how to kern type perfectly

Tip for perfect kerningThere are lots of tips on the best way to perfectly kern a piece of type. As with all design, kerning can be subjective, but some is just plain right or wrong. One trick that stuck with me was from the esteemed Maggie Lewis who was the Head of Typography at J.Walter Thompson for many years.
She was fondly nicknamed the “Queen of Type” by the industry. I had just finished college and was pounding the streets of London meeting as many agency Type Directors as I could. I was quite nervous about meeting Maggie, but she was fantastic, gave me lots of critique without making me feel I was on a hiding to nothing and was generous with her time. She paid particular attention to the kerning on my layouts. Before the mac, headlines were usually set on a typositor and were cut up by skilled paste-up artists, even to the point where serifs might be shortened to create a better space between characters. Something that can and should be done in Adobe illustrator today.

Anyway she said the hard thing about kerning a word is that you know what it says, and so the subtleties of bad character spacing aren’t immediately apparent. She suggested turning the type upside down, that way you don’t read the word, you merely look at the shapes the characters make and the space that’s created between them. On the computer you can even flip the word as I have done above.

It was a great tip, and one I still use today.







53 Comments »

  1. occupational therapy — 21/09/2010

    found your site on del.icio.us today and really liked it.. i bookmarked it and will be back to check it out some more later


  2. beth — 21/09/2010

    great post… i was always taught to look at the middle letter throughout the word and if it’s centered then it’s spaced just right. (ex. letter if the e is in the middle of the l & the t and so on). although you have to make sure there isn’t too much or too little space after you do this trick. it seems to work for the most part. glad there are other ways to check myself, never thought of turning it upside down. thanks!


  3. Patrick Branigan — 21/09/2010

    This is great. Quick and easy!


  4. Erik Ford — 21/09/2010

    Now here is a trick I never heard of before. Thanks for the tip. Anything that helps me with wrangling type is always greatly appreciated.


  5. David Dickerson — 21/09/2010

    Great tip, thanks.

    The only other place I’ve heard this recommended was by the venerable Dr. Seuss; it was a method he used with his art to ensure that it was properly composed and balanced. Apparently it drove his art instructor nuts.


  6. Alison Rowan — 21/09/2010

    Love this tip, and it’s actually new to me! Very rarely does one come across a new design tip on the web. Thanks!

    As an extra tip, holding things up to a mirror works well, too.


  7. Andy — 21/09/2010

    Nice idea, will give it a whirl sometime very soon I’m sure.


  8. Pingback Discussion - Page 162 - DesignersTalk — 22/09/2010

    [...] How to kern type perfectly – Typecast Creative Nice tip that. [...]


  9. Evan Warner — 22/09/2010

    This is a tip I picked up in design school, and it works beyond just typography. Flipping any sort of design/composition/art piece upside-down helps remove you from the meaning of the piece and lets you just look at layout/color/shape/proportion. It’s a great way to catch little things you might not notice otherwise.

    One of my assignments from a class was to duplicate a small section of a classic master painting. I was having trouble with it for a while, until I flipped the painting over and started again with it upside-down.


  10. John Truong — 23/09/2010

    This works for sketching too. My 7th grade art teacher once had us try to sketch a bird from a picture. The results generally weren’t great, but then she had us rotate the picture 180 degrees and try again. The difference was night and day to the good.


  11. rob — 23/09/2010

    Thanks to everyone for all your comments, I’m glad this little tip proved useful.


  12. Catatonic — 23/09/2010

    I used to use a similar trick when drawing portraits. I would look at my work in a mirror, which quickly exposed problems with proportion or feature alignment.


  13. Gerard — 23/09/2010

    This also works for long texts… if the letterspacing is wrong, you will see ‘rivers’ of space that you can adjust (obviously not by hand!) so it appears better


  14. Terry — 23/09/2010

    This is an old — but very good — design trick. And one well worth sharing again.

    Similarly, reading text backwards is an old proofreading trick.


  15. Jayson — 23/09/2010

    Cool, I never heard of this before.


  16. Jason Roberts — 23/09/2010

    Thanks for the post! It is a great read.

