Adobe Illustrator & Typography Tips Worth Knowing

Adobe Illustrator & Typography Tips Worth Knowing

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Improve your skills and workflow by exploring these five oft-overlooked aspects of Illustrator and typography; the differences between optical and metric kerning, how to use the Glyphs panel, the use of Roman hanging punctuation, the correct use of dashes and how to edit the preferences to display large font previews… all tips worth knowing about.

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Adobe Illustrator & Typography Tips Worth Knowing

1. Optical vs Metric Kerning

You might have noticed the pop-up menu that lets you choose between “metrics” and “optical” font spacing if you use Adobe InDesign—if you don’t, you can ignore this page.

Throughout Adobe CS, by using the Character panel, you can automatically kern type using metric kerning or optical kerning. Knowing which one to use and when is usually based on what font you are using and how many built-in kerning pairs it has within the font. For text, metric or auto kerning is usually recommended though if you are combining different fonts or type sizes, you might consider Optical settings as Illustrator will adjust the letter fit for you. Optical settings can often yield better results for display type.

Optical vs Metric Kerning

The layout of your type in InDesign is controlled by this setting:

Metrics spacing is based on the font’s character-spacing information, which the font designer put there about character widths and kerning pairs. When metrics spacing is used, the font appears exactly as the designer intended.

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This information about character spacing is completely lost when using optical spacing. Instead, it employs a patented spacing algorithm that estimates each character’s width and kerning. It frequently makes incorrect guesses, to no one’s surprise.

2. Glyph Panel

In a font, a glyph is a visual symbol that represents one or more characters of a language or script. For the same character, different fonts have different glyphs, allowing for different interpretations of the same idea or symbol. Glyphs are typically kept in font files, which can contain hundreds or even thousands of glyphs.

The Glyphs panel, found in Illustrator and InDesign allows you to access a font’s full character set. You can find the Glyphs panel by going to Window > Type > Glyphs. Once open, create a text field and then double-click on the glyph you wish to use. Another tip here is to explore the full family of a particular font as you will find that some glyphs only appear in Italics. Three families with beautiful glyphs include Minion Pro, Burgues Script and Bickham Script Pro.

You may also be interested in a tutorial I wrote for Layers Magazine: How to use the glyphs panel in Illustrator to create a font monster.


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A named collection of glyphs from one or more fonts is called a glyph set. A glyph set saves frequently used glyphs, so you don’t have to look for them every time you need them. No particular document is attached to glyph sets. They are kept in a separate file that can be shared with other InDesign preferences.


With the added glyph, you can determine whether the font is remembered or not. When working with dingbat characters that may not appear in other fonts, for instance, it is helpful to remember the fonts you want to use. The font square in the Glyphs panel and the Edit Glyph Set dialog box turn pink if a glyph’s font is remembered, but not present. A “u” next to the glyph indicates that the font’s Unicode value determines how the glyph appears if it is not remembered with an added glyph.

3. Roman Hanging Punctuation

Roman hanging punctuation is an oft-overlooked area of typography, though, in more cases than not, applying it will give the edge of your body copy a much cleaner line. By default this option is turned off, however, you can turn it on in the Paragraph tool panel. In the Paragraph tool panel, click the small arrow facing downwards (see pic below) to find the extra options and then click Roman Hanging Punctuation. You will find other extra options here, all worth exploring.

Roman Hanging Punctuation

5. Large Font Previews

Choosing the right typeface for your particular project is not always going to be an easy task so why not make it a bit easier on yourself and bump up the sizing of your font previews. To do this, go to Edit > Preferences > Font Preview > Large. While you’re here you may want to explore the other options available in the preferences panel, something many designers overlook. It may just improve your workflow.

Font Preview

Hyphens Are Not Dashes

There are three types of dashes and they should be used for their appropriate purposes (admittedly I am pretty lazy with this). Below are the definitions and the ASCII codes needed to use each dash, along with examples.

The Hyphen – (-)
A hyphen is used to separate the words in a compound adjective, verb, or adverb.

eg.  “Re-read the subhead above.”

The En Dash – (–)
The En Dash is used to express a range of values or a distance.

eg. “My guess is 5–20 people will actually listen to this advice.”

The Em Dash — (—)
The Em Dash is used to give a sudden break in thought.

eg. “I was thinking about writing—what issue did you say this was being published in?

Update: 18.2.2010

“The MAC shortcut for an en dash is Alt + – and the shortcut for an em dash is Alt + Shift + -. For the PC it seems there aren’t any but some people set up ctrl + – for en and ctrl + shift + – for em in the required program. I find it has made my converting of dashes much easier and worth doing.” Thanks for the tip Mitchell Harris.

Computer Arts

This article was originally written for Computer Arts Magazine (Issue 170). Below are a few snap shots of the article in print.

Computer Arts 170

Type Tips Illustrator

Have any more Illustrator / typography tips to share?

Passion Illustration by MaximusBill

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43 thoughts on “Adobe Illustrator & Typography Tips Worth Knowing”

  1. I don’t claim to be an expert on typography and reading these posts is why. I never thought there was so much to something that I often take for granted. Thanks for enlightening us!

  2. Wow – thanks for this! Especially the tip about font preview. I often go to my font book to preview fonts instead of using the preview panel in Illustrator because the font preview was set on medium. These little changes make a huge impact on work flow.

  3. Hanging quotes, love them. I agree that they always look better in print, when they indent it really breaks the flow. That said, it’s always overly complicated to replicate that in CSS. Most of my work is web based, so I’m often trapped with normal quotes, especially if that text needs to be edited via CMS.

  4. awesome and beautiful set of resources! thank you for sharing this and doing the research for us all to discover. i will definitely be referencing this time to time.

    i just want to add, another excellent resource / place for typography is http://www.pilo.me – it by far is the most complete and solid font forum i have visited. you can definitely find similar resources as you have mentioned here at pilo. anyhow, give it a look if you are a type lover. i think it is invite only or it usually is at least, so good luck getting in. if you do get in, be sure to participate as i know they remove deadbeat users time to time.

    thanks again for the excellent links!

  5. Thank you for explaining the fundamental difference between the dash and the hyphen. People always get it wrong and it drives me crazy. Kinda like the difference between they’re, there and their! Thanks for the post Jacob.

  6. Hi Jacob, I’m your avid fan and just also started my freelance designing. I learned so many things from you. How about the kerning and the tracking. Are there also some tips and rules there?

    Thanks in Advanced! More Power!

  7. Very useful article. These small tips and tricks make a difference in the long-run. Typography is always a WIP. Great attention to detail always makes ones work more professional.

    Looks like you’ve changed a lot based on your article pic Jacob!

  8. My firm always uses space-ndash-space for a sudden break in thought instead of an mdash. The reasoning is that it looks cleaner but still reads as a break. Does anyone else do this?

  9. ha ha.. Love it! I love that no matter how long you have worked with this blasted software you keep on learning new tricks. Thank you again… stuff like this get’s me all crazy excited!

  10. Thanks for the great insight on Illustrator typography techniques…

    Even if it were stuff that I already knew, it’s always good to get a refresher course sometimes.

  11. Thanks, for the tips. I have been working with Illustrator for a long time and some of the tips you’ve shared will definitely help. Especially the 1st one about kenning.

  12. Very useful article. These small tips and tricks make a difference in the long-run. Very handsam to known this knowledge

  13. Glyphs panel, the use of Roman hanging punctuation, the correct use of dashes and how to edit the preferences to display large font previews… all tips worth knowing about.

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