to stay within it’s own box. However, new letter stamps were eventually invented that allowed the letter to hang over the edge of the stamp, which meant that letters could could bridge that gap which was once necessitated by the shape of the stamp. The hanging piece of the letter was called a “carne”, a French word meaning “projected angle”. Over time, this word morphed into “kern” which we now use in reference to the spacing between two letters.
Many people confuse kerning with leading. The important distinction is that leading happens to an entire body of text, adding or subtracting an equal amount of space between each letter. Kerning on the other hand, only occurs between two adjacent characters.
A lot of eLearning authoring tools have settings that allow you to adjust leading and tracking. What are your best practices for properly aligning text? Give us a tip in the comments.