    This is something my Web Design Professor went over in class yesterday. It really does help and I will be using this method to do kerning from now on!


  17. Alex Penny — 23/09/2010

    Haha great tip!


  18. Rômulo Zanini — 23/09/2010

    Turning images upside-down helps us dissociate what we’re really seeing from what our brain thinks the images mean, and this helps us to focus on composition details such as negative space.

    This is explained and explored at length in the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards. It even has a very revealing “copy a drawing by hand, then copy it again upside down to see how much better you suddenly are at this” exercise. Recommended for anyone who’s interested in how we see things and what this means for visual artists.

    I had never though to apply this notion to graphic design, though. Great find!


  19. David — 23/09/2010

    Simple, and easy tip. Makes perfect sense. Thanks for sharing.


  20. David Elliott — 23/09/2010

    This is awesome. I had never heard of this, but it makes a lot of sense. I’m going to definitely give it a shot next time I’m designing.

    Thanks for sharing.


  21. Maak Bow — 23/09/2010

    Yeah. It’s a pity advice like this has been lost. My dad taught me this circa 1971 when I was 5 or 6 yrs. He was an architect at the time but used to be a sign writer back in the 40′s when it actually WAS an art form. To this day I respect my old man for his design skills and these tips he passed to me at an early age.


  22. hand_coding — 24/09/2010

    I can tell you this tip is relevant for anything graphic you’re working on.
    Polishing an illustration for hours? Look at in in a mirror!


  23. Kristen Read — 24/09/2010

    This is excellent advice!

    It always changes things looking at them from a new perspective.

    I was once in a typography class and we were told to practice our proof-reading with copy that was in French. Proofing in another language teaches you to check everything thoroughly and in great detail. Sometimes when the words are too familiar – like in English – even if there is a mistake your brain doesn’t always register it.

    Same with kerning, it seems :) Flipping it over is a great tip!


  24. Signs & Wonders of Tulsa — 24/09/2010

    This is an excellent way to see kerning issues.

    When I was in sign painting apprenticeship, my instructor said to visualize the space between the letters filled with sand, and the amount should all be the same.
    I was never able to actually use this method, since it was difficult to determine how much volume each space would hold.

    The upside down method seems like a much better technique.


  25. rb — 24/09/2010

    This trick is also useful for every graphic compositions : posters, logo…


  26. Ilene Strizver — 24/09/2010

    Great tip! I teach kerning to students and designers all the time in my Gourmet Typography workshops and classes, but kerning is the most difficult skill, craft, and aesthetic to teach. I’ll add this to my proverbial bag of ‘typographic’ tricks! Ilene


  27. Chris — 24/09/2010

    Nice tip. It totally makes sense that difficulties with kerning come from the recognition of the word.


  28. Chris Donnelly — 26/09/2010

    Nice little tidbit of simple advice !
    For body text, I was taught to “close my eyes just enough so that things look a little bit blurry” and then make sure the texture looks right; without any rivers, weird white space, etc. But no one ever showed me a display trick like this !
    Great post !


  29. Pingback Monday Quick Links | design work life — 27/09/2010

    [...] A sim­ple les­son every bud­ding designer should learn: How to Kern Type Perfectly [...]


  30. Joe Clay — 27/09/2010

    This is actually a feature in some font-making programs.


  31. Pingback How to Kern Perfectly | INTRODUCTION TO THE GRAPHIC ARTS | Professor Ken Harper — 27/09/2010

    [...] great idea from a blog I happened [...]


  32. Cynthia — 28/09/2010

    I tell my graphic design students this tip all the time. It was something I was taught as an undergrad in the early 90′s.


  33. Pingback Nubbytwiglet.com » Blog Archive » Link Love: 9.30.10 — 30/09/2010

    [...] • How to kern type perfectly. [...]


  34. Pingback TYPO-GRAPHICAL » Blog Archive » Yes You Kern — 03/10/2010

    [...] Typecast recently posted a short piece about perfect kerning. Via design work life. [...]


