Art of Type: Spaced Out

Letterspacing Is a Popular Visual Trick—but Don’t Fall through the Holes

Frederic Goudy, noted American type designer, once said that anyone who would letterspace type would steal sheep.1 Alas, letterspacing—exaggerated spacing between characters—has become a popular typographic device, so if you choose to face the Wrath of Goudy, you owe it to him to letterspace as well as you can.

The easiest way is simply to add fixed spaces—ems, ens, or thins—between each of the characters. (These fixed spaces are located in the Type>Insert White Space menu.) This is the best approach for a logotype, for example, where you have an exact spacing scheme in mind. You can then adjust the spacing with manual kerning. Letterspacing camouflages kerning problems, but it can’t eliminate them. This tedious technique gives you the most control over the spacing of your type.

More commonly, though, you’ll letterspace to spread a line of type over a given measure, or line length. The easiest way is to use your program’s force-justify command, which Adobe programs call “Justify All Lines.” This forces each line in a paragraph to completely fill the measure. In most justified paragraphs, this only affects the last line, whose spacing will be expanded, usually to its detriment.

Thus letterspacing rule #1
: Use it only in display type. If you need a perfectly rectangular block of body text, adjust its tracking in the Character palette until the last line is very nearly full, then force-justify the paragraph. If the last line insists on setting long and creating a widow when you’re tracking the paragraph, tighten tracking for only the last two lines to force it to fit. Normally, tracking adjustments are best made on a whole-paragraph basis. [Note: A widow is a short last line of a paragraph. It’s disruptive because it creates the impression of a line space between paragraphs. An orphan is a short fragment of a paragraph (which could be a widow) that appears at the top of a column. It’s unattractive because it disrupts the rectangular geometry of the column of type.]

Avoid letterspacing more than one line of type, because it’s unlikely that spacing will be consistent from line to line. If you do wind up with the same number of characters on each line (creating consistent spacing), the characters in succeeding lines will stack one over the other. Not pretty. With rare exceptions, variation in spacing within a text block appears sloppy. Such an exception—where variation is the typographic point being made—appears in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Point size
Designers often erroneously use letterspacing for copyfitting. If you need to fill the measure with type, it’s better to do it by varying point size. First, make an educated guess about the size you need, and then use the increase/decrease point size command (Shift-Command-> or or Preferences>Units & Increments, and change the Size/Leading increment to 1 point for finer control.

When force-justifying display type, remember that the larger the point size, the more the first and last characters’ side bearings will cause the line to appear indented at each end. Side bearings are slivers of space on the flanks of every character that separate them from each other, and in large point sizes they become very apparent, as shown at the top of Figure 2. To compensate, you have two options, neither of them automatic:
• Widen the frame of the letterspaced type. You have to eyeball this in a zoomed view.
• Add a thin space (Shift-Option-Command-M [PC: Shift-Alt-Control-M]) at the beginning of the line, place the text cursor between the character and the space, and use manual kerning in the Character palette to nudge the character to align precisely against the text frame’s edge. This won’t work with word spaces, only fixed spaces. It won’t work at the right-hand margin either. There, type the last character a second time, select the new character with the Type tool, and in the Toolbox, assign it to have no fill, making it invisible. Place the cursor between it and its visible twin, and manually kern the visible character until it aligns flush right. Whew! (Tip: To manually kern using keyboard shortcuts, press Option-Right Arrow [PC: Alt-Right Arrow] to increase the kerning in an increment as defined in Preferences>Units & Increments [use the Left Arrow key to decrease the kerning]. Add the Command [PC: Control] key to the shortcut for an increment five times as large.)

Figure 2

Word space
When a word space appears in a single, force-justified line, InDesign does all the stretching in the word space—the other text retains the spacing specified in your Hyphenation and Justification settings (found in the flyout menu of either the Paragraph or Control palette). To force the text to letterspace, replace the word space with a fixed space, such as an en. You can adjust that space later by adding ens and thins to get an appropriately proportioned “word space.” (In Illustrator, you have another option: the Type>Fit Headline command, which stretches character spaces and word spaces simultaneously. It’s faster, but you’ll miss InDesign’s finer, if more tedious, controls.)

Letterspacing rule #2: Avoid punctuation when letterspacing. Commas, apostrophes, and dashes all make logical, proportional spacing difficult. Where punctuation is unavoidable, use thin spaces to separate all the other characters, but set the punctuation closed up, without spaces. Then manually kern the punctuation for optimal spacing. Where an apostrophe appears, get the overall space between the characters flanking it to match that of the other characters on the line, as shown in Figure 3. (The fastest way to set a series of fixed spaces is to set one from the Type>Insert White Space menu, copy it, and paste it repeatedly. The ultimate solution is to create keyboard shortcuts—using the Edit>Keyboard Shortcuts command—for spaces you use often.)

Figure 3: Punctuation in letterspaced type is tricky, as shown in the force-justified but otherwise unmodified upper sample. Below, the characters around the apostrophe have been kerned so their spacing matches that of the other characters. Likewise, the exclamation point has been kerned in to keep it from hanging out into space.

When you don’t want equal spaces between all characters in the line, put flush spaces between the characters where you do want space. Leave no space between the characters that you want to remain snug. Then force-justify. Only the characters separated by the flush spaces will be letterspaced. Any kerning needed between the snug pairs will now be much easier to accomplish.

One last suggestion: Letterspacing looks better with sans serif faces, because their hard geometry helps the spacing look more even.

(1)-Erik Spiekermann’s wonderfully informative and entertaining book on type, Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works (Peachpit Press), draws its title from Goudy’s wry imprecation.