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InDesign CS2: Controlling Space between Characters and Lines

The legibility of a block of text depends as much on the space around it, called white space, as it does on the readability of the font. InDesign CS2 offers two ways to adjust the space between characters:

  • Kerning is the adjustment of space between a pair of characters. Most fonts include built-in kerning tables that control the space between character pairs, such as LA, Yo, and WA, that otherwise could appear to have a space between them even when there isn't one. For large font sizes — for example, a magazine headline — you may want to manually adjust the space between certain character pairs to achieve consistent spacing.
  • Tracking is the process of adding or removing space among all letters in a range of text.

You can apply kerning and/or tracking to highlighted text in 1/1,000-em increments, called units. An em is as wide as the height of the current font size (that is, an em for 12-point text is 12 points wide), which means that kerning and tracking increments are relative to the applied font size.

Leading (rhymes with sledding) controls the vertical space between lines of type. It's traditionally an attribute of paragraphs, but InDesign lets you apply leading on a character-by-character basis. To override the character-oriented approach, ensuring that leading changes affect entire paragraphs, check the Apply Leading to Entire Paragraphs option in the Type pane of the Preferences dialog box (choose InDesign --> Preferences --> Type on the Mac or Edit --> Preferences --> Type in Windows, or press Command+K or Ctrl+K).

Kerning

The Kerning controls in the Character pane and Control palette provide three options for kerning letter pairs:

  • Metrics: Controls the space between character pairs in the highlighted text using a font's built-in kerning pairs.
  • Optical: Evaluates each letter pair in highlighted text and adds or removes space between the letters based on the shapes of the characters.
  • Manual: Adds or removes space between a specific letter pair in user-specified amounts.

When the flashing text cursor is between a pair of characters, the Kerning field displays the pair's kerning value. If Metrics or Optical kerning is applied, the kerning value is displayed in parentheses.

To apply Metrics or Optical kerning to highlighted text, choose the appropriate option from the Kerning pop-up menu. To apply manual kerning, click between a pair of letters, and then enter a value in the Kerning field or choose one of the predefined values. Negative values tighten; positive values loosen.

When letter shapes start to collide, you've tightened too far.

Tracking

Tracking is uniform kerning applied to a range of text. You might use tracking to tighten character spacing for a font that you think is too spacey or loosen spacing for a font that's too tight. Or you could track a paragraph tighter or looser to eliminate a short last line or a widow (the last line of a paragraph that falls at the top of a page or column).

To apply tracking to highlighted text, enter a value in the Character pane's Tracking field or choose one of the predefined values. Negative values tighten; positive values loosen (in 0.001-em increments).

You might wonder how tracking is different than kerning. They're essentially the same thing, with this difference: Tracking applies to a selection of three or more characters, while kerning is meant to adjust the spacing between just two characters. You use tracking to change the overall tightness of character spacing, while you use kerning to improve the spacing between letters that just don't quite look right compared to the rest of the text.

Leading

Leading refers to the vertical space between lines of type as measured from baseline to baseline. Leading in InDesign is a character-level format, which means that you can apply different leading values within a single paragraph. InDesign looks at each line of text in a paragraph and uses the largest applied leading value within a line to determine the leading for that line.

By default, InDesign applies Auto Leading to text, which is equal to 120 percent of the type size. As long as you don't change fonts or type sizes in a paragraph, Auto Leading works pretty well. But if you do change fonts or sizes, Auto Leading can result in inconsistent spacing between lines. For this reason, specifying an actual leading value is safer.

In most cases, using a leading value that is slightly larger than the type size is a good idea. When the leading value equals the type size, text is said to be set solid. That's about as tight as you ever want to set leading, unless you're trying to achieve a special typographic effect or working with very large text sizes in ad-copy headlines. As is the case with kerning and tracking, when tight leading causes letters to collide — ascenders and descenders are the first to overlap — you've gone too far.

You can change InDesign's preset Auto Leading value of 120%. To do so, choose Type --> Paragraph, or press Option+Command+T or Ctrl+Alt+T, to display the Paragraph pane. Choose Justification in the palette menu, enter a new value in the Auto Leading field, and then click OK. (Why a character format setting is accessed via the Paragraph pane and what Auto Leading has to do with Justification are both mysteries.)

To modify the leading value applied to selected text, choose one of the predefined options from the Leading pop-up menu in the Character pane or Control palette, or enter a leading value in the field. You can enter values from 0 to 5,000 points in 0.001-point increments. You can also use the up and down arrow keys to change leading in 1-point increments.

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