This text is taken from David Kindersley’s book on Optical Letter Spacing. The book is available in our shop.
David Kindersley’s vision
The proper spacing of alphabets of capitals and lower case should be such that the texture of the printed page is even.
The proper spacing of alphabets of capitals and lower case should be such that the texture of the printed page is even. A glance at a fifth-century Rustic Roman letter (1) will show this principle in operation long ago/ As will a vigorous fifteenth-century printing by Peter Schöffer (2), and the printing (1471) by Nicholas Jenson (3).
By good spacing I mean, quite simply, that each letter should appear to be exactly in the centre between its two neighbours. To me this is the only criterion, and I do not believe that it requires any further justification. Put another way, any letter should occupy a passive position between its neighbours.
Shortly after the war, I think in 1947, Mr Crutchley, the University Printer, and I were horrified to wake up one morning to find the unique and characterful cast-iron street names being removed from the centre of Cambridge. Furthermore they were being replaced by a particularly bad sample of ministry of Transport lettering – equally badly spaced.
It was believed that the new street signs were more legible and thus the change was justified. All praise goes to the City Engineer, who promptly put back the cast-iron signs when it was pointed out that at least it was doubtful whether the new signs were more legible that the old. Unfortunately the patterns from which the cast-iron signets were cast had ceased to be available and new streets and roads required name-plates. So it came about that I ‘set-to-works’ designing a street name alphabet (Fig.1).
As I saw the problem of spacing at this time, all we needed was an instrument capable of balancing letters not on their centre of gravity, but perhaps nearer to a third moment centre. (Figs. 13, 14 and 15). As shown below, we visualised the problem in this way. The ‘m’ at the bottom is balanced on its correct fulcrum. The slanting ‘iki’ is type-set whilst the horizontal version is optically set.
Spacing by eye
Whilst trying to make an instrument that would assess the space values and centres of letters in a way similar to the eye we have become far more adept at spacing by eye. In the first place one must space many alphabets before one can be sure that there is a common factor.
Alphabets must continuously be tried against a new light wedge. Thus it is possible to see from the amount of scatter on the graph how wrong the wedge is (Fig.16). Ideal conditions i.e. a perfect set of eye calculations and a wedge conforming to the visual stimulus of the eye, will produce a smooth line which we would call a space curve. All alphabets will space along the same line providing for the purposes of our instrument they have the same height. The line can be raised or lowered in parallel to correspond with the minimum fit of the most asymmetrical letter with the smallest value, generally the capital ‘L’.
As stated above we can now space alphabets by eye quickly and accurately. The method is to set up ‘O’ and ‘I’ of the alphabet at an arbitrary distance apart, and to the right of the ‘O’ ‘I’ place yet another ‘I’ and adjust until the first ‘I’ looks evenly spaced (Fig.17).
Now we have to place to the right of the ‘O’ ‘I’ ‘I’ an ‘I’ ‘O’ having exactly the same distance between them as the ‘O’ ‘I’ on the left (Fig.18).
In the illustration it will be seen that the ‘I’ ‘O’ has been adjusted as a unit until the centre ‘I’ is in the middle. Here we have the opportunity to move the ‘O’ ‘I’ and ‘I’ ‘O’ apart if we feel the three ‘I’s are giving too dense a colour.
Clearly we can now easily ascertain the space for the ‘I’s by bisecting the distance between them and consequently, we can find the space for the ‘O’ (Fig.19).
The ‘L’ was selected first of all characters because of the relationship between its optical space and its shape. Due to its asymmetrical shape the ‘L’ has its optical centre far removed from its mathematical centre with the result that on a condensed setting it is the character most likely to kern (i.e. overhang its own space).
For practical reasons kerning is undesirable in the initial stages of determining relative optical spaces for characters. Therefore close setting which would produce this is to be avoided. In the other direction because errors in spacing are less noticeable when characters are widely set – a wide set is also to be avoided. The ideal working set therefore would be when the ‘L’ is provided with the minimum space without any part of it projecting beyond its space (Fig.20).
The minimum ‘L’ fit therefore is the distance between the optical centre of the ‘L’ and the farthest right-hand extremity multiplied by two.
One is now ready to make the last adjustment to ‘I’ ‘O’ before going ahead with the other letters. It is, as I have said, likely that the ‘L’ will prove to be the letter that sets the minimum true spacing of the alphabet. It is as well to adjust the ‘O’ ‘I’ and ‘I’ ‘O’ so that the ‘L’ neither projects into their space nor has any slack.
Remember that we have satisfactorily proved that spacing can be increased or decreased by a constant. Remember the square and triangle, etc. So it is a relatively simple job to alter the ‘I’s and ‘O’s to the ‘L’ (Fig.21). At the same time we must mark the optical centres.
Now we can go ahead and place each letter in turn between our set ‘O’ ‘I’ and ‘I’ ‘O’ units, operating them to and fro until the spacing looks right (Fig.22).
Remembering to measure the distance between the two ‘I’ spaces to ascertain the space value of the letter being assessed and mark the optical centre on each letter which will, of course, coincide with the half-distance measured.
Providing all is done carefully you will be able to arrange these letters in any order and the spacing will remain good (Fig.23).
Perhaps it is high time that I explained what I mean by good spacing. Quite simply I mean that each letter should appear to be exactly in the centre between its two neighbours. To me this is the only criterion, and I do not believe that it requires any further justification. Put another way, any letter should occupy a passive position between its neighbours such as the top example (Fig.24). The middle example is as type set. The bottom example is based on area.