It’s not that Tracking and Kerning have it out for each other; they’re just different breeds of the same species. While kerning refers to the adjustment of space between two specific letters, tracking deals with space between multiple letters in a word, line or paragraph of text.
Tracking is the drunk sorority girl of typography, with the paradoxical ability to be either dense or spacey. It can change the look and legibility of a block of text or create graphic impact for a specific word or headline. Tracking covers a lot of ground and usually won’t vomit on your shoes at the end of the evening.
Occasionally tracking is used to squeeze more characters onto a line of type, but I generally recommend against using it for this purpose. While it might prevent a word or two from carrying over to another page or column, it may also cause changes in the flow of text, hyphenation issues, awkward spacing and the dry heaves.
Whereas tracking is more popular and easy to do (see “drunk sorority girl”); kerning is like a surgeon, but with more friends and better social skills. A refined and delicate process, kerning is the adjustment of space between pairs of letters. Certain letter combinations create strange spacing, especially when viewed at larger sizes as in headlines or signage. Special care taken to make these fine adjustments lends a smoothness of readability, along with a higher level of overall professionalism.
So there you have it—Tracking and Kerning—the yin and yang of typography. Used sparingly and appropriately, your designs will look more attractive and polished. Just don’t overdo it, or you may find yourself passed out on the front lawn with a scalpel in one hand and a bottle of Everclear in the other.
You’ve been warned.