Digital Font Pairing

Read Time: 3 minutes

By Allan Haley,author, lecturer and expert on all things typographic

Most projects call for more than one typeface. Where do you start? Changing size can help interest and hierarchy, but changing weight does a lot more. The concern is that many newer typeface families have a wide range of weights. Good for print projects, typographic subtleties work in hardcopy. Not so much in the digital world, however.

Pixel real estate has a lot to do with how typefaces appear. The light and medium weights of many typefaces provide adequate contrast in print environments, but you might need to consider the demi weight as a complement to the light in on-screen content.

For anything but the simplest typographic decisions, however, combining two different typeface designs does a better job of defining hierarchy and creating visual interest. There is a typographic “Golden Rule” of sorts for combining fonts from unrelated families: The greater the difference in type designs the better the pairing. The least risky “out of family” contrast is serif and sans serif. Select virtually any sans serif, combine it with just about any serif and you’re one step over the line from absolute conservatism.

If you want to combine two serif designs, pair very different typefaces. Try an old-style type like ITC Weidemann with a modern type like Bodoni or ITC Fenice, or a transitional like Baskerville with a glyphic like Friz Quadrata. Sometimes two faces from similar stylistic categories can be combined if the design and/or weight differences between them are markedly dissimilar—for example, the delicate stroke weight of ITC Berkeley Oldstyle Book contrasts nicely with Souvenir Black.

With the variety of serif and sans serif typeface available, there are hundreds of good combinations. Combining just sans serif typefaces, however, becomes more challenging. The problem with combining two sans serif typefaces is that most are similar in designs—especially to average readers. Our eyes are drawn to graphic images that are either in harmony or counterpoint. Visually, strong contrasts typically don’t create problems, but when typefaces from different families that look a lot alike are combined, visual discordance or inadequate hierarchy is usually the result.

If you think you must use two sans serif typefaces for a project, keep in mind that only vastly different styles and weights from these families should be combined on a page. A 19th century sans serif such as ITC Franklin can work with a geometric sans serif like Futura because the two are distinctively different from each other. But, sans serifs that are similar in design—Trade Gothic and Univers, for example—almost never work in unison.

It’s not uncommon to work with a bespoke branding typeface. What then? The same guidelines apply. Identify the design traits or underlying forms of the custom design then pair it with typefaces that create typographic harmony or counterpoint.

Like pairing wine with food, observation and a little common sense go a long way in successful pairing of typefaces.

What are your favorite pairings? Log in and comment below!