  35. Rob Cubbon — 04/10/2010

    This is such a good tip, Rob, I’m going to mention it in a blog post, if that’s OK?


  36. Rob Sutton — 04/10/2010

    Thanks Rob, please feel free to mention it.


  37. Ed — 14/10/2010

    Will try.


  38. Pingback Web Typography: 100 Educational Resources, Tools and Techniques - Smashing Magazine — 16/11/2010

    [...] vertical and horizontal metrics and kerning. Don’t forget to check out part 2 as well.Kerning Type and Great Typography There are lots of tips on the best way to perfectly kern a piece of type. As with all designs, [...]


  39. Pingback Web Typography: Educational Resources, Tools and Techniques | Wallace Goh Blogs — 17/11/2010

    [...] Kerning Type and Great Typography There are lots of tips on the best way to perfectly kern a piece of type. As with all designs, kerning can be subjective, but some are just plain right or wrong. [...]


  40. Pingback Web Typography: Educational Resources, Tools and Techniques — 17/11/2010

    [...] Kerning Type and Great Typography There are lots of tips on the best way to perfectly kern a piece of type. As with all designs, kerning can be subjective, but some are just plain right or wrong. [...]


  41. Pingback SAWAYA Consulting : How do you pronounce Sawaya? — 23/11/2010

    [...] Ok, now that you can spell it, can you kern it? While I love how the letters fit together all nifty like, it does create a kerning issue. Our friend @skirke helpfully sent a link to this article: how to kern type perfectly [...]


  42. Pingback Best of 2010 - Wolf’s Little Store — 22/01/2011

    [...] How to kern type perfectly [...]


  43. Pingback Kern, Kern, Kern | Create & Design — 14/02/2011

    [...] way to check your kerning is to rotate the text upside down and evaluate the spacing. That way you take your focus of the word and can concentrate [...]


  44. Pingback Interpretation By Design » Blog Archive » Getting Your Letter Spacing Right — 28/03/2011

    [...] look at their type upside down or in a mirror. (There’s a good post about this on the website Type Cast Creative, where the image above came from.) Others like to imagine balloons of equal volume squeezed between [...]


  45. Pingback A better way to kern. | TASK BLOG. — 29/03/2011

    [...] space on top than at the bottom. I will definitely be adopting this technique going forward. via Typecast Creative Tweet Share Posted: September 27, 2010 by Ike | Filed under: Typography | 1 Comment [...]


  46. Pingback Kerning Tip / Gordon Brander — 16/08/2011

    [...] Notes Oct 6 A clever trick for kerning type: turn it upside-down. [...]


  47. Pingback 8 Simple and Useful Tips for Kerning Type | Design Shack — 01/09/2011

    [...] help account for this, some designers suggest the simple trick of flipping your type upside down before kerning. It’s a brilliantly [...]


  48. Pingback 8 Simple and Useful Tips for Kerning Type (Repost) « Finding things that resonate — 01/09/2011

    [...] help account for this, some designers suggest the simple trick of flipping your type upside down before kerning. It’s a brilliantly [...]


  49. Pingback Web Typography: Educational Resources, Tools and Techniques | all posts — 24/01/2012

    [...] Kerning Type and Great Typography There are lots of tips on the best way to perfectly kern a piece of type. As with all designs, kerning can be subjective, but some are just plain right or wrong. [...]


  50. TYS Creative — 21/04/2012

    What a wonderful and delightfully simple tip! Thanks for sharing!


  51. Pingback How to Make a Font, Tutorials Tools and Inspiration | CreatiWittyBlog — 01/08/2012

    [...] How to Kern Type Perfectly [...]


  52. Pingback Kerning | Rik Janssen.info — 27/02/2013

    [...] make and the space that’s created between them. On the computer you can even flip the word as I have done above.“ This entry was posted in Vormgeving en webdesign and tagged kerning, queen of type, [...]


  53. Dean — 06/12/2013

    Thanks for the tip. Excellent. This concept works for catching spelling mistakes, too. Instead of reading through a block of text from start to finish, start at the end and work your way to the beginning. This keeps you from reading the words and filling in mistakes.


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