Text and Typography: Leading, Kerning, Tracking, and Justification

Background of vintage metal letterpress type

Typography is, from the perspective of newcomers, plagued with confusing terminology. On the other hand, the technical vocabulary does allow for serious and precise discussion and manipulation of text. Letโ€™s take a look at some of the key terminology.

Leading and Line Spacing

Leading isnโ€™t what you probably think it is. In fact, itโ€™s pronounced ledding โ€“ as in lead, the metal. In this case, lead refers to the strips of lead once used to create space between lines of text in the days of mechanical typesetting.

In other words, leading is line spacing. Its purpose is to allow the designer to alter the density of blocks of text. Newspapers are quite dense and use a tighter line spacing value than you would find in magazines, brochures, or posters.

Page layout applications like Adobe InDesign tend to use a default setting for leading of 120%. This means that 10 point text would be set with 12 point leading.

Every document will require different treatment, but here are some useful generalizations:

  • Long lines of text may require extra leading.
  • Boldface or sans serif type require more leading.
  • Typeset at tiny sizes, say 8 point or below, may require extra leading.

Leading affects your page’s density, so if your page seems a bit dark, try adding more leading.

Kerning and Tracking

When a typeface is designed, the designer assigns each character a width allowing for consecutive characters to be placed on a line without touching. However, the type designerโ€™s intentions may not be the same as your own. Kerning and tracking are two frequently confused typographical methods for controlling type spacing. Both refer to the adjustment of space between characters of type.

Kerning allows you to adjust the space between any two characters manually. Tracking allows the user to apply a form of universal spacing between all characters. As such, itโ€™s a powerful option, and once youโ€™ve found a setting that you feel is suitable, youโ€™d be well advised to leave it alone and adjust the kerning manually for further changes.

Justifying Text

Text justification is a matter of opinion. My preference is for serious and news style material to be set fully justified (line ends creating a vertical line on both sides of the column). This contributes to a serious feel in the text.

Opinion-pieces, fictional stories, and lighter pieces can be set flush-left (ragged-right), which creates a somewhat lighter look.

Centred, flush-right, and forced justification can produce interesting results, but are quite extreme settings โ€“ handle with care.

Additional Reading

Tracking – allows headlines to breathe – Encyclopedia of Design

I was reading through International Traveller magazine and I noticed the use of generous tracking between the letters of the country destinations. TRACKING involves the overall spacing between letters. When fonts are created, the letter spacing will be set in the definition of each character.

Kerning – Gives Space to Your Headline – Encyclopedia of Design

Kerning is the adjustment of the distance between the letters that appear on the screen. It is the process of spacing letters to give the typeset copy of pleasing visual experience. The determination of the distance between the fonts is a result of the designer’s individual preference.

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