In Letterspace, No One Can Hear You Kern

We spent $2.5 billion to put Helvetica Arial on Mars (and incidentally, an SUV-sized robotic science rover), and yet not a cent was devoted to kerning. The Curiosity rover carries a calibration target for its Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), an adjustable focus camera designed to take close-up pictures. It's one of 17 cameras on the rover, but it's the only one that has its own target for testing a photo against known colors, brightness, and scale. (​Update: ​The sundial on top of the rover has color swatches for the mast cameras.)

But as a former typesetter, I had to poke fun at the kerning in the word "Target", where the "a" in any design software would be neatly tucked underneath the "T". NASA is old-school in type, too, as this is Helvetica, not Helvetica Neue.​ (Update! Readers note this is Arial, as the angle terminators on the upper-case C give it away! Go, go, Microsoft fonts!)

The calibration target includes a 1909 penny as a homage to the practice of using a coin for scale in images. One of the scientists bought the penny from the first year Lincoln appeared on its front, and sent it on its merry mission. The target is now lightly dusted with Martian soil, but still useful for its purpose.

A full size image is available from NASA.


  1. Maybe it was made with Inkscape for Windows, which has had this exact bug for many years.

    I hear it will be fixed for the next version.

  2. And the first self-portrait they took with MAHLI was the fat girl angle shot.

    Perhaps they should work with Apple on this, but then the target would be immaculately typeset with chintzy stitched fake leather.

    [/total snark, I <3 Curiousity]

    1. They are gamma-delta-beta-gamma. A Google search suggests a possible Caltech origin: “…another quadgraph, a lowercase Greek gamma-delta-beta-gamma. This is known to have originated during the 1970s when a Caltech security guard responding to some campus antics was overheard saying that it must be the ‘God Damn Blacker Gang’,” referring to Blacker Hovse: “…one of 8 undergraduate houses at Caltech. The closest description is a non-greek, co-ed fraternity.”

      1. I was a member of Blacker House. GDBG is a long-running inside joke / signature for the House – sort of a customized “Kilroy was here” – running slightly behind Dabney House’s DEI. Actually I think the closer analogy to Caltech’s undergrad houses these days is the student houses in Harry Potter.

    2. Found it! Caltech student house.

      Why Gamma Delta Beta Gamma?
      In the late 1970s Blacker was heavy into elevator trolling and keys. One day a few Moles lead by Charles Scott Reynolds (fr: 1975) were sitting on top of an elevator. Some security guards came in and happened to use that elevator. The guards were complaining about something that the “God Damned Blacker Gang” had done (contemporaries confirm that it was “Gang” and not “Guys” as some versions of the story have mentioned). So the next Blacker RF was signed with “Gamma Delta Beta Gamma”…

  3. I would like to know what the “gamma delta beta gamma” inside the largest zero stands for. Oooh… intrigue!

    1.  I can’t begin to voice how true that actually is.
      I have over 30 years of professional typesetting and design under my belt and it seems that simply walking down the street becomes more and more annoying with each passing day.

        1. What’s next?  Cooper, flenser, fletcher, soda jerk, stenographer, carhop, pinsetter, lamplighter?

          I used to want to be a dramaturge, but I can’t imagine it’d pay the rent.

          1. My wife was a stripper (this kind) for several years. We always enjoyed telling people. I suspect they tired of the joke pretty quickly.

  4. I would hate to think that they hefted an entire penny all the way to Mars — as opposed to the topmost few microns of it.  How massively spendthrift that would have been!

    Anyhow, what typeface do we want to send to Mars?  Futura Extra Bold?  Optima?  The floor is open.

    And I close with this: “LT. WATAVA was fond of kerning”.

    1. I would hate to think that they hefted an entire penny all the way to Mars — as opposed to the topmost few microns of it.

      It just illustrates the lengths that we have to go to to prevent copper theft.

  5. It’s hard for me to describe how much I hate fonts, and discussing their minutiae. Fellow IT people who’ve had to service departments full of graphic artists will understand what I mean.

    1. Then I guess you wandered into the wrong article. I, and everyone else who designs graphics/text, need to pay attention to this kind of thing. Because the rest of the world generally only notices when we screw it up.

      You might loath thinking about fonts. But I bet you notice quick if the menu at the restaurant is hard to read due to crappy font and layout.

      1. I go to a lot of ethnic restaurants.  Random spellings and obviously-non-native-speaker word choices win out over font and layout problems.  (E.g. “loath” and “quick-without-ly” :-)

    2. You don’t have to know anything about fonts or kerning to find the space between the T and the a unsettling.  It’s just wrong.

      1.  i could stare at that picture all day and never notice the space after the T.

        kerning-sensitivity must be some kind of rare affliction, like perfect pitch or cilantro-soap-mouth.

