Leading vs Kerning

Leading vs kerning: Understanding the difference between leading and kerning

How much do you know about leading vs kerning? If you’re honing your typography skills, and you want to know more about the key difference between leading and kerning, you’ve come to the right place!

If you’re a designer working with typography, you’ll know a lot of different factors go into making text-based design look “just right.” Everything from the size of the type to whether it’s serif or sans-serif in style will dictate how someone feels when looking at your design. 

Kerning and leading are just two examples of the tools you can use to help tailor your font to achieve specific results. As part of the full typography design strategy, leading and kerning (as well as tracking), assist in improving the clarity and impact of a piece of text.

The only problem? Many people still don’t understand the difference between leading and kerning, or when and how they should use either in layout design.

Here’s your guide to kerning vs leading, to help make the distinction.

What is leading and kerning? The basics

Leading and kerning, often accompanied by tracking, are the tools used in graphic design and typography creation, to improve the appearance of a piece of text. 

Unlike font styles, which can range from handwritten designs to block serifs, leading and kerning don’t change the font appearance, but instead address how the type sits in a specific environment. 

With leading and kerning, experts can improve the legibility of a piece of text – whether it’s a logo or wordmark, or a large section of content on a website, or design for print. The use of kerning and leading correctly ensures the eye can move easily over the text and soak up the information fast.

Both kerning and leading manipulate the spacing in a segment of text. Leading addresses the vertical gaps between lines of text – often crucial in the creation of magazine articles, blog pages, and other pieces of written work. Kerning deals with the space between two characters or letters.

Leading vs Kerning

Leading vs kerning: What is kerning

Kerning is a typography design practice responsible for adjusting the space between two characters or letters. As many design professionals know, the unique flourishes in different kinds of type can often influence how two letters look side-by-side. 

Additionally, there are certain letters which automatically seem to have more natural space between them, like “V” and “A”. 

Certain combinations of letters, when not kerned correctly, often have too much or too little space between them. This can either cause a word to look disjointed or cause two letters to blend together. Either way, the resulting text is harder to read.

With kerning, you adjust the space between individual letters, moving them closer together or further apart so everything looks well-aligned. The goal is to have proportional spacing between characters. Often, this means playing close attention to angular letters, flourishes, and serifs, to maintain a consistent appearance. 

Kerning is particularly valuable when creating logos and headlines with larger pieces of text. The bigger a font is, the easier it will be to see the excess space between letters, or the lack of space. Kerning requires a professional to examine the bigger picture with more detail.

Sometimes, having the same amount of space between two letters doesn’t make sense simply due to the position of those characters. While most fonts in the digital world come with kerning applied automatically, professionals will often want to make their own adjustments too. 

Leading vs Kerning

Kerning vs leading: What is leading?

Leading is another aspect of font design and typography management, focusing on space. Pronounced “ledding”, the term refers to old-fashioned printing presses, where people used to place extra lines of lead between the lines of text on a printing machine, to extend the spaces between lines.

Leading is an important part of establishing clarity within a piece of text. If you’re using a specific font with more flourish or unique elements, you may need to place extra space between lines. This additional spacing makes it easier to see the text without allowing elements to blend together.

Rather than individually moving the position of certain characters or letters in a word, leading focuses on the overall image of the text in block-format. It’s a common practice when creating magazines, newspapers, blog posts, and other branded content. 

It’s easy to apply too much leading to text if you’re not careful. While words pressed too closely together on a page may be harder to read, lines spread out too far can look disconnected. Most fonts come with natural leading built-in, to help you achieve the best clarity. 

However, you may decide to change the leading manually if you want to fit a certain amount of text within a specific space, or you want to create a specific aesthetic with your font.

The difference between leading and kerning

Ultimately, the difference between kerning and leading is the focus of the task. With kerning, you’re individually adjusting the spacing between pairs of characters. You’ll add or subtract space to help make every letter in a world look consistently spaced. 

With kerning, the goal is to achieve a proportional overall image, which seems natural to the eye. Some designers using kerning in logo design may also apply additional kerning practices to certain letters to create unique results. 

For instance, bringing two letters closer together or moving them further apart could be a way to convey meaning.

Leading involves changing the spaces between horizontal lines of text. This practice doesn’t look at the individual letters and words on a page, but at the overall appearance of a piece of text. 

Leading is most common when designing for brochures, eBooks, offline content and online blogs. You may see evidence of it often in newspapers and magazines. 

Leading vs Kerning

When to use kerning and leading

Kerning and leading will appear in all aspects of typography and font design. While kerning is more common when dealing with logos and headlines, leading is a frequent part of publication design. 

Leading is the typographer’s tool for improving the readability and legibility of larger amounts of text. Kerning supports the clarity and appearance of single words and small phrases.

Both leading and kerning are fundamental tools for manipulating the spacing and appearance of your type. However, they won’t always be necessary together. Crucially, when looking into kerning and leading practices, it’s also worth thinking about “tracking” too. 

Remember:

  • Uneven leading or kerning can easily make or break the appearance of a piece of type. Most creative programs and software solutions will allow you to experiment and improve your skills over time. 
  • Different font types will require different levels of kerning and leading. A more complex font with a lot of ascenders and descenders can affect the demand for additional leading. Bulky and complex letters in a font may also change the way you apply kerning.
  • Less is often more when applying kerning and leading. Start with small changes and see how they make the overall appearance of the text more attractive. If you’re not sure what looks best, consider presenting different kinds of leading and kerning to your colleagues to find out which one they can read most easily.

Understanding leading and kerning

Kerning and leading are just two of the many design elements today’s professionals can use to enhance the appearance of their design projects. 

To learn more about the many ways you can boost the appearance of your fonts, check out this amazing book by Ellen Lupton – it’s an inspirational insight into the world of typography design. 

Alternatively, if you want to learn more about leading, tracking and kerning, and see examples of what each tool can do, check out our guidance here on the Fabrik brands blog. 

Fabrik: A branding agency for our times.

Now read these:
The fine line between kerning and tracking
Confused about leading and tracking?
What is kerning in typography?
Tips for tracking in graphic design
How to apply leading the right way

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