Tighten up the spacing

By SignCraft Magazine

Posted on Thursday, September 20th, 2018

Let’s face it. Many signs just aren’t as easy to read as they could be. They aren’t as legible or visually strong as they ought to be. Even though customers pay sign makers to get their message read and understood as quickly as possible, it doesn’t always happen.

To design highly legible signs, it helps to understand how we read. When first learning to read, we look at the letters and sound each one out to “build” the word in our mind. It’s a slow process. But as we become more skillful readers, we read the word as a unit—instantly.

Words are recognized much faster by their silhouette more than by recognizing the individual characters and building the word in our mind. That’s why a word in upper- and lowercase generally reads faster and easier than the same word in all uppercase. Upper- and lowercase tends to create a unit for the brain to recognize; all uppercase encourages us to recognize the word letter-by-letter.

For maximum readability, we also need legible letterstyles and adequate contrast between the lettering and background. But even with all these factors present, something is still often missing.

That’s where tightening the spacing between the letters comes in. It helps the reader recognize words as units, making reading easier. It also adds impact to the words. That’s one of the reasons Braun Bleamer of Jet Signs uses it.

“I love to space lettering tightly,” says Braun Bleamer, “and even super-tight. It makes the words look much more powerful.”

If you look at signs that you find easy to read and appealing to look at, you’ll probably find that the letters are spaced relatively tightly. Likewise, signs that seem less appealing to read often suffer from the generic letter spacing that was decided by the computer—not the designer.

When you type a word into a graphics program, it automatically determines the space between the letters. Such letter spacing is usually intended for use at smaller sizes on the printed page or computer display. On signs, we use letters at sizes that are many, many times larger than they are on the screen. As you enlarge letters, the spacing should be reduced to strengthen the word as a unit. Otherwise the word can look more like a string of letters—almost like one of those charts you read when you get an eye exam.

The software doesn’t automatically tighten the letter spacing as letter size increases. That’s up to you. Every graphics software gives you the option of controlling the spacing between the lettering as kerning (the space between individual letters) and tracking (the space between all the letters, sometimes called character spacing).

Tightening the spacing of a word is easy. It takes only seconds, yet it can deliver real value to your customers by making their all-important message read easier and faster. Successful sign designers have always used this trick to create easy-to-read word silhouettes and add impact to their signs. Besides tightening the letter spacing, we can also use kerning to fix the spacing between individual pairs of letters that seem too open or too tight.

If you’re not sure it makes a big difference, take one of your recent sign designs and tighten the letter spacing. How tight? Experiment and let your own eye be the judge. Don’t be conservative. Go at it until some of the letters start to touch or until outlines merge together.

You’ll find that tightly spaced text makes signs punchier and easier to read. Taking advantage of this tool will make your designs more appealing to your customers, too—since the visual power it adds will be apparent to them.