The Complete Guide to Word Spacing

Word spacing is one of those typographic details that is taken for granted. That is, most people think that the default word spacing of any given font is fine due to the fact that it was determined by the type designer. But this is not always the case. Whether for text or display settings, there are some instances where the word spacing could be improved with some manual intervention.

Word Spacing for Text Type

The word spacing for text settings is important because it affects readability. Appropriate text word spacing should not be so small that the words start to run into each other; nor should it be so large that the text is sprinkled with oversized spaces between words which can be distracting (even if this is unconscious) and interrupt the rhythm of reading. A good rule of thumb for word spacing in text is that it should approximate the width of the lowercase n or o of each particular font. This is a good benchmark due to the fact that word spacing should be in proportion to the overall width of any given type design. Therefore, the word spacing of a narrow or condensed typeface should be narrower and in proportion the overall type design. Conversely, it should be wider for expanded designs.

Word spacing should neither be so narrow that the words start to run into each other (upper left), nor so large that it interrupts readability (upper right). The third setting (lower) is the most balanced and readable.

Word spacing should neither be so narrow that the words start to run into each other (upper left), nor so large that it interrupts readability (upper right). The third setting (lower) is the most balanced and readable.

While it is true that word spacing of a typeface is a predetermined value for each font (and differs from font to font), it can be modified from within most design software. Why would you need to do this? Some commercial fonts have too much word spacing, which can lead to visual hesitations that can reduce readability. When this is the case, the spacing can be improved by setting the word space to around 80 to 85 percent, or whatever value improves the overall color, texture and readability. NOTE: There is never a need for double spaces between sentences when setting type on your computer, as was done in typewriter days. In fact, it is a serious type crime in professional typography. 

The word spacing of any text (not just justified) can be adjusted via InDesign’s Justification panel by adjusting the “Desired” “Word Spacing” value. This works for any text alignment, not only justified text.

The word spacing of any text (not just justified text) can be adjusted via InDesign’s Justification dialog box by adjusting the “Desired” “Word Spacing” value. This works for any text alignment, not only justified text.

Adjusting Word Spacing in InDesign

The ability to change the word spacing of any selected text is a somewhat “hidden” yet useful feature of most design software. Although this is done via the so-named Justification settings, it can be used to adjust the word spacing of text with any alignment. Here’s how it is done in InDesign:

  • With your cursor in the text you want to change, select Justification from the panel menu of the Paragraph or Control panel. Or press Command+Shift+Option+J (Mac) or Ctrl+Shift+Alt+J (Windows).
  • Enter a value in the Word Spacing row in the middle field labeled “Desired.” The value will be a percentage of the normal, or built-in, value of the selected font. The Desired value must be between the Minimum and Maximum values, so adjust these as necessary even though it will have no effect on non-justified text.

You can also edit the Justification options in a paragraph style so you have consistent word spacing everywhere that style is used.

adjust word spacing in InDesign's Paragraph Style Options dialog box

Adjust word spacing in InDesign’s Paragraph Style Options dialog box.

Bonus tip: Whenever you edit word spacing, be sure to select the Preview checkbox, so you can see the effects of what you’re doing immediately, and save yourself repeated trips back to the dialog box to tweak the values.

Word Spacing for Headline Type

As type gets larger, the space between words optically appears more open. Therefore, the word spacing for display type should be slightly less than what you’d use for text. This is especially true when using a typeface intended for text settings but used for larger sizes. In addition, the word spacing for headlines and other large settings frequently looks uneven due to the differing shapes of the characters surrounding the space.

When a text typeface (upper) is used to set display sizes, the word spaces can appear too large (middle). The appearance is improved, albeit subtly, by reducing the word spacing to 85% via the Justification panel (lower). Set in ITC Garamond Narrow.

When a text typeface (upper) is used to set display sizes, the word spaces can appear too large (middle). The appearance is improved, albeit subtly, by reducing the word spacing to 85% via the Justification settings (lower). Set in ITC Garamond Narrow.

The word spacing in this headline (upper) is inconsistent because of the larger volume of white space around the A and T, and the F and T. It is easily improved (lower) by reducing these word spaces to make them visually consistent with the other word spaces by using the kerning feature of your software.

The word spacing in this headline (upper) is inconsistent because of the larger volume of white space around the A and T, and the F and T. It is easily improved (lower) by reducing these word spaces to make them visually consistent with the other word spaces via the kerning feature of your software.

The most precise way to adjust the word spacing in display type is to use the kerning feature. (Yes, you can kern a space to a character and vice versa!) This way you can customize each space depending on the characters surrounding it.

For InDesign users, there are keyboard shortcuts to adjust local word spacing quickly and easily:

  • Select the text or headline you want to adjust.
  • Press Command+Option+Delete (Mac), Ctrl+Alt+Backspace (Windows) to decrease word spacing by 20/1000 of an em.
  • Press Ctrl+Command+Option+\ (Mac), Ctrl+Alt+\ (Windows) to increase word spacing by 20/1000 of an em.
  • Add the Shift key to these shortcuts to increase/decrease word spacing by 5x more (100/1000 of an em).

Note that these shortcuts change all the word spacing of selected text evenly, so for best results you might still need to go back and fine-tune your display type with a little kerning.

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Posted on: December 16, 2015

Ilene Strizver

Ilene Strizver, founder of The Type Studio, is a typographic consultant, designer, writer and educator specializing in all aspects of visual communication, from the aesthetic to the technical. Her book, Type Rules! The designer’s guide to professional typography, 4th edition, has received numerous accolades from the type and design community. She conducts her widely acclaimed Gourmet Typography Workshops internationally. For more information on attending one or bringing it to your company, organization, or school, go to her site, call The Type Studio at 203-227-5929, or email Ilene at info@thetypestudio.com. Sign up for her free e‑newsletter, All Things Typographic, at www.thetypestudio.com.

2 Comments on The Complete Guide to Word Spacing

  1. Ilene – Your column on word spacing reminded me of the day we would get fresh proofs in from the type house. I loved the way they smelled. I would take out a razor and either add or subtract space between words and letters. What a tedious job! But the final print results were worth it.

  2. Another reason word and letter spacing is very important is to avoid any misinterpretations it conveys that can get you in big trouble if not done carefully. For example, I saw a post on store signs that was truly eye-opening. Letters like cl, li, and a few others can easily be mistaken for a single word. If the letters “cl” were too close to each other in a certain font style, it can actually look like a letter “d” and end up as a bad word if a word like “click” is used. Yikes!

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