Lately, we’ve been developing a taste for tight letterspacing. Our clients have been doing the same: designers know that tight tracking is an effective way to make any message seem more immediate and energetic. But not every typeface is designed for close quarters, and the wrong font can ruin the effect. Here are a few things to consider when setting type tightly.
We often reach for a condensed sans when looking for a typeface that can be mortared into a solid wall, but the right serif typeface can be just as successful — and sometimes a lot more lively. Serifs introduce a level of variation that helps relieve typographic monotony, and they can fill awkward spaces around curved letters. A typeface with unusually short serifs, such as Quarto Black, can be tracked especially tightly before its characters begin to touch. But don’t eliminate overlaps, since they contribute to giving typography an even rhythm: track your type so that lowercase Ns and Os nestle comfortably together, and let the others fall where they may.
Many typefaces make use of the superellipse, a shape based on the ellipse but with fuller curves. Gotham Condensed Ultra, shown here, is one such design: notice the way its upper- and lowercase O are drawn, with squarer “shoulders” than a regular ellipse, shown here as a dotted line. The extra weight in the corners helps letters take up as much space as possible, and further squares them against other letters’ vertical strokes. In the headline above, I’ve also added Gotham’s alternate lowercase A, which huddles more tightly against its neighboring letters. (This character is available as a stylistic set, both on the desktop and on the web.) Keep an eye out for typefaces that use superelliptical curves: you’ll find them at work in many of our boldest fonts.
Because flat and unbracketed serifs intersect more predictably on a line, slab serifs are some of the best choices for tight tracking. Pay attention to the tops of the lowercase F and R, and the concluding strokes of the lowercase A and T, which in most typefaces will feature rounded terminals and curved tails that add to a font’s variety. For even greater visual consistency, choose a slab serif like Vitesse Black, which streamlines these details into horizontal strokes. Vitesse’s boxy serifs lock neatly together, long before the letters themselves collide, helping preserve the legibility of the type.
While typefaces with flat sides seem like obvious choices for tight tracking, take care: these can be among the most perilous fonts to use. Serifs can help a letter keep its neighbors at arm’s length, and letters with plump curves can be legible even when partially obscured. But flat-sided letters, when set too tightly, meld into a single, indistinguishable mass. When using a flat-sided sans, look for one that’s specifically fitted for display sizes, such as Tungsten Bold. And if you’re considering a typeface with rounded corners, look for one that automatically resolves awkward collisions, such as Tungsten Rounded.