10 typography tricks every designer should know

In this article we're going to reveal some typography tips and tricks that you can use to boost your design skills and impress friends and colleagues. But before you even begin getting into the intricacies of setting type in the likes of InDesign, it's important to know the basics. If you need a refresher on type terms then check out our article What is typography? Learn the basic rules and terms of type! 

For this article, though, the most important thing you need to know is the difference between kerning and tracking. Kerning is the spacing between specific pairs of letters, whereas tracking works across a range of characters, or even entire paragraphs or documents.

Kerning is a fine art – and one you can quickly get good at using InDesign's tools and some tricks in InDesign, Illustrator and Photoshop. In InDesign or Illustrator, you can adjust kerning by selecting the Type tool and clicking on the gap between two characters, before holding down alt/opt and using the left and right arrows to adjust the space between them. By default the increment applied with each press of the arrow is 20 thousandths of an em, but you can adjust this preference for tighter control.

Once you've got the hang of that, read on to discover how you can take your typography skills to the next level...

01. Kern upside down

typography tricks

Kerning upside down is a well-used and tested technique

Why would you want to kern character pairs upside down? Because this enables you to see your letterforms and the space between them without actually reading the words – bringing meaning to them. If you're doing something fancy with the kerning based on the meaning this won't work, of course, but otherwise it's a well-used and tested technique and one you should try if you're struggling with kerning character pairs.

02. Blur it

Another tested technique is to blur the type, perhaps by taking a screenshot and blurring it in Photoshop ... or more likely just squinting a little bit. Like Brian Hoff says: "I like to blur my eyesight a bit by squinting or crossing my eyes. This enables me to focus on the contrast and white space of the letterforms without becoming distracted by the characters themselves." It's a great technique, and you can find plenty expert kerning tricks in this brilliant article from Brian Hoff.

03. Kern with balloons

typography tricks

Aim to space the letters so the balloons fit exactly between them

Another, perhaps more abstract kerning tip is to imagine that between each letter there are balloons of equal size and volume, forcing the letters apart. As designer Tom Sewell says: "Aim to space the letters so that the balloons fit exactly between them without being squeezed out above and below". It's an interesting technique, and one that can prove very handy.

04. Use 'o' to space words

Another tip is to always consider the spaces before and after the word you’re working on and ensure they are spaced correctly visually. A good rule of thumb is to imagine that the character 'o' sits between each word (thanks again to Tom for that one).

05. Rough out headlines

typography tricks

When working with sans-serif headlines, make sure you get a rough tracking before you kern

Kerning and tracking is most obvious in headlines, so it's essential to get it right. And sans-serif fonts can accentuate your mistakes.

When working with sans-serif headlines, make sure you get a rough tracking before you kern. If you have to put -10 kerning between almost every character combination, you should be using tracking at -10 before you do your individual character spacing.

This goes for numbers too. The numeral ‘1’ with anything before or after it (‘213’, for example, or even a space) will always benefit from a tighter kern. More than one ‘1’ (for example, combinations such as ‘11’) needs really tight kerning. 

Next page: five more top typography tricks...