How to Space a Typeface
Arguably the spacing of a font impacts the design of a typeface more than the design of your letters. A great design can be ruined by a bad spacing, whereas an ok design can be made great by good spacing. Therefore, when learning to design a typeface understanding of how to space a typeface correctly is crucial. This article provides an introduction on how to start spacing a typeface.
Becoming an expert spacer takes practice, in order to train your eyes to understand appropriate spacing between and around letters. It is a matter of training your eyes to look identify slight nuances between letters. There are a few tricks to employ that will improve the spacing of your typefaces, particularly when beginning to design typefaces. Bellow, I will cover the theory of spacing a typeface, the process to space a typeface, and ways to test a typefaces spacing in order to improve the spacing. This article doesn’t talk about kerning. Kerning is a separate process that should only be done once a typeface and spacing have been finalized.
Theory of spacing
The goal of spacing a font is to balance the space around the letters to the counters so they appear to be similar in size. Firstly, in order to achieve this, the counters of different letters need to match visually. So if you overlay and o and n on top of each other the counters should appear similar in size (Image 1). Often times they are not exactly the same size because they are different shapes, but the counters need to be optically adjusted to match one another. Secondly, it is important to ensure that the width of your letters is optically similar. This typically happens while ensuring the counters are similar in size. By ensuring that the counters and the width are similar creates a rhythm. Good spacing forms a strong pattern which is optically pleasing.
Once the counters and widths are similar in size you can then begin to space the letters. Good spacing matches the spacing around the letters to the counters, so they both appear to be the same size. I have found that highlighting the different spaces in color can help identify differences in size quickly. In Image 2 by ensuring the space in blue visually matches the magenta will ensure a strong pattern.
Most letters have a circular or square shape therefore achieving consistent spacing, and by extension a strong pattern, across most letters is relatively easy. It is more difficult to achieve consistent spacing when dealing with slanted letters (w,x,y,z), which is why these letters typically are kerned in order to achieve correct spacing because their relationship is often times dependent on the specific letter next to them.
The Latin alphabet has a strong vertical rhythm. Therefore a correctly spaced typeface should reinforce the vertical visual pattern. It can be beneficial to open an existing typeface in a typeface design software (GlyphsApp, Robofont, FontLab) and explore how that typeface was designed and spaced. Looking at the spacing of a well-designed typeface can show you the different relationships between letters as well as where to begin when spacing your typeface.
Process of Spacing
When digitizing a typeface it is important to space each character as it is designed, and not leave the spacing till the end. This will save time and effort at the end of designing letters. More importantly, as I mentioned above spacing can affect the counter and width of the letter design. Even with a few letters, designed test proofs can be created and proper spacing is needed to properly evaluate how the final product will look.
When designing a typeface I typically start with the lowercase n, and o (uppercase use H and O). The n is a square shape and the o is a round shape. The square and circle shapes are used across the alphabet. The n and o also are reference letters for spacing all the other letters in the alphabet.
When spacing the n and o start with a line of n another line of o and a line alternating between the two, Image 3. The left side of the letter n typically needs to be more spacing than the right side. Since the right side is rounded visually it looks like there is more space than the left side. This is also true of the letter o since both sides are curved they typically look like they have more space around them than the n. Once the n and o is spaced with itself make sure that the spacing is even when alternating between the n and o. Once happy with the spacing on the n and o these can be used as templates for spacing the rest of the letters.
A similar process can be repeated for the rest of the alphabet. So alternating the letter you are spacing with n and o will provide a standard which to evaluate the spacing of each letter. Unfortunately, every letter is unique and has a slightly different shape, even if they look exactly the same, so the spacing for each character has to be done separately. Using other letters as a reference will help speed up the process but nothing will replace a well-trained eye and practice.
The only way to evaluate if the typeface is correctly spaced is to test it. When testing a font it is important to print it out and review a print out. It is difficult to get a complete idea of how the font will look for the end user without viewing it the way that the user will be, typically printed out. Printing out the font also removes some of the problems that can come into play on the screen such as hinting.
When I am creating a test document I typically print the full alphabet large at the top of my test sheet and then paragraphs of body text between 12-9pt font. The large letters will allow you to mark up changes to specific letters that are needed, while the paragraphs will provide a view of how the spacing is working (Image 4). If the spacing is too tight dark spots will appear in the paragraph, while if the spacing is too wide rivers will appear between letters, and the words won’t hold together.
A great way to train your eye to see if letters are too close is to print the same paragraph in the font you are developing next to a typeface that has good spacing. By comparing the two next to each other flaws will jump out. As I mentioned before spacing is not an exact science and is something that requires practice, just like everything in typeface design.
As I mentioned above this article is an introduction to spacing, if you find helpful let me know. I am also happy to write more articles about spacing if it is something you want to learn more about.