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Docent sights juggernaut
Headline set tight with minus letter-spacing
Docent sights juggernaut
Headline set with no additional letter-spacing
Docent sights juggernaut
Headline with more open letter-spacing
Docent sights juggernaut
Headline with open letter-spacing similar to metal type
Docent sights juggernaut
Headline with still more letter-spacing
Docent sights juggernaut
Headline with wide letter-spacing
Docent sights juggernaut
Headline with wider letter-spacing, sometimes used for broadcast
Examples of headline letter-spacing

In typography, letter-spacing or tracking is an optically-consistent adjustment to the space between letters to change the visual density of a line or block of text.


Letter-spacing is distinct from kerning, which adjusts the spacing of particular pairs of adjacent characters which, because of the relationship of their shapes, would appear to be badly spaced if left unadjusted. For example: a capital V next to a capital A. These would need to be brought closer together.

In its original meaning with metal type, a kern meant having a letter stick out beyond the metal slug to which it was attached, or it cut off part of the body of the slug to allow (other similarly-trimmed) letters to overlap. A kern could therefore bring letters only closer together (negative spacing), but it was possible to add space between letters. Digital kerning could go in either direction. Tracking can similarly go in either direction, but with metal type, one could make groups of letters only farther apart (positive spacing).

Letter-spacing adjustments are frequently employed in news design. The speed with which pages must be built on deadline does not usually leave time to rewrite paragraphs that end in split words or create orphans or widows. Letter-spacing is increased or decreased by a modest and usually unnoticeable, amount to fix an unattractive look.

Digital systems[edit]

Word processing and desktop publishing programs for personal computers, such as Microsoft Word, Microsoft Publisher, WordPerfect, QuarkXPress, Adobe InDesign, Adobe FrameMaker, Adobe Illustrator, and Adobe Photoshop, use differing methods of adjusting letter-spacing. What is common to most systems is that the default letter-spacing is zero and uses the character widths and kerning information built into the font itself.

Although digital type sets tighter, on average, than metal type, this results primarily from the more ready availability of kerning, rather than any design choice inherent in the technology. Digital type does allow, however, for negative sidebearings, which were uncommon in metal type because of the difficulty in cutting a "kern" in the original sense.

In the days of machine-implemented lead typesetting, such as Linotype machines and the Monotype System, letter-spacing had to be uniform. In modern digital page-layout software, high-end applications all use relative measurements proportional to the size of the type. QuarkXPress uses units of 1/200 of an em, and the competing Adobe InDesign uses 1/1000 of an em. Therefore, in QuarkXPress, a tracking setting of 3 opens text noticeably, but in InDesign a tracking setting of 3 is barely noticeable.


The amount of letter-spacing in text affects legibility. Tight letter-spacing, especially in small text sizes, can diminish legibility. The addition of minimal letter-spacing can often increase the legibility and readability. Adding whitespace around the characters allows the individual characters to emerge and to be recognized more quickly. Adding too much space, however, may isolate individual letters and make it harder for the reader to perceive whole words and phrases, which reduces readability.

Wide letter-spacing, beyond relaxed book composition, can look affected and earned the opprobrium of Frederic Goudy: "Men who would letterspace blackletter would shag sheep."[1] When quoted, "shag" is often bowdlerised as "steal". Goudy's pronouncement inspired the title of Stop Stealing Sheep,[2] an introduction to typography that Spiekermann coauthored.

In the days of hot metal typesetting, letter-spacing required adding horizontal space between letters of words set in metal type in increments of a minimum of a half-point. Some publishers and typesetters avoided letter-spacing because it was costly in materials and labor. Letter-spacing required hand insertion of copper (a half-point), brass (one point), and printer's "lead" (two points) spaces between individual pieces of type or between matrices. Despite the cost, letter-spacing was used in print advertising and book publishing. It was also used for very short phrases set in capital letters or small caps to prevent the phrases from appearing too black compared to the rest of the page.

Fixed spaces[edit]

Letter-spacing may also refer to the insertion of fixed spaces, as was commonly done in hand-set metal type to achieve letter-spacing. That is a more mechanical method that relies less upon spacing and kerning tables resident in each typeface and accessed and used when letterspacing is applied universally. Fixed spaces include a hair space, thin space, wordspace, en-space, and em-space. An en-space is equal to half the current point size, and an em-space is the same width as the current point size.

Changing kerning perception[edit]

Kerning contrasted with tracking (letter-spacing): with spacing the "kerning perception" is lost.
While tracking adjusts the space between characters evenly, regardless of the characters, kerning adjusts the space based on character pairs. There is strong kerning between the "V" and the "A" and no kerning between the "S" and the "T".

A visually-pleasing result,[3][4] even with no "kerning control," can be achieved with some control of the space between letters.

Example on webpages: with CSS1, a standard of 1996, the letter-spacing property (illustrated) offer some control for lost or enhance "kerning perception"—kerning can be simulated with non-uniform spacing between letters. Only with the standard CSS3, font-kerning property arrives with a complete control of kerning.[5] In the meantime, web designers used the workaround of letter-spacing, mainly to enhance spaced texts of titles and banners.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Comment by Erik Spiekermann (15 October 2005) in Wardle de Sousa, Tiffany (2 July 2005). "Famous Quotes from Type Designers". Typophile.com. Archived from the original on 25 August 2013. Retrieved 30 April 2014.
  2. ^ Spiekermann, Erik; Ginger, E. M. (2002). Stop Stealing Sheep & find out how type works. Adobe Press. ISBN 978-0-201-70339-9.
  3. ^ Slattery, Timothy J.; Rayner, Keith (2013). "Effects of intraword and interword spacing on eye movements during reading: Exploring the optimal use of space in a line of text". Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics. 75 (6): 1275–1292. doi:10.3758/s13414-013-0463-8. PMID 23709061. Free to read
  4. ^ "The Rhetoric of Typography: Effects on Reading Time, Reading Comprehension, and Perceptions of Ethos", Eva Brumberger. Technical Communication, Volume 51, Number 1, February 2004 , pp. 13-24.
  5. ^ "CSS Fonts Module Level 3". w3.org.


External links[edit]

The dictionary definition of letterspacing at Wiktionary