distinct from each other. To further add to the confusion, the terms character spacing and letter spacing are sometimes also used to describe kerning and tracking.
What are Tracking and Kerning?
While both refer to adjusting the space between letters, the way they are applied is where they differ. Tracking refers to the wholesale adjustment of the spacing between letters in a block of text, with the same spacing being applied equally to all letters.
Kerning is a more targeted technique that adjusts the spacing between pairs of letters and many fonts will have specified kerning pairs that apply a preset letter space depending on the two characters that the space is being applied to.
How is Tracking Used?
As mentioned, tracking applies the same spacing to groups of letters on the page. A Graphic Designer may choose to do this for aesthetic reasons, perhaps to make the body of text appear more dense visually.
A more common reason for adjusting tracking is to make a set amount of text fit into a proscribed space. Very minor adjustments to tracking can have quite dramatic effects when applied to text that is running over several pages, though in these cases attention should be given to ensuring it doesn’t result in new widows or orphans.
How is Kerning Used?
Where tracking is a scatter gun, kerning is a more surgical tool and as such it isn’t suitable for making adjustments to large bodies of text. Where it does come into play is in the setting of headings and text within logos.
In these cases there is generally little text being used and it is often also displayed at larger sizes, meaning it is not only practicable to adjust the kerning, it may be essential in some cases to ensure visual coherency.
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to applying kerning changes, so Graphic Designers have to rely upon their own judgement to produce the best results.
Kerning and tracking are two important tools that Graphic Designers should always give consideration to when working with type. Tracking can affect the overall feel of a printed page, while the effective use of kerning can make a logotype or heading feel like a single unit rather than a group of letters.