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Kerning vs. Optical Kerning: Understanding the Differences


When it comes to typography, kerning plays a crucial role in ensuring that the spacing between individual characters is visually balanced. Kerning adjustments can be made manually or automatically using optical kerning algorithms built into font files. In this article, we will explore the differences between kerning and optical kerning, their respective advantages and limitations, and their impact on typography.

Kerning: Fine-Tuning the Spacing

Kerning is the process of adjusting the space between specific pairs of characters to improve their visual harmony. Certain character combinations, such as “AV” or “To,” may appear awkward if their default spacing is used. Kerning allows designers to manually adjust the space between these characters to create a more visually pleasing and balanced result.

Kerning adjustments are typically made by professional typographers or designers who have an understanding of letterforms and visual aesthetics. By carefully analyzing the shapes and proportions of letter combinations, they can manually adjust the spacing to achieve optimal results.

Optical Kerning: Automatic Adjustments

Optical kerning, on the other hand, is an automated process that adjusts the spacing between characters based on predetermined algorithms embedded in the font file. These algorithms take into account the shape and proportions of each character to calculate the appropriate spacing between pairs.

The purpose of optical kerning is to provide a quick and automated solution for achieving visually balanced spacing without the need for manual adjustments. It aims to create an overall consistent appearance throughout the text by addressing common spacing issues.

Advantages of Kerning

  1. Precision: Manual kerning allows for precise adjustments, allowing designers to fine-tune the spacing between individual characters to achieve optimal visual balance.
  2. Customization: By manually kerning characters, designers have complete control over the spacing, allowing them to create a unique and customized typographic style.
  3. Visual Consistency: Kerning adjustments ensure that characters are visually harmonious and well-spaced, resulting in a more professional and polished typography.

Advantages of Optical Kerning

  1. Efficiency: Optical kerning automates the spacing adjustments, saving time and effort, especially when working with large blocks of text.
  2. Consistency: Optical kerning ensures consistent spacing throughout the text, reducing the chances of inconsistencies that may arise from manual adjustments.
  3. Accessibility: Optical kerning is accessible to designers who may not have an in-depth understanding of kerning principles or lack the time for manual adjustments.

Limitations of Kerning

  1. Time-consuming: Manual kerning can be a time-consuming process, particularly when working with lengthy texts or multiple font weights.
  2. Skill-dependent: Effective kerning requires a good eye for visual balance and an understanding of letterforms, making it a skill that takes time to develop.
  3. Subjectivity: Kerning is a subjective process, and different designers may have different interpretations of what constitutes visually balanced spacing.

Limitations of Optical Kerning

  1. Generic adjustments: Optical kerning algorithms may not always produce the desired results, as they are designed to address general spacing issues rather than specific character combinations.
  2. Lack of customization: Optical kerning does not allow for the same level of customization as manual kerning, as it relies on predetermined algorithms embedded in the font file.
  3. Typeface-specific: Optical kerning algorithms may vary from one typeface to another, as different type designers may implement their own spacing adjustments, resulting in inconsistencies across fonts.

In conclusion, kerning and optical kerning are two approaches to achieving visually balanced character spacing. While manual kerning offers precision and customization, it can be time-consuming and skill-dependent. Optical kerning provides efficiency and consistency but may lack the customization and precision of manual adjustments.