Kerning & Ligatures in Letterspaced Type

Letterspacing affects type's horizontal rhythm, and so do kerning and ligatures. Combining all three of them can make for beautifully spaced typography.

I recently wrote an article about the general guidelines for letterspacing type on the web. This article is a follow-up and much more focused, so bear that in mind as you continue reading. I’d recommend checking out the last one if you want a quick overview of using letterspacing on the web.

Now with that out of the way, let’s jump right into the rules for letterspacing type with kerning and ligatures.

Kerning

It’s a good practice to enable kerning in titles, headings, and other display type. These elements attract the most attention in a design, so it’s important to get their details just right when typesetting.

Tight letterspacing

The majority of kerning decreases the space present between letters. By enabling kerning alone, you can often decrease the horizontal spacing in a line of type — similar to reducing letterspacing. Tight letterspacing exaggerates the need for kerning, so if you make negative adjustments to the letter-spacing property, you should probably enable kerning, too.

In the example above, there’s a noticeable gap between the unkerned T and o pair at the beginning of the word Tomato. It looks awkward in an otherwise tightly spaced context. Enabling kerning here tightens up the initial spacing and improves the overall look and feel of the word.

Loose letterspacing

Kerning becomes less important as letterspacing increases, and at a certain point, it’s barely even noticeable.

If we look at the same word Tomato — now set with positive letterspacing — the difference is too subtle to make an impact. Kerning becomes a nice-to-have here, instead of a necessity.

Ligatures

Since ligatures are the combined form of two or more letters, and letterspacing adjusts the space in between those letters, you end up with two typesetting techniques that are at cross-purposes. That’s not to say you shouldn’t letterspace type containing ligatures, but there are a couple considerations to keep in mind.

Loose letterspacing

Ligatures are always a fixed width, but you can still letterspace the type surrounding them. As a result, ligatures end up looking clumped together within a word. It’s best to avoid them altogether in loosely letterspaced type.

In this example, we’re much better off using the version of liftoff that doesn’t contain ligatures.

Tight letterspacing

Ligatures are often narrower than their two related characters, so they look right at home in lightly tightened type. In a very tight setting, however, ligatures can stand out as noticeably wider than other letters.

If you look closely at the ff and ft pairs in the second word liftoff, you’ll see an awkward gap between their crossbars. Enabling ligatures fixes this problem by combining the separate letters into a single glyph and merging the two crossbars into one.

Browser support

The default behavior of most browsers is to disable kerning and ligatures wherever the letter-spacing property is applied. Due to current browser support, it takes some very precise CSS to get all three components working together.

The biggest issue is that Safari doesn’t actually support font-feature-settings. Declare the property in any way, and Safari enables both kerning and ligatures. Want to turn on small caps? You get kerning and ligatures. Want to disable kerning and ligatures? You get kerning and ligatures. This is particularly problematic when the property is inherited, since there’s no way to unset it by using the property itself.

I made a CodePen demo with more information on browser support. It’s a little too in-depth to embed here, but definitely take a look if you plan on using kerning and ligatures together with with the letter-spacing property.

And that’s it!

Before we wrap up, I have to give a shout-out to Bram Stein for his work on The State of Web Type. That site has been a huge help for me in figuring out an approach that works across browsers.

If you have any questions about letterspacing on the web — or if you just want to chat about web typography — send me a message over on Twitter.