Learn How To Kern Like A Pro With KernType

There really should be more games like this. This weekend a tweet by designer, author, teacher, and wayfinding and typography expert Ralf Hermann led me to KernType. The website – brilliant in its simplicity – teaches what kerning is in an interactive and intuitive way. KernType is part of Method of Action, an online course to help programmers learn design.

Typeface: ARS Maquette Pro

How does KernType work? The user is presented with ten consecutive words with kerning mistakes. The goal of the game is to achieve pleasant and readable text by moving the letters within each word, until the space between the letters is judiciously distributed. This can be done with either the cursor or the left and right arrow buttons, but the website can also be opened on the iPad for a multi-touch experience. Each time the solution is compared to a typographer’s solution. The score depends on how close you nailed it. Neat detail: as the game looks at both the absolute and relative position of the letters, a single kerning mistake has less impact on the score if all the other letters are correctly positioned in relation to each other.

The ten words are each set in a different typeface, and each design presents the user with very specific problems. The very heavy outstrokes in FF Zine Slab Black Italic intrude in each consecutive letter’s white space; the top of Rotis Semi Serif Bold has serifs while the bottom of its letters don’t; what influence does the loose spacing of Sabon Small Caps have; the long swashy tail of the Baskerville Italic capital Q extends under the next letters; how much do the hairline serifs of Linotype Didot Regular play a role in the kerning? Other typefaces featured in KernType are Gotham Black, Adobe Garamond Regular, Frutiger 55, FF Meta Black, and Syntax Regular.

Typeface: FF Spinoza

Method of Action – which still is in its early stages – is a project by interaction designer Mark MacKay. It is inspired by the actual mechanics of design education: students submit their work to someone with more experience (usually the teacher), who goes around asking for opinions and commenting himself. The basic premise is to replicate this experience online. Some exercises will involve actual human reviewers, but others (such as KernType) will be automated.

Mark MacKay grew up and studied Information Design in Mexico, where he developed his interest in typography.

Mexico is a very colourful country with lots of delicious manual lettering, so rational typefaces such as Frutiger were actually fresh and new to me. I guess the opposite might happen in Germany, youngsters might fall in love with hand lettering.

When I went to university I had a scholarship which required me to work a couple of hours per day in the wayfinding and signage shop. When I had to install new signage I always struggled getting the 3M vinyl off the transfer sheet, so often I’d have to grab the letters one by one and kern them by eye. The first couple of times my supervisors would notice, but eventually I became proficient enough that it looked a lot like what came out of the plotter.

The idea for KernType generated some months ago when Mark had a conversation with a friend from work.

My friend is an awesome programmer but terrible at design. He told me the usual story that all design is subjective, and that it obeys the whims of fashion. I countered that design is not subjective, it’s just that a visual problem has multiple solutions, some better than others. “So how do I know my solution is the best one?” he asked. And that’s when it dawned to me: there are certain types of design problems that are very systematic, but to excel you still need some good judgement. So you compare it with someone with more experience and boom, you get a kerning game.

Header image: Typeface: FF Tundra

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  1. It was enjoyable, a good lesson in kerning and showed up the skills needed in a good font design.

    Posted by Dave Pawson on Oct. 11, 2011
  2. I saw this kerning-game a few days ago in my twitterstream and I loved it immediately.

    Posted by nnes on Oct. 11, 2011
  3. Very nice game, although my concentration went down on the last ones, and those were the most difficult. Also it’s a shame that there’s only one session…

    Posted by Rudi Stuve on Oct. 11, 2011
  4. It works as a game, but it’s not kerning “like a pro.” A typeface designer or graphic designer both rely on the existing spacing (the sidebearings of each letter in the glyph space) of a well-made typeface to kern. The game’s interface ignores spacing. For instance, one should never have to kern the V to the E in the word “WAVE.”

    That doesn’t mean people can’t have fun and learn about finding a good balance, but it’s still just a game.

    Posted by Dyana on Oct. 11, 2011
  5. Dyana, I wish you wouldn’t take my headlines so seriously. This one was intended to be whimsical. : P

    Regarding your observation, I once had a very interesting discussion on the rooftop terrace above Adam Twardoch and Ralph du Carrois’ office. I was defending the thesis that the better a typeface is spaced, the less kerning it needs. This is of course a crass generalisation, but typefaces which boast that they include a gazillion kerning pairs maybe simply aren’t very well spaced.

    Posted by Yves Peters on Oct. 11, 2011
  6. Heh. That’s the tricky thing about the internet! There’s no tone. Anyone could stumble across and take it pretty seriously, especially when the article talks about teaching.

    I agree with the crass generalization. An exception would be a font with many alternate characters.

    Posted by Dyana on Oct. 11, 2011
  7. In the pre-Postscript (and even pre photocomp) time I used Filmletter (positive individual characters on pieces of film) from Lettergieterij Amsterdam. The kerned combinations of characters were contacted on negative film. No width info (as on the Starsettograph from Berthold) available so the visual kerning skills were essential. This game is also great fun for former operators of Filmletter and other manual headline systems.

    Posted by Henk Gianotten on Oct. 11, 2011
  8. I dig KernType! I’m not a designer per se but love type, letterpress, design. My site isn’t quite finished yet but maybe you’d like to see my banner’s kerning.

    Anyway thanks for profiling the site. I found it in a collection of “minimalist website designs,” and ultimately found myself here.

    Posted by Suzanne on Oct. 12, 2011
  9. There are some clear flaws in some of the solutions in my judgment. But the developer seems keen to welcome feedback (which I sent) and hopefully he’ll see a way to use all he receives to improve the game. It’s fun and the interface is very pleasant.

    Posted by Craig Eliason on Oct. 12, 2011
  10. I think the fact that people enjoy the game, learn what kerning means and along the way maybe start to appreciate the thought and care that goes into designing and engineering professional fonts is more important than all those nitty-gritty details and perceived flaws. ; )

    Posted by Yves Peters on Oct. 12, 2011

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