Whether you’re new to lettering or have a lot of practice with it, letter spacing is a struggle that we all face as letterers. It can often take a lot of trial and error whenever you come to a word or a sentence to get the spacing right. I’m not a master at spacing and still get it wrong. However, I’m going to share a few things I have learned that have helped me avoid constant erasing, and have allowed me to get my letter spacing done right the first time.
Introduction to Spacing
First let me start by clarifying the types of spacing. There’s kerning, tracking, and leading. Kerning is the individual spacing in between individual letters. Tracking is the equally distributed space throughout a complete word or sentence. Leading is the vertical space, or inline spacing among different lines, words, or sentences.
I plan on going more into depth into each of these types in future posts. In the mean time, my lettering friend, Sarah Dayan, has a great crash course blog post on three types of letter spacing. I highly recommend checking it out if you want an introduction to letter spacing. One of my favorite parts of the post was the idea of Full, Half, and Third when it comes to kerning. Not all spacing between each letter is the same. You must compensate in your kerning based on whether the letters are straight or curved.
Since we perceive the space between letters different depending on their curvature, we can use the Full, Half, and Third method to apply the correct spacing:
- Full spacing is applied to two neighboring letters that both have straight, vertical sides (e.g. capital H and capital I). The full spacing is defined by you, depending on how large you want your tracking to be. Once this is defined, this unit will be your standard unit of spacing the defines the other two measurements.
- If you come across one straight letter next to one slanted or curved letter (e.g. capital I and lowercase O), then you would use Half the full spacing.
- Finally, if you have two slanted or curved letters next to each other (e.g. lowercase E and lowercase A), then they only require a Third of the full spacing.
Sketch out a Skeleton
I’ve found that besides having an understanding of kerning, creating a rough skeleton of your composition really helps with spacing. A skeleton is essentially the thin spine of your letters. You’re not adding weight or detail to it; you’re only focused on the composition and spacing. This gives you the opportunity to get a rough idea of where your word, sentence, or composition will generally look like. This prevents you from get too invested in your beginning letters only to figure out that the spacing is too cramped or loose for your composition.
When sketching out a skeleton, you can also adjust the x-height and the weight of your letters to give yourself more room to work with, if needed. I recommend using hard lead pencil, such as HB, which will allow your sketch to be really light. This way it won’t be too dark and noticeable in your final piece and you can go back over it with a softer lead (2B). Since it’s with light lead, you have the ability to get sketchy and erase a bunch to get the structure right.
The skeleton should just be a thin line, and you will go back and add some weight later. Keep this in mind and give yourself enough room to increase the weight without compromising the proper spacing. This is why it’s important to have thumbnail sketch of what you want your piece to be. This way you know how much space you should leave for the weight of your letters and the kerning between them.
Train Your Eye
These tips will help you become better at spacing, but at the end of the day, it comes down to training your eye to recognize space without them. This will take lots of practice, but you’ll eventually get there. You can try to use a ruler to be precise about spacing, but it’s not just mathematics. It also requires take a step back, squinting, and just seeing if it looks good. Spacing requires some intuition to it, so begin to trust your eye to make your final choice, because it tends to know what looks good.
Thanks for reading! Did you like this post? Subscribe to the newsletter to get these weekly posts on lettering, design, and creativity delivered straight to your inbox! :)