What the heck are the differences between Leading, Kerning, and Tracking?

Confused about the terminology? Here’s a quick (and visual) reference:


Leading

Leading is an essential design aspect that determines how text is spaced vertically in lines. For content with multiple lines of readable text (like this blog), you’ll want to make sure the distance from the bottom of the words above to the top of the words below has appropriate spacing to make them legible. Modern style is trending for bigger leading. But please note that if you are reading a lot of copy (like an article, body copy in a brochure or designing a book or technical paper) you’ll want leading that helps the reader’s eye along. Rule of thumb (depending on the size of the thumb) is leading is 20% larger than the size of the type. Like: 9pt type/10.8 pt. leading. Just look at the style — some call for different distances for readability.

Leading is measured from the baseline of each line of text (where the letters “sit”) and letter size is based on “x.” Words are made up of letters containing descenders — the parts of a letter that descends below the baseline (think g, p, y) and ascenders, and/or letters that ascend above the basic letter “x” (think d, h, t). If you cram copy with too tight of leading, then those aspects of the words start mashing together. Not for easy reading!

Good Leading / Tight Leading / Loose Leading

Kerning

Kerning also is used to adjust spacing — but between letters. If set too closely, they get jammed up and unreadable; set them too far apart, the eye works too hard to connect letters to make words. Kerning depends on the space allotted, the constricts in your design (sometimes formats force you to make some less than ideal decisions), and how much time you have. If you’re rushed to hit a deadline, go with best choice — you might not have time to fuss with your designs!

Kerning in certain programs is more adjustable than others. Layout programs like Adobe InDesign® have more finesse in kerning adjustments than others. Usually you want to pay more attention to headlines than body copy for kerning details:

See in the example how there’s extra space between the “A” and “W” and “N”? Tighten up the kerning between the letters and you’ll get a more polished look to your design.


Tracking

Tracking can be confused with kerning — but instead of adjusting letters in a word, you are adjusting the spacing throughout the word, sentence, or copy block. Usually you want to try to keep your copy clean with NO tracking. That way, the carefully designed typestyle remains in its pure form. Some of these fonts (yes, that seems to be an inter-changeable word with type!) have been around for decades — even hundreds of years! There was considerable time, expertise and skill in creating many fonts — just so we can mess them up with improper kerning, tracking and condensing (yes, I know some of you out there have squished copy to 90% of its width! I am guilty, too!)

Okay, back to tracking. Please be careful when changing the tracking. Some script fonts and italicized versions lose readability quickly if you spread out the letters too much. Too tight and you run into a mushed mess. Rule of that big thumb: no more than -10 tight or +10 wide. And yes, I sympathize with you folks having to put 10 pounds in a 5-pound sack! Sometimes you have to play with all three: leading, kerning and tracking… and even reduction in letter width to get things to fit.

Just use your eye and weigh your options and you can create a design with attractive, readable and professional-looking copy!