Have you ever come across the terms kerning, leading, and tracking in typography, but haven’t been able to pinpoint exactly what they are? Find out in this detailed guide.

Cover image by Adam Szuly.

Letter and line spacing are fundamental tools for anyone working with text in a design. In this overview, you’ll learn the about the key spacing processes of kerning, leading, and tracking. These elements work in tandem to provide visually appealing lines of type.

Read on to learn about each process and how you can use them to manipulate  text in Adobe Creative Cloud.

The Differences Between Kerning, Leading, and Tracking in Typography – Letter Spacing


Kerning

Kerning refers to the space between two letters or characters. There are extremes to kerning; letters can be too far apart or too close together. Both extremes will effect the legibility and readability of type. In this image, the letters are disproportionately spaced out.

The goal is to have proportional spacing between characters; pay special attention to serifs, flourishes, and angular letters like AW, or V to achieve a consistent appearance. Kerning is usually reserved for medium to larger text and headlines, as those letters are more noticeable when the spacing is out of balance.

The Differences Between Kerning, Leading, and Tracking in Typography – Kerning

How to Alter Kerning in Adobe

Adobe Creative Cloud programs such as Illustrator, Photoshop, and InDesign all have a central place to adjust kerning. You can find this in the Character palette, located in the Window drop down menu. In InDesign and Illustrator only, you can quickly bring the Character palette into view by hitting Cmd+T or by accessing the Window drop down and hovering over Type to enable the palette.

To change the spacing between individual characters, activate the Type Tool (T) and move your cursor between your chosen letters. Hold down Option and use the right or left arrow keys to move the letters closer or farther apart.

If you want to use the Character palette, navigate to the kerning drop down (pictured below in Illustrator), and select from the menu or use the up and down arrows. Negative values will bring the two letters closer together, while positive values will increase distance between the letters.

Play around with different values to find spacing that satisfies your design.

The Differences Between Kerning, Leading, and Tracking in Typography – Kerning in Adobe Illustrator
The kerning tool as it appears in Adobe Illustrator.

Leading

Leading consists of the vertical spacing between lines of contiguous text. This term came from the days of typesetting when individual pieces of lead were inserted between text blocks to increase the vertical distance between lines. Like kerning, leading can impact the readability and legibility of type. Big gaps between lines of text can make reading more difficult and disrupt the reader’s flow, so don’t go too crazy with leading.

The Differences Between Kerning, Leading, and Tracking in Typography – Leading in Adobe Illustrator
While Adobe defaults the leading to Auto when you type paragraphs, the program often does not account for the ascenders and descenders that might overlap.

Ascenders are letters that extend above the x-height of your text, such as d, h, or lDescenders refer to the letters that dip below the baseline, such as g, y, or j. In the example below, most of the letters meet at the x-height, or the mean line at which lowercase letters meet. These words sit on a baseline, which is where leading comes into play. Leading refers to the spacing between baselines, which often needs to be changed so ascenders and descenders don’t overlap.

The Differences Between Kerning, Leading, and Tracking in Typography – Ascenders and Descenders

How to Change Your Leading in Adobe

Like kerning, leading is found in the Character palette in Illustrator, InDesign, and Photoshop. When typing multiple lines of text with the Type Tool (T) in, say 12 point font, Adobe will revert to an estimate leading value that is enclosed in parentheses (pictured below). Think of this number as the minimum value for leading, as going smaller might affect readability. Highlight the text you want to alter or select the whole text box with the Selection Tool and change the leading in the Character palette.

Negative values decrease the spacing between lines of text, while positive values increase it. A few lines of text will call for different leading measures compared to a blog post or a magazine article; increase the leading when designing type for a long article to ensure your audience can follow along with ease.

The Differences Between Kerning, Leading, and Tracking in Typography – Leading in Adobe Illustrator
The leading tool as it appears in Adobe Illustrator.

Tracking

Tracking, like kerning, adjusts the distance between letters. The only difference between these two is that tracking focuses on the space between all letters in a word instead of two letters. Use this tool with great caution, as too much tracking can make reading a lot more difficult.

The Differences Between Kerning, Leading, and Tracking in Typography – Tracking

How to Adjust Tracking in Adobe

The tracking adjustment can be found in the Character palette right under the Leading tool. Adobe programs normally default to 0 when you type out strings of text. Use the drop down menu or up and down arrows to increase and decrease the tracking. Don’t increase tracking too much, except for emphasis on headlines or display fonts.

The Differences Between Kerning, Leading, and Tracking in Typography – Tracking in Adobe Illustrator
The tracking tool as it appears in Adobe Illustrator.

Things to keep in mind:

  • Keep an eye on serif and script letterforms when adjusting kerning – they require extra attention to ensure consistency.
  • When typing out long paragraphs of body text, it is best to increase leading to keep your audience following along; long lengths of cramped text will be tiring to read.
  • Use the tracking tool sparingly, like to add emphasis to headings.

Don’t have Adobe Creative Cloud? You can easily manipulate letter and line spacing of text right here on Shutterstock Editor. Type out some words with the Text (A) tool and utilize the Line Height and Letter Spacing sliders within the Font tab. Line Height will adjust the leading of multiple lines of text, and Letter Spacing will adjust the tracking of words.