Education

Adventures in Space: Special Cases

April 06, 2016 by
Yves Peters
Yves Peters

After finishing Adventures in Space: Spacing and Kerning I realised I still had to address two special cases before I can move on to tracking in the next episode. The first one is when type is set on a curve, because the built-in spacing and kerning only works correctly in ‘normal’ setting, which is horizontal type on a straight baseline. The second one is that kerning doesn’t work between two letters of different fonts when combining two or more typefaces in a word.

Text on Circles and Curves

In the top line the built-in kerning was disabled in the brand new [FF Signa™ Slab Stencil](/families/ff-signa-slab-stencil). When set on a straight line, the words for the spoof logo are perfectly spaced in the bottom line, thanks to the careful kerning by [Ole Søndergaard](/designers/ole-sondergaard).
In the top line the built-in kerning was disabled in the brand new FF Signa™ Slab Stencil. When set on a straight line, the words for the spoof logo are perfectly spaced in the bottom line, thanks to the careful kerning by Ole Søndergaard.

Because of how moveable type historically developed, typefaces are engineered to be set in horizontal sequence on a straight baseline (except for certain East Asian scripts like Chinese or Mongolian of course). In the 20th century poets, authors and designers discovered other, more expressive ways to arrange typographic matter – just think of avant garde typographic movements like Futurism for example. Setting type on a curve was (and still is) an elaborate task when using physical type in metal or wood, and even with the advent of phototypesetting in the 1950s and ’60s it could only be done on certain systems with distortion filters and anamorphotic lenses. The introduction of graphic design apps like Adobe Illustrator in the mid to late ’80s removed any practical restrictions, making type on curves and in circles a common technique in graphic design.

When the letters are set on a circle, their architecture – especially the triangular shapes of the ‘A’s – causes numerous spacing problems. The kerning may have improved the letter fit in the straight horizontal setting (previous image); it actually makes matters worse when the text is set on a curve. The red arrows show how the added space in the ‘LA’ and ‘RA’ pairs now creates huge gaps, while the absence of kerning between ‘T’ and ‘E’ makes the tops of the letters crash into each other. Disabling the kerning doesn’t really help neither, so ironically more than half of the letter pairs need to be manually fine-tuned.
When the letters are set on a circle, their architecture – especially the triangular shapes of the ‘A’s – causes numerous spacing problems. The kerning may have improved the letter fit in the straight horizontal setting (previous image); it actually makes matters worse when the text is set on a curve. The red arrows show how the added space in the ‘LA’ and ‘RA’ pairs now creates huge gaps, while the absence of kerning between ‘T’ and ‘E’ makes the tops of the letters crash into each other. Disabling the kerning doesn’t really help neither, so ironically more than half of the letter pairs need to be manually fine-tuned.

The principles governing the mechanics of spacing and kerning hinge on the premise that type is set on a straight line. Setting type on a curve distorts the white parts between the letters and changes the predicted outcome. The curved baseline causes the two half spaces between any two glyphs to be arranged at an angle, thus combining to form a space of a different, unexpected shape. While this creates no real issue with some glyphs, other letter pairs produce new spacing problems that could not have been foreseen by the typeface designer. Those need to be corrected by manually adjusting the kerning.

The finished spoof logo with custom-kerned text in circles. Because personal taste also plays a role in spacing and kerning, different people may come up with different solutions.
The finished spoof logo with custom-kerned text in circles. Because personal taste also plays a role in spacing and kerning, different people may come up with different solutions.

Changing Faces

We learned in the two previous episodes that spacing and kerning are built into the fonts. The spacing is an integral part of the glyphs themselves, and the table with the kerning values is saved into the font. Kerning can only work within one single font. So for example a small cap letter will be properly kerned with a lowercase letter if the small caps are part of a feature-rich OpenType font, but not if the small caps are in a separate Expert Set that is part of a legacy TrueType or PostScript font family.

Even though both Krul and [FF Mark® Condensed](/families/ff-mark) are properly kerned typefaces, automatic kerning does not work between the decorative Krul capital and the lowercase letters of FF Mark Condensed. The capital ‘F’ crashes into the lowercase ‘l’, and there is an unsightly gap between the ‘V’ and the ‘o’. Transitions from one typeface to another one need to be kerned manually.
Even though both Krul and FF Mark® Condensed are properly kerned typefaces, automatic kerning does not work between the decorative Krul capital and the lowercase letters of FF Mark Condensed. The capital ‘F’ crashes into the lowercase ‘l’, and there is an unsightly gap between the ‘V’ and the ‘o’. Transitions from one typeface to another one need to be kerned manually.

This has important implications when combining different fonts in words. For example you may want to emphasise part of a word by switching that part to italic, or add a decorative capital at the beginning of a word. The ascender or descender of an italic glyph may crash in that of an upright glyph, or the half space to the right of the decorative capital may be incompatible with the half space to the left of the following glyph. Because kerning only works within a font, not across different fonts, you need to correct any occurring spacing problems by manually adjusting the kerning.

Adventures in Space

Header image by Simeon Eichmann. Cholla typeface by Sibylle Hagmann.

Signa is a trademark of Monotype GmbH and may be registered in certain jurisdictions. Mark is a trademark of Monotype GmbH registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and may be registered in certain other jurisdictions. FontFont and FF are trademarks of Monotype GmbH registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and may be registered in certain other jurisdictions. All other trademarks are property of their respective owners.

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