Like many areas of typography some areas which appear to be simple actually prove to be more complex and require more thought that at first envisaged. Spacing is one such area, which by its variation means that to use type correctly, extra thought is required.
In simple terms it is easy to draw an historical line from calligraphy, through movable type to the modern digital use of fonts today. Assuming that calligraphy is organised ‘handwriting’ it is easy to see how spacing can change from style to style, font to font. After all we can cram more handwriting in to a page, or space it out to fill one.
First of all there is ‘leading’. A term which comes from the ‘hot lead’ days of movable type in printing presses this indicates the distance between the baseline of one line of text and the one below. The greater the leading the wider the space between lines of text in a paragraph. Increased leading can make type clearer and easier to read, although over leading can make each line of a paragraph look like a separate point and make it hard to follow. Set leading to tightly and the descenders of one line will clash with the ascenders of the line below making the words harder to read.
The phrase ‘spacing’ when used in type refers to the space between words. Set this too tightly and individual words will run together, too wide and sentences will look gappy and awkward to read. As a standard the word spacing should be constant throughout a piece of text, although sometimes time can look clearer if the space between the full stop at the end of one sentence and the capital at the start of the next is wider than general word spacing. Getting the right balance of word spacing right can help make text a pleasure to read.
There are two different forms of letter spacing, tracking and kerning. Tracking is the most simple to follow. This sets the general ‘gappiness’ across all the text. Imagine the type is on a clear piece of rubber. When stretched the letters them selves don’t get any wider but the relative spacing between all the letters increase. Occasionally printers will decrease the tracking to get a line of type to fit on the page without reducing the type size. For signage and livery sometimes increasing the tracking can help as it puts a little more ‘air’ around all the characters and can make a logo, or more importantly a strap line’ clearer to read. Again, setting tracking to narrow can cause characters to touch or even overlap, while setting it too wide can make a paragraph hard to read.
Finally there is kerning. The best way to explain this is that it refers to areas of type where characters overlap in to the space of their neighbours. For example a capital A next to a capital V. Without kerning the top left hand point of the V would start to the right of the bottom right hand point of the A making a massive gap between the two parallel lines which would look awkward and possibly even look like a small word space. However if the space is put between the lower right hand point of the A and the bottom point of the V the visual balance is kept and the V overlaps in to the A space without touching or becoming unreadable. This is particularly key when capital letters overlap lower case one like o or c. Setting the kerning is important as too wide and the text looks awkward and hard to read, too tight and letters run in together and become unintelligible.
With today’s software and type foundries there are automatic settings for all these forms of spacing and the type is laid out in an appropriate and pleasing manner automatically on screen. That said it is also worth keeping some of these points in mind to ensure the best looking page of text, or short paragraph possible for your project.