Now that we’ve looked at all individual letterforms and special characters you have at your disposal, we can look at combining them into pairs of letters and ultimately words and sentences.
Ironically, when letters are spaced out uniformly, their pattern isn’t uniform enough. Some combinations of letters leave too much space between them, while others could actually do with a bit more space. The process of setting an alternative spacing between a specific combination of letters, is called kerning. Every good font has it, and you should use it.
The results of such a kerning process is saved in a kerning table, included within the font. This kerning table will most likely be enabled by default, but you can turn it off or go in and change some of the values if you want. Tinkering a bit with the default kerning values is probably only needed when text becomes extremely large, as that is when tiny spacing issues become most apparent.
In general, fonts should have consistent and moderate kerning, or none at all.
On top of kerning, you can set the amount of space between every pair of letters, which we call tracking or letter-spacing. By default, a letterform will be saved inside a font with a sliver of space around it, which we call the set width. This means a tracking value of 0 should just prevent your letters from touching each other.
By increasing the value, you add more room to breathe, but you also run the risk of letters becoming too individual and seemingly unrelated. It becomes difficult to comprehend words. The smaller the type, the more space is needed. Only big, robust headlines can support closely spaced letters
Type Error: “One who would letterspace lowercase, would steal sheep.”
Only use alternative tracking for uppercase and small caps, or really bold and thick titles that create conflicting letterforms. In this case, 5%–12% letterspacing is optimal. Especially abbreviations and acronyms in the midst of normal text benefit from spaced small caps.
Either way, make the shoe fit, not the foot. If you want to save space, don’t apply negative tracking; use the proper (condensed, or lighter) style of the typeface.
Last tip: don’t add space within strings of initials, or any sequence of capitals separated by dots really.
In some cases of conflicting letterforms, there is no benefit to be gained from kerning. Too much space would need to be added between the letters, creating weird gaps in the text. In those cases, ligatures come to the rescue.
A ligature is simply a combination of two letters created as a single symbol. It’s a way of combining annoying colliding characters in an elegant way. One of the most common ligatures is when an f and i are combined. Without extra space, the dot would intersect with the top curve of the f, so the best solution is to create a special symbol for the two together. A good font has ligatures – use them (if they are not already automatically used by your software).
If you want to avoid using ligatures, pick a font that doesn’t need them altogether. Such fonts have their letters designed in such a way that they never collide, so there’s often no need for ligatures (or even kerning and tracking). This does, however, often take its toll on the beauty and dynamics of the font.