The Beginner’s Guide to Tracking
In our typography breakdown series, we look at some of the key techniques which have the ability to transform lacklustre text into jaw-dropping typography.
Here, we’re going to find out more about letter-spacing or Tracking, including what it is and how you can adjust letter-spacing to improve your own design work.
What is letter-spacing / Tracking?
Tracking is the typographer’s term for letter-spacing. Sometimes confused with kerning (which is used to adjust spacing between individual letters), tracking adjusts the letter-spacing uniformly over a range of characters.
Tracking affects the visual density of a word, phrase or paragraph. Decreasing the tracking makes the words appear more compact, while increasing tracking increases the amount of white space between letters and words, creating a more airy effect.
Why Do Designers Use Tracking?
Designers apply tracking for two main reasons:
- Firstly, when tracking is increased it can improve the readability of text. Letters and words are more visually distinguished from each other, allowing the eye to process them more easily than if characters were pushed closely together.
- Many designers apply tracking to improve the look of typeset text. Increasing or decreasing tracking has the power to reduce the amount of hyphenation in a paragraph, and banish widows (lone words at the end of a paragraph) and orphans (lone words at the top of a page, which should belong on the previous page).
In the second image the tracking has been reduced. This pushes all the letters closer together, causing the same number of words to fit onto less lines (which removes the widow ‘eat’).
How Do I Apply Tracking?
In InDesign, you can adjust kerning from either the Controls panel running along the top of the workspace or the Character panel (Window > Type & Tables > Character).
Use your Type Tool (T) cursor to either highlight the text or use the Selection Tool (V, Escape) to select the whole text frame*.
The tracking option is indicated by an ‘A V’ symbol with an arrow sitting below, and is found alongside the other most commonly used text formatting options in the Controls or Character panel. Measured in thousandths of an em, you can either choose a positive (to increase the spacing) or negative (to decrease) value from the drop-down menu, or type in a numeric value in the text box.
*For a linked sequence of text frames selecting the first text frame will apply the tracking settings to the text flowing across all the frames.
Tracking may be simple to do, but professional designers still have a few tricks up their sleeve for making the most of this type technique.
- Tracking may be a quick-fix for line-spacing, but combining tracking with kerning will really lift your typography to a professional standard. As tracking affects the spacing between all characters, it won’t take into account specific spacing requirements between particular letters. So make sure to combine these two techniques for maximum effect.
- Tracking goes hand-in-hand with leading, which is the space between lines of text. Generous tracking requires generous leading; otherwise you may end up with paragraphs that appear stretched horizontally and look disproportionate.
- Sometimes it just doesn’t look right to apply negative tracking to your text, which can make paragraphs appear squashed. If this is the case but you still have widows or orphans ruining the look of your typesetting, apply optical margin alignment to try to shift outlying elements, like serifs and apostrophes, to the outside of your text frames, giving yourself a little more breathing room. Go to Window > Type & Tables > Story and check Optical Margin Alignment.