Homeless in Vancouver: Badly kerned comic strips

Every profession has its hobby horses. Professional writers (I’m told), do not like to see hypos typos, aka misspelled words.

My past as a graphic designer has likewise left me profoundly sensitive to another kind of typographical error which involves something called kerning, aka letter spacing.

This last Sunday I saw a glaring example of poor kerning in a comic strip of all places.

Scott Adams’s syndicated Dilbert comic strip to be precise. Naturally Mr. Adams doesn’t have time to hand letter his acidly funny comic strip and at some point in the past he had his hand lettering converted into a typeface.

Mr. Adams or whatever “Wally” types out the text in the speech balloons is trusting the computer a bit too much.

A little thing that can make a big difference

Graphic designers learn that one threat to the readability of text is the inherently crappy way the letters of the English alphabet fit together on a line (or don’t).

Kerning refers to overall spacing between letters and the special spacing (often backspacing) designers may use to improve the readability of text, particulaly at larger types sizes.

How the English alphabet can give you fits

Deliberate spaces are used to define the parts of written English such as individual words. So accidental spaces — in the middle of words for instance — should be avoided for obvious reasons.

The English alphabet is amazingly fractious and all sorts of letter combinations can create ugly accidental spaces. Graphic designers need to be mindful of bad letter combinations. Particularly troublesome are larger-size capital letter groupings such as “AY”, “AW”, “AT” and “LT”.

Before electronic publishing, when printers used letters protruding from little blocks of lead, special kerning of problem letter combinations meant custom cutting the letter blocks so—for instance—the horizontal crossbar of a capital “T” could fit into the white space left by triangle of a capital “A”.

Now any kind of special kerning can easily be accomplished in any electronic publishing program.

The rub being that many people operating these programs have no idea they should ever need to do this. Computers have certainly democratized the tools of graphic design in a wonderful way. But having the tools doesn’t automatically mean a person has all the skills and knowledge that traditionally went hand-in-hand with graphic design, such as typography.

Much the way blogs allow anyone to be a published writer whether they know how to write or nut not. 

Dilbert is the property of United Feature Syndicate, Inc. and Scott Adams.
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