One of the things that people ask me about type and design, is ‘how can I make my type look better?’ When they look at professionally typeset work, it seems to have a certain, ‘something‘ that makes it look good. Perhaps someone has to make a poster for their kid’s little league team. They take Helvetica, and make the headline across the top of the page. And it just doesn’t look professional. So they change the font, thinking that it’s the fault of ‘that boring old Helvetica’ – let’s try ‘Giddyup’ instead!
But it’s not the fault of the typestyle (‘Helvetica’ isn’t a font, but that’s a story for a different day). Helvetica is a very versatile typeface that has been used by successful designers for years. For people who haven’t had the opportunity to study type, seeing professionally composed type seems a bit of a mystery, and they wonder, “just what makes them so special?”
Also, for many people, the reality looks more like this: Your boss comes into your office, and says, “Can you make up the next company newsletter?” You know you can’t say no, even though the voice inside your head is screaming, “get out, get out, GET OUT!”
“Of course! I’d be glad to!” this is your outside voice.
So you set to it. Perhaps your office was graced with a copy of InDesign or Quark Xpress that you’ve briefly played with before, or a copy of Microsoft Publisher, or even, (cue the theme from “Jaws”)… Microsoft Word. And you do your best, you really do. And it looks pretty darn good!
But, it seems to lack a certain polish.
There are a lot of tools that professional designers use to make type more visually appealing. One thing that makes a big difference is called ‘kerning’. Kerning is a term that describes an adjustment of space between individual letters. Not between entire words, or for a whole line of type (that’s called tracking), but the space between two glyphs (characters). Every piece of software does it differently, but if you are using InDesign (my personal favourite) click your cursor between two letters, and it’s right here up at the top.
Just go ahead and click a text insertion point, and manipulate the controls in the box. Each click of the arrows will add or subtract a tiny amount of space from between the letters. This takes some time, as you need to do it for all the letters individually. The goal is to even out all the space visually (not mathematically). Take into account the fact that some letters are shaped differently than others. The goal is for the letters to LOOK evenly spaced, although if you were to measure them, they likely wouldn’t be. All this work is worth it, as once you are done, it looks much better. Oh, and even easier, the keyboard shortcut is to hold option and click the arrow keys either left or right.
If this is all too much, and you would rather try your hand at playing a kerning game first, click here. Run through it a few times until your score gets better, and you are on your way!
Important: Do your kerning last. If you end up having to edit or re-type a line, you will have to do it over again anyways. Also, only on large, headline type. You would never kern a whole paragraph of ‘body’ text. That stuff is fine just as it is! But please don’t be shy – figure out how to use the kerning controls, and I promise, you will notice a marked difference in your work!
I made mention of Microsoft Publisher earlier, it’s not great, but it’s ubiquitous, so if that’s what you are working with, check out this handy guide here. It works a little differently, but you should be able to achieve the same effect: