What Is Tracking

What is tracking in typography? Tips for tracking in graphic design

What is tracking in typography? Today, we’re going to answer this question and provide the complete definition of tracking in typography and graphic design. We’ll also explain how to use design tools to transform the appearance of your text-based layout and design projects. 

So, let’s cast off…

If you’ve explored fonts in the context of design and layout before, you’ll know how important this can be. The smallest thing, like choosing a sans-serif or serif font, can alter how people see your company on a massive scale. 

However, it’s not just the style of font making the impact. 

Just like white space on your website, business cards, or publications can make your content easier to view and understand, the spacing in your type can make a difference too. 

Tracking, similar to kerning, involves using the spacing around letters as carefully as possible. Learn how to use tracking correctly, and you can achieve incredible things.

What is tracking in typography?

How to define tracking in typography

So, how do experts arrive at a definition of tracking in typography?

Tracking is a term used to identify the way you decrease or increase the horizontal spacing between a range of letters or characters. Usually, this technique is a method designers leverage to adjust and fine-tune the letter spacing of a logo, or font on a website. 

It works alongside kerning and leading.

Tracking in graphic design can apply to the letters in a single word, or the way a whole paragraph of text might look on a page. Many designers leverage tracking in tiny increments to refine the appearance of an asset gradually, but subtly. 

Although tracking in design first emerged as a concept a long time ago, back in age of manual printing presses, it’s still relevant today. 

In the days of metal and block-based typing, every point size of a given typeface stood as a separate font. This meant the punch cutter in a business could adjust to transform the spacing and design of each asset. 

In the digital world, tracking in typography is something usually handled with a software program. Whether you’re using serif, or sans-serif fonts, you’ll use your software to make intelligent choices based on how letters in a word work together. 

What Is Tracking

The definition of tracking in typography compared to kerning

One of the toughest parts of understanding tracking in typography, is differentiating the practice from “kerning”. Kerning and tracking are frequently mixed up in the design world, because they both refer to the way we adjust the spaces between characters to improve appearance and readability. 

Most kerning activities can happen naturally when using digital fonts, and tracking needs to be applied manually. Although there are auto tracking options out there, most experts would recommend being extra cautious with manual tracking in important design choices. 

Tracking is unique to kerning because tracking adjusts the letter-spacing of a range of characters uniformly. On the other hand, kerning adjusts how each individual letter sits next to each other. Although the two techniques can be used in tandem, they’re different overall. 

You’ll apply your tracking to all of the text in your chosen project at once. In some cases, selective tracking can also squeeze additional characters into a line to help save space. Tracking can also change line endings and reduce the length of full lines of text.

How do professionals use tracking in typography?

Tracking in design is a single part of a full strategy to improve the appearance of a page or a small piece of text. Tracking doesn’t replace things like kerning and leading for good copy fitting. Although it can improve the overall legibility of a project. 

Tracking practices follow the same guidelines most designers are already used to when it comes to optics, spacing, and letter forms. As the point size grows larger, the spacing between letters generally appears more open. 

Overall spacing then needs to be tighter to maintain better texture and copy “density”. Conversely as type gets smaller, the visual spacing seems tighter. Designers then boost the amount of actual spacing to improve legibility. 

Professionally designed typefaces are usually pre-spaced for different size ranges. If you’re using a typeface within an intended size range, you may not need to adjust the spacing. However, if you’re setting the type smaller or larger than the initial range, tracking helps to maintain readability. 

It’s also worth noting built-in spacing included with a specific font may not work well for some situations. For instance, if you’re using a font in low-resolution environments, or printing on a specific kind of surface, you may need more open spacing. 

Signage, wayfinding, and billboards can sometimes call for tighter spacing too. 

There are some general tips designers tend to follow for tracking, such as:

  • Open tracking wider when using a font designed for smaller sizing.
  • Close tracking tighter when using text designed for larger sizing.
  • Open tracking when setting a small type on a busy background.
  • Open tracking with complex letters and handwritten fonts.
  • Avoid tracking lowercase extensively as this may reduce readability.
  • Avoid tracking capital letters too little, as this will harm legibility.

Examples of bad tracking in typography

Since most websites and online assets use website builders and software to manage tracking automatically, examples of severely bad tracking on the web are rare. 

Generally, you only need to look at a piece of text to determine whether the words are too spaced out, or not well-spaced enough.

The problem most designers have is a tiny adjustment to tracking can be enough to change the appearance of a whole page. This is why you end up seeing words on a webpage split in half with a hyphen because the content hasn’t been tracked properly. 

Here’s an example of “bad tracking”, taken from a publication on the web. As you can see, the tracking is a little wider than it could be, meaning several words have been split up. 

When you split words on a page, it forces the reader to work harder to figure out what they mean:

What Is Tracking

Other than setting tracking too loosely, which can mess up the appearance of your entire page, you may also find you set your tracking too tightly. This is usually most evident in creative fonts, like handwriting typography, which includes more flourish. 

What Is Tracking

In the example above, the loosest tracking looks uncomfortably stretched out, which may have a negative impact on readability. However, the tighter tracking may also influence clarity, by pushing the letters too closely together. 

In worse-case scenarios, you may even end up with letters overlapping in a tight tracking situation.

Examples of good tracking in typography

The good news for anyone worried about tracking, is it’s relatively easy to get the hang of. Tracking in design is all about adjusting your font until it’s as easy to read as possible. You can easily see whether a set of words look too tightly placed or not. 

This should mean you can develop your tracking skills in no time. 

When learning how to use tracking in typography, it’s often a good idea to experiment. Start with a software solution which allows you to adjust the tracking, kerning, and leading in your font, then look at how the font seems to read when you adjust the tracking. 

In this example below, there’s no necessarily “right” answer to which tracking option is best. 

What Is Tracking

The clarity of the font means all the tracking options are legible. The tighter option might be ideal if you’re trying to fit a lot of type in a small space. Alternatively, the looser tracking is great for creating a more modern, sophisticated look. 

The same tracking might not work as well for a slab or bold font, as bolder type will take up more visual space. 

Take a look at the tracking on the Fabrik blog, and you’ll notice the bolder parts of the text look tightly spaced, while the standard font is nicely spread out, for a clean finish:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Curabitur vel erat velit. Integer aliquam ipsum nec nulla aliquam, eget euismod neque laoreet.

Donec et accumsan lacus. Quisque sem nibh, tempus varius feugiat in, pharetra ac risus. Mauris facilisis purus eu lacus rutrum semper. Mauris tincidunt quam lacus, sed auctor justo tempor id. Quisque sed interdum libero, vel luctus ex.

Provided the tracking you choose doesn’t harm the legibility of your text; you can experiment with different styles to create unique effects. Tighter tracking can sometimes seem better organized and concise, while looser tracking will appear light-hearted and airy in the right font. 

Tips for tracking in graphic design

Tracking, otherwise known as “letter spacing” in some coding environments, changes the spaces in your text on a uniform level. Auto tracking will automatically transform all of the lines of your text at once, while manual tracking gives you more control over certain chunks of font. 

This is often helpful if you want to create a design with different effects throughout the page. 

Choosing the right tracking space for your project is all about finding legibility. If it’s easy for your user to read your message, you’re probably doing a good job with your tracking. 

If your font tracking makes words look disjointed, or causes readers to struggle to differentiate between words, there’s a problem. 

Here are some quick tips for tracking in typography:

What Is Tracking

1. Experiment with tracking

Tracking and letter spacing are techniques all designers need to learn when working with typography. Over time, you’ll become increasingly confident in the way you set your tracking, so you won’t have to experiment as much, unless you’re using a new kind of font. 

When you apply your tracking, experiment by making it tighter and looser, and looking at how these effects the overall appearance of the text. Think about not just legibility, but the kind of brand image you’re hoping to create. 

2. Consider the differences between fonts

Lines of uppercase seem more harmonious when you add a little extra spacing between the letters in most cases. Usually, you’ll find uppercase letters do look better when they’re not placed too tightly together. 

Add tracking in graphic design one tiny bit at a time, rather than doing everything at once. If you use too much font tracking, you’re going to make it harder to see where words separate from each other. 

If you can almost fit another letter between the gaps in your characters, this means your tracking space is too wide. If you can barely see the distance between letters, the space is too small. 

Generally, lowercase letters need tighter tracking, because they often appear more far apart to the eye, thanks to softer curves.

3. Combine tracking with kerning and leading

Tracking text is a great way to boost the legibility in your content, but it’s particularly effective when you combine it with other font and type-spacing strategies. 

Combining tracking with kerning lifts your typography to a truly professional standard. As tracking affects the spacing between all characters, it won’t consider the specific spaces between different letters. 

Sometimes, certain letters will appear closer together because of the flourishes in the characters. If you’re using a handwritten font, this is particularly common. Kerning will allow you to adjust the specific distances between characters more carefully. 

Font tracking also goes hand-in-hand with leading, which refers to the space between different lines of text. If you’re extra generous with your tracking, this will require you to be more generous with your leading, otherwise you’ll end up with paragraphs looking stretched.

4. Ask for a second opinion

If you’ve ever worked on a typography project before, you’ll know that after a while of staring at the same text, it can begin to blur together. If this happens when you’re working on font tracking, you might struggle to make your type look legible. 

Tracking text can get a little complicated after a while for beginners, so it’s always useful to have a second pair of eyes on hand. Having someone else look at different versions of your tracking project to determine which one looks best can save you a lot of headaches. 

If you’re designing for a client, it may also be worth showing them 2 or 3 different options so they can pick what they like best.

Keep in mind different people do have different preferences when it comes to tracking, however. What you think looks perfect for a project may not be the same as what your friends or colleagues choose. 

What Is Tracking

5. Different tracking for different fonts

Don’t rely exclusively on tracking software to do all of the work for you. Sometimes, you may need to look into additional tracking for certain fonts. For instance, while loose tracking often works better with capital letters, this isn’t always the case. 

If you’re using a text with a very thin weight, then you shouldn’t have to worry as much about loose tracking or kerning.

Generally, the bolder, more italic, or more complex a font type is, the more likely it is to need additional tracking. 

Although most professional fonts will have the right tracking set already, you may need to add further tracking. This is common if you’re going to be using the type in a size other than originally intended by the designer. 

Making the most of tracking in typography

Tracking is a simple enough concept for most designers. Just like kerning and leading, you’ll get more comfortable with the concept over time, as you continue to work on your projects. 

Today, tracking is something you should be able to use on a constant basis, with all of your projects, from website and logo design to business card creation. 

The key to success is often to make sure you make changes slowly. This will stop you from making dangerous changes impacting the legibility of your layout and design. Start with a basic font tracking system and tighten or loosen the font spacing a little each time. 

If you’re still keen to learn more about tracking and other font design strategies, you can find more guidance right here on Brand Fabrik. For a bit of light homework, we’d recommend the Thinking With Type book, here.

Fabrik: A branding agency for our times.

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

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