Eight Tips for Combining Typefaces
You finally chose a typeface that’s perfect for your next print or screen design project. Good job, but don’t break out the bubbly just yet. For many projects, one font isn’t enough to create visual interest and establish the information hierarchy. And when you have multiple typefaces, you want to be sure that they work well together.
During my years in the graphic arts business, I’ve seen plenty of typeface combinations—successful and unsuccessful. The more effective combinations usually rely on typographic principles. These principles are not scientific, rigid, or fail-safe; all of them can be broken, but they should all be understood.
1. KEEP IT SIMPLE — USUALLY
A good principle to live by, whether you’re new to typography or a seasoned pro, is to keep it simple. Or to put it another way, don’t use too many fonts. Just as mixing too many colors on your palette will likely result in mud, mixing too many fonts on a page will probably result in a confused message (see Figure 1).
But the adage “Never use more than three typefaces on a page” is not an unassailable truth; rather, it’s a modernist principle that’s best applied in editorial design. While it may be true that most great pop songs use only three chords, some use more and some use less. So it goes with type.
Look at 19th century posters, and you’ll see that the Victorians used a lot more than three typefaces—they sometimes threw the whole type case at the job (see Figure 2). Today, many find this style charming and emulate it.
2. VIVE LA DIFFÉRENCE
Typeface combinations that are too similar can look like a mistake—as if you’d been experimenting with different fonts and had forgotten to clean up after yourself. For example, combining two neutral sans-serif fonts like Helvetica and Univers creates discord; readers will sense something awry even if they can’t name it (see Figure 3). Combining two slab-serif fonts like Clarendon and Rockwell, both of which are control freaks and want to run the show, will create unnecessary tension (see Figure 4).
As with any good comedy duo, there needs to be a straight man. If you have a typeface with a strong, extroverted personality, try combining it with something neutral, reserved, and trustworthy (see Figure 5).
You can differentiate quite a bit even within the same font weight and size. You can use casing, indents, letter spacing, paragraph spacing, and paragraph rules to vary the look of the font.
It’s an informative exercise to work within the limitation of a single font. When you’ve exhausted the possibilities, introduce other members of the family, one by one—the different weights and/or styles—and different sizes (see Figure 8). It’s puritanical to say that the differentiation should be an either-or proposition (either bolder or bigger but not both), and that does not reflect the reality of contemporary book and magazine publishing, but working within such constraints makes you think about the changes you’re making and compels you to justify them.
8. MIX IT UP
What these guiding principles for mixing typefaces don’t take into account is the wild card of all good design: intuition. Just as an experienced chef can combine the most unlikely ingredients to great effect, so an experienced typographer can toss together unlikely type combinations that defy logic.
Also, don't forget the context. For editorial design, following these guidelines will likely yield a better result, but for more expressive work, there are no boundaries. As long as your document has some sort of typographic rhythm, the sky’s the limit.
In short, these principles make a good starting point: Adhere to them when they facilitate your creativity, and overrule them when they get in your way. But don’t ignore them.
WHERE TO GO FROM HERE
Tim Brown (type manager for Adobe Typekit) has written a handy e-book called Combining Typefaces. It’s 63 pages and costs £2 or US$2.99. For shorter takes, read the article Four techniques for combining fonts on the Hoefler & Frere-Jones website, as well as Smashing Magazine’s Best practices of combining typefaces.