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Optical vs. Metric kerning in InDesign

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Ralf Herrmann

I am currently preparing a YouTube video on this issue and would love to hear some more opinions about it. Right on time, a discussion just appeared on Twitter about it, but I won’t bother trying to squeeze simplified answers in 140 characters. I prefer to elaborate, which isn’t possible on Twitter. 

While I get the general point and agree to it, I don’t like how this is phrased. It’s too dogmatic in its meaning, even though it says »please«. :winking:

Good kerning is about a certain result. It’s irrelevant and actually invisible how you got there. But the above statement makes a generalized recommendation about a certain way to apply kerning as if that would guarantee the best results, which is of course not true. It’s easy to find a font with bad kerning which could proofs Nick’s recommendation wrong. 

Again, I agree and made the point myself in a humorous way, but in many if not most situations when a designer sets text, he/she isn’t even in the position to pick another font. So a generalized recommendation about using either metric kerning or picking another font wont help in this case. So why NOT use optical kerning (even if only as a start) in such a case? That is the interesting question, someone objecting to using optical kerning would need to answer. 


Now the premises are changed ex post. The original tweet didn’t say anything about the recommendation being only valid for “good fonts” and again: having the choice to only use good fonts isn’t realistic. 


So what is your opinion? How do you use the kerning choices in InDesign and how would you phrase your recommendations about using them?

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Great subject, Ralf... an initial observation is that there are three distinct issues: how a specific font is kerned, how it is more generally spaced (some types seem to me to be quite widely spaced... every now and then, it seems that adjusting tracking helps a typeface to read more properly), and how the publishing software specifically calculates kerning and spacing. I got in the habit to experiment with each type to set kerning to metric or optical... maybe 99% of the time, the eyes seemed to feel better with metric (StormType fonts, as an example look as if they were in a traffic accident if you set them optically... with metric, they look perfect). Perhaps the basic observation is similar to your great lessons about how to set superiors/inferiors: minimize what the software does and maximize what the font naturally does (if it was naturally programmed in the first place). Looking forward to your video.

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Riccardo Sartori

Absolute statements, which Twitter itself seems to encourage, such as “never use optical kerning”, generally aren’t especially helpful.

All the counterpoints you make are valid, I would just add a couple of observations based on my personal experience.

First of all, there is the problem of what constitutes a “good font”: there are ones better drawn than others, some more accurately spaced, or with many OpenType features, while others completely lack kerning pairs or ligatures. But, in the end, a “good font” is the one that is right for the job, among those available.

Secondly, even the most expertly spaced typeface, with every conceivable kerning pair painstakingly optimised, will never be perfectly set for every situation: use as body text, headline or caption or whatever, case mix, language, personal preferences, will each influence what is seen as the right spacing.

Regarding the last point: I consider both Chaparral and Expo Serif good fonts, yet I find both their ”/. kerning pair less than optimal. Chaparral’s isn’t kerned enough, while Expo’s is too much so.

To sum it up, and back to the original topic, in everyday use I have kerning always set on “metric”, but if for any reason I need to have a second look at the spacing of my text, selecting “optical” can give me a decent starting point to begin adjusting by eye.

It seems that those Adobe engineers know a thing or two about fonts... :winking:

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Most of the Linotype fonts needs optical kerning. For Linotype is that a feature, also the lack of tabular numbers. 

A good modern font is kerned the right way. So most of them are good kerned by default. So metrics fits them great. 

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Ralf Herrmann

The video is now online. Thanks for all the answer so far. Feel free to continue the discussion. 


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