Font Sizing Guidelines Part 2: Spacing Considerations

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Q. How does font size affect its spacing?

A. In the most recent TypeTalk, we discussed how not all typefaces are suitable for both large and small sizes from a design perspective. But for the ones that can go from text to display (or vice versa) there is one characteristic that can usually benefit from some tweaking – and that is the spacing.

Fonts are spaced and kerned to look their best at their intended size range. However, there are many typeface designs that work well at a range of sizes, but their spacing might leave something to be desired. For example, when display designs are set smaller than their intended size range, they often look too tight. On the other hand, when text typefaces are set at larger sizes, they will progressively appear too open (Figures A and B).

Figure A. When using a very heavy font for small sizes, such as Kabel Black shown below, readability will be greatly improved by opening the tracking. The setting on the left has no tracking, while the one on the right is set at +20 tracking.

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Figure B. The typeface Akko Thin was spaced to look great at smaller sizes, but can also work well at large sizes when the tracking is reduced, as in the lower example set at –55.

To maintain optimum readability, the overall spacing can – and should – be adjusted with the use of tracking. Tracking is the global addition or reduction of the overall letter spacing in a selected block of text, and is a very helpful function for fine-tuning the “color” of your type.

If you’re setting display typefaces at small sizes, the characters will probably get too close and tight, and might even appear to touch. To remedy this, increase the tracking to improve the readability. Conversely, when you set a text typeface at larger sizes, tighten up the tracking to maintain good typographic color and texture.

How much to track? Every font is different, and the tracking value will change depending on how far the type size deviates from its intended range. But it should be a gradual, progressive, and subtle change so that the spacing of all sizes appears to be the same, with the tracking adjustment almost invisible to the eye.

Figures C and D. Helvetica Neue Ultra Light is a very popular display typeface that is often used for text with tight spacing. The readability and overall color is greatly increased when tracking is added in progressive amounts, as can be seen – even on the web – in these “before and after tracking” versions.

Ilene Strizver is a noted typographic educator, author, designer and founder of The Type Studio in Westport, Connecticut. Her book, Type Rules! The designer’s guide to professional typography, is now in its 4th edition.
  • Anonymous says:

    Helveica befoe and after? Looks the same to me. Have you made a mistake?r

  • Anonymous says:

    Very informative. The Helvetica Neue figures show how subtle spacing improves readability immensely.

  • Anonymous says:

    Thanks Ilene. You’re always on track.

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