        1.  No. It’s called taking care of the details like a pro. It’s like writing clean, efficient code. Sure, the sloppy code will probably run just fine, but a craftsman will take the time to clean their code up. It’s a point of pride.

        2. The point of graphic design and typography isn’t to make subtle things obvious. Rather, it is to make sure the fine points are so well executed that they carry that sense to normal people who don’t look for such things. It’s like looking at beautifully made cabinetry in a kitchen, and while one might not be able to explain or appreciate the specific reasons why it looks great, the craftsmanship is apparent and carries the knowledge of quality.

          Fundamentally, type that is set well and with care is easier to read, too.

          1. Rather, it is to make sure the fine points are so well executed that they carry that sense to normal people who don’t look for such things.

            so the assumption here is that people who don’t look for these things are nevertheless deeply aware of them?

            keep in mind that the text in question is entirely superfluous; there is absolutely no reason for there to be any text whatsoever there. it is essentially graffiti. that text will never again be read by anyone . and it will only be seen by a digital camera on the articulated arm of a robot, the operators of which are not at all interested in text.

            getting that text to Mars is the accomplishment. the 0.03″ spacing between those letters is irrelevant.

          2. Cleek, there is a thing known as “humor” and “juxtapositional irony” that perhaps might be found in a lexicon.

            “that text will never again be read by anyone”: Viz., photo.

    3.  Then don’t discuss them. Problem solved.
      Every profession has their minutiae that the pros have to pay attention to. That’s what makes them valuable pros. That you arrogantly devalue what you don’t understand doesn’t make it any less important.

    4. I’ve actually done both.  If you’re annoyed that your users require decent typefaces–and clearly you are, since you “had to service” machines used by a graphic arts department–vacate your position to make room for someone who actually gives a damn about doing a good job.

  6. Would be funny if we started receiving a Morse code signal through SETI that repeated: “LOL LEARN TO KERN, BRAH!  LOL LEARN TO KERN, BRAH!  LOL LEARN TO KERN, BRAH! …”

  7. Actually, there is another color target that the 7 cameras on the mast can see. The color chips are on the corners of the sundial which is mounted on the top deck of the rover midways from from to back on the right side.

  8. It seems quite likely that Arial and bad kerning were employed specifically to annoy people who notice such things.

    1. I can’t tell you how much I wish this was true. If there is a conspiracy to subtly annoy font nerds just teach me the goddamn handshake….

  9. “As a former typesetter”. And yet, unable to distinguish between Arial and Helvetica??

    Bull.  Never happened. Someone fed you some link-bait! Those fonts are nothing alike! This is horse shiFt.

    1. Arial and Helvetica have a number of features in common, as can be evidenced by several sites that compare features or offer “tests” to see if you can guess which of two chunks of type is Arial and which Helvetica. I checked several features on many lowercase letters, but missed the telltale C.

      I was a typesetter for several years two decades ago, and have worked extensively with type for 30 years. Arial and Helvetica still get me.

  10. Any real geologist will tell you you NEVER use coins for scale, since a scale by definition is something whose size is universally and instantly understood. As a rough guess, there’s probably an order of magnitude range in the diameter of coins in circulation across the world.

    1. Given that, until pretty recently, the only difference between the definition of a ‘meter’ and the definition of a ‘penny-width’ was that one was an object made from platinum/iridium alloy by the French and one was an object made from copper by the Americans, I’m not seeing the major issue with using one for scale…

      The world has all sorts of wacky coins out there; but US pennies are of reasonably fixed size, minus circulation wear-and-tear.

  11. I’m sorry, but that’s actually some pretty well kerned text on that display (and I worked 8 years for a type foundry whose main selling point was their impeccable kerning).
    Considering that it’s a pretty heavy font, and the display is fairly small, all you would end up with if you kerned the “Ta” much tighter would be a big blob of “ink” (as the blown up image above is significantly bigger than it is in reality, it’s not really representative of how it would appear at a 1:1 scale).

    1.  No one who worked for a type foundry would claim that this was kerned at all; and the letterspacing is quite broad. The “Ta” pair has plenty of room to tighten without creating a blob, given all the type here is essentially perfectly reproduced. There’s no spreading or blurring.

  12. 1909 penny – in 100,000 years there will be a conspiracy theory wide enough to drive a truck through regarding when this curiosity was actually sent to Mars.

  13. I feel your pain. This is my old licence plate:

    Also the parenthese are too high in (MAHLI)

  14. The penny’s date of 1909 was chosen because that was the original launch date of  the MSL mission before it was delayed.  By that time, the target with its coin in place had already been made.  This I heard in a JPL teleconference when someone asked the significance of the 1909 date.

  15. Since this is a story about being (overly?) fussy about something almost no actually notices or cares about I will tell you all that “a homage” hurts my head when I see it. 

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