Confused about tracking vs leading? You’re not alone. Developing your career as a professional designer means learning many unique terms, techniques, and practices for your day-to-day work. Leading and tracking are two examples of the skill sets you might use during layout design.
If you have a basic knowledge of typography already, you’ll know there are many elements of your type choices that might influence their overall impact. The design of the font, whether it’s serif or sans-serif, and even its size or weight can change how a piece of content looks.
Tracking and leading influence the spacing between characters or pieces of text in your design. Getting the spacing right is how you ensure you boost the clarity and legibility of your font.
Here’s what you need to know about the difference between leading and tracking.
What is leading and tracking?
Tracking and leading are two of the tools used in typographic design.
The focus of these strategies is on improving the legibility in type through the careful use of spacing. Letter and line spacing are amounts the most fundamental tools any typographer will use when creating publications, brand assets, and content.
In most cases, tracking and leading (as well as kerning), will help to improve the visual impact of a piece of text, while simultaneously enhancing the image of a brand.
Leading looks at the vertical spacing between lines of text. If you’ve ever looked at a block of text on a website and thought it flowed perfectly (and consistently) from start to finish, this is good leading.
Tracking examines the spacing between letters in an entire word. This term is often confused with “kerning”, which looks at the individual spaces between groups or pairs of letters.
Let’s take a closer look at the difference between tracking and leading.
Leading vs tracking: What is leading?
Leading is a crucial element of typography design and image creation in a brand’s visual design. Pronounced “ledding”, this concept comes from the days of the manual printing press.
Back then, when lines of text appeared too close together, professionals would add strips of lead between the lines. This extra lead extended the vertical spacing of the paragraph of text segment.
Leading is important in projects which require larger amounts of text. Designers use leading to ensure the right volume of content can fit within a specific space. A broadsheet needing to publish various stories on the same page may use a smaller font size, and tighter leading.
Leading also helps to improve the clarity of content on offline and online content.
Tight leading often makes pieces of text look more “crushed” together. If you’re printing with a small font and the leading is too tight, it may be hard to differentiate between one line of text and the next.
When using handwritten or creative text, the descenders and ascenders which extend below or above the baseline can also play a part in leading.
Longer ascenders and descenders can often blend into the words above or below a line when the leading is too tight.
When leading is too loose, on the other hand, it can be difficult to determine where one-line ends, and another begins. Extra spacing between pieces of content makes sentences look disconnected, causing confusion and problems with clarity.
Leading is traditional 20% greater than the size of the font. However, you can experiment with different leading strategies using type software to see what works best.
Tracking vs leading: What is tracking?
Commonly mistaken for kerning, tracking is the management of space between letters in a word, and the appearance of words on a line of text.
While kerning looks at the individual spacing between letters, tracking looks at the overall word, and how the spacing of the word can influence the way it looks on a broader scale.
Tracking is often used with great restraint to make words and lines look consistent.
Tracking in typography often changes depending on the kind of type you’re using. Sans-serif fonts are less likely to blend together than serif fonts, so they can use tighter tracking. Serif fonts, on the other hand, comes with feet on letters which may cause them to blend together.
Tracking, like leading, is often used on larger batches of text, such as the paragraphs within a magazine article, or on a blog. Poor tracking often leads to words splitting down the middle, which can cause confusion and illegibility.
The looser the tracking on a piece of text, the fewer words you can generally fit into a line. This means designers need to be careful about how they use tracking and leading together to make the best use of any available space.
Both tracking and leading are often common practices for designers working on content in larger batches.
For instance, if you’re publishing articles in a newspaper or magazine, or designing the typography elements of a brochure for a brand, you would need both tracking and leading to make the design look perfect.
As with leading, designers need to be very cautious about the way they use tracking in their text. Too much or too little can easily damage legibility.
The difference between tracking and leading
Understanding the difference between leading and tracking is simple enough once you’ve seen the two concepts in action. Tracking considers the placement of all letters in a word, and all comments on a line within a typography project. Tracking looks at horizontal spacing, similar to kerning.
Alternatively, leading looks at vertical space – the distance between words set above or below each other on a page or within a project. Both look at larger pieces of text, such as paragraphs, rather than logos or headlines.
The best way to master the art of tracking and leading, is to practice with your own typography strategy.
Here are some tips to help:
Ensure every letter and word has consistent spacing
Look carefully for any signs of stranded letters or words on a page which appear disconnected from the text. A good strategy is to increase the font size, and squint or cross your eyes, to see where blocks of white stand out.
Words close together can be overwhelming
Too many words on a line or pressed closer together vertically can seem crammed together. If you’re going to have tight leading or tracking the fewer words in the segment, the better.
Little changes make big differences
Start slow when adding tracking or leading to your content. Extra space may look clean and easier to read at first. However, adding excessive amounts of space to your text can also make the overall layout look disjointed.
Different fonts have different demands
Keep color contrast, font sizing, and the type of font in mind when adjusting tracking and leading. The various elements of your font will influence how different letters look when placed next to other terms horizontally or vertically.
Avoid bold, and serif fonts with tight spacing
Serif fonts and bold typography are more likely to blend together when the tracking or leading is too tight. Stick to slender, sans-serif fonts in this case.
Learning to master tracking vs leading
Designing type, whether it’s for a blog post, a magazine, or a logo, has more intricacies to consider than most people realise.
Choosing the right font isn’t just about getting the style right, you’ll also need to ensure the different elements of the font work together when you’re creating words and sentences.
Tracking and leading, alongside kerning, are essential features in making your content look incredible in any environment.
If you’re a designer, you’ll develop your knowledge of tracking and leading over time, the more you experiment with the software available for tracking and leading, the more confident you’ll become.
If you’re a business owner investing in a new brand asset, your designer will often give you multiple versions of their creation to choose from. This should make it easier to see which kinds of tracking and leading work best.
If you want more help with typography design, you can find all kinds of guidance on the Fabrik blog.
Alternatively, forget the stress of learning tracking and leading for yourself, and reach out to the Fabrik team. We’ll use our skills to make your type look amazing!
Fabrik: A branding agency for our times.
Now read these:
—The difference between leading and kerning
—The fine line between kerning and tracking
—What is kerning in typography?
—Tips for tracking in graphic design
—How to apply leading the right way