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Examples of headline letter-spacing

In typography, letter-spacing, also called tracking, refers to the amount of space between a group of letters to affect density in a line or block of text.

Letter-spacing can be confused with kerning. Letter-spacing refers to the overall spacing of a word or block of text affecting its overall density and texture. Kerning is a term applied specifically to the adjustment of spacing of two particular characters to correct visually uneven spacing.

Letter-spacing adjustments are frequently used in news design. The speed with which pages must be built on deadline does not usually leave time to rewrite paragraphs that end in split words or that create orphans or widows. Letter-spacing is increased or decreased by modest (usually unnoticeable) amounts to fix these unattractive situations.


Varying systems of letter-spacing

Personal computer based applications including Microsoft Word, Adobe Illustrator, QuarkXPress, Adobe InDesign, and Adobe Photoshop, use differing, non-standard systems of adding or subtracting letter-spacing. What is common to most systems is that the default setting of letter-spacing or tracking is tight in comparison to handset letterpress or cast metal type. In the days of machine-implemented lead typesetting (c.f. Linotype, Monotype), the amount of added spacing always had to be the same between each character which leads to an absolute tracking system still in use in QuarkXpress. In the competing Adobe layout software product InDesign the spacing adjustment is measured in percentage instead. In QuarkXPress a letter-space/tracking setting of 3 opens text measurably, and a setting of 5 begins to take on the appearance of metal type. However in the competing Adobe layout software product InDesign, a letter-space/tracking setting of 3% would be barely noticeable.

Letter-spacing and legibility

The amount of letter-spacing in text can affect legibility. Tight letter-spacing, particularly in small text sizes can diminish legibility. The addition of minimal letter-spacing can often increase the legibility, and readability. Added whitespace around the characters allows the individual characters to emerge and be recognized more quickly. (However, addition of space to the point that individual letters become isolated rather than simply easily identifiable destroys legibility and readability. Words are often identified by their shape as well as by the individual letters.) As reading with phonetic writing systems is based in part on word shape recognition, part on context, and with unfamiliar words, on phonetic pronunciation, recognition of individual characters can be aided by slightly increased letter-spacing.

Letter-spacing with fixed spaces

Letter-spacing may also refer to the insertion of a fixed space. This is a more mechanical method which relies less upon spacing and kerning tables resident in each typeface and accessed and used when letterspacing is applied universally. Fixed spaces include a wordspace, en-space, and em-space. An en-space and em-space measure approximately the width of an uppercase character N or M in the typeface being used. Fixed spaces are sometimes inserted between capitals and small capitals.

Letter-spacing’s effect on message

The amount of letter-spacing can affect how text is perceived. Tight default letter-spacing, or minus letter-spacing, in text not only can reduce the legibility and readability of text, it can trigger a cultural association that tight letter-spacing is associated with advertising and therefore more subjective – the equivalent of a fast-talking car salesman. Conversely, the increase of letter-spacing in text (to an extent) increases legibility, and the cultural association is of a more objective typographic voice.

"Wide tracking" of text, beyond relaxed book composition, can look affected and earned the opprobrium of Frederic Goudy:

Any man who would letterspace blackletter [often misquoted as 'lower case'] would steal sheep.

Until the advent of phototypesetting, the term "letterspacing" referred strictly to the adding of space between the individual letters of words set in metal type, in increments of a minimum of ½ point.

Letterspacing as such was expensive, involving the hand insertion of copper (½ pt.), brass (1 pt.), and printer's "lead" (2 pt.) spaces between individual pieces of type or between matrices on linecasting machines such as the Ludlow Typograph and the Linotype. As such, it was studiously avoided by compositors, as adding nothing more than time to an already laborious task.

The only exceptions were in advertising type or, in book work, in very short phrases in capitals or small capitals, to keep the phrases from being too visually black compared to the rest of the typographic composition.


  • Bringhurst, Robert. The Elements of Typographic Style. Hartley & Marks: 1992. ISBN 0-88179-033-8.
  • Kane, John. A type primer. Prentice Hall: 2002. ISBN 013099071X.
  • Lupton, Ellen. Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students. Princeton Architectural Press: 2007. ISBN 978-1568984483).
  • Spiekermann, Erik. Stop Stealing Sheep & Find out how type works. Adobe Press: 2002. ISBN 0201703394.
  • Owen Williams, Testing David. Nakai Theatre Home Grown Festival 2008, Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada, (2008)

See also

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