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BEHIND THE SCENES · June 4, 2009

Kerning, Flow, and Music

Ah, kerning. The very thought fills my brain with endorphins. I don’t recall if I’ve met another typeface designer who likes it—at all. Some seem to tolerate it at the beginning, but they eventually grow to hate it. And yes, there are times I’ve gotten frustrated with it, but overall, kerning brings me a joy like no other.

The average designer may not realize that a knowledgeable typeface designer will look at every possible character combination to determine which kerning pairs must be added. Uppercase to uppercase, uppercase to lowercase, lowercase to punctuation, figures to punctuation, surnames with mixed cases (such as “DeVito”)—just some of the many combinations that must be considered. A well-spaced Type 1 font might have as much as 5,000 kerning pairs.

The first time I kerned one style, it took me three days. This was before OpenType, so I was limited to the standard PostScript character set. I admit, the first two days, I really didn’t like it. But on the third day, I reached Enlightenment.

Suddenly I was in a world of my own, in a kind of meditative state. I was kerning, but I wasn’t exactly aware, on a conscious level, of what I was doing. It was as though I was just a vessel and the kerning was streaming through me. I know that sounds a little ridiculous, to compare what is essentially programming software to a spiritual practice. But what can I say, that’s what it was. My haphazard inner monologue had quieted down. I had achieved a new level of flow (for examples of “flow,” refer to Act Three of This American Life’s “Meet the Pros,” or Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk). I’ve gotten in the flow before, but this was much deeper. Transcendental. Crazy but true.

I find most designers prefer the ambient music of Enya or Philip Glass when kerning; something soothing. One would think I would listen to similar music to put me in my meditative state, but no. I find the faster the music, the better. I get into the rhythm of the song as I flow through the pairs.

Through the magic of the internet, I’ll share a sampling of my kerning mix with you. May you, too, get in the flow. (Be warned, one of the bands’ names is NSFW).


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