5 Tips for Choosing and Pairing Fonts
I’m asked by many of my non-designer friends to look at the flyer or presentation they’ve created and tell them what I think. I soooo hate when this happens. As a designer, I’m pretty fussy about type selection. Are they appropriate? Are they paired well? Is there enough variation to create a good hierarchy? So when I look at my friends’ work, they've almost always made poor selections — mostly from lack of knowledge, and some just have bad taste.
Good font selection can take almost any design and bring it up three levels. Yet to many, this can be daunting. There are so many fonts to choose from! And with the advent of the computer, the number of fonts has exploded.
First we need to understand the difference between fonts.
Display fonts are designed, and look best at a larger size. They tend to have strong “personalities” meant to make a statement. They often don’t have many variations in weight, and will typically be the dominant font on your page (even if they are used the least).
Text fonts are designed to look good as body text. They work best at small- to medium-sizes but can be used larger with extra attention paid to their letter spacing. Their personality will not be as bold as a display font, but can still have a lot of character. It just tends to be a little more subtle.
So how does one pair fonts? Here are five approaches that will help you look like a top-notch designer.
1. Limit Your Choices
Without the help of a designer, people often make the mistake of choosing too many fonts. So try limiting your font selection to two to three font families. A font family is font and all its variations (i.e., regular, italic, bold, bold italic, etc.). Use fonts with a large family and you’ll be safe using them, knowing that they'll complement each other.
Limiting your choices doesn’t mean only use two to three fonts. It means using the right number of fonts for the project you are designing. With that said, the more fonts you use, the harder it is to balance them together and create harmony that enhances the design. As the examples show, one, two or many fonts can work when designed well.
2. Find the Right Characters
Fonts have personality and therefore you need to find the right personality for your project. If it’s a corporate presentation to bankers, you’ll want to consider fonts that are safer and risk-averse like Helvetica and Times Roman. Or you could add a little play with Gill Sans or Palatino. All are corporate in personality and will not make you look risky.
On the other hand, if you are creating a flyer for employees about the company picnic, you can use fonts with more fun and bold personalities like Boston Traffic or Geometric. Or a personality that feels more picnic-like such as ITC Kabel or Logger.
3. Mix Serif with Sans Serif
This is my favorite approach — using a serif font (one with flourishes at the end of strokes like Times New Roman) with a san serif font (typeface without any stroke embellishments like Helvetica). You can use either style font as the headline or the text. This works well due to the contrast of the two fonts. But remember the feeling of the fonts still needs to be in harmony. If the fonts’ feelings are too different, they’ll clash.
If you choose two fonts that are the same — serif/serif or san serif/san serif — and they are too similar, they’ll fight each other. You need to ask yourself why you’re mixing two different font families instead of just using the same font family. See the sample below.
Contrast is a good thing in type design. Using a font family’s different weights and font size are the easiest ways to create contrast. Selecting fonts with a large family of font styles makes this much easier. The samples below use Rotis Sans Serif and Garamond. Notice how using fonts with dramatic weight differences creates harmony and a clear hierarchy. This is one of the easiest ways to create good typography with limited type knowledge.
Good type design relies heavily on consistency. One of the easiest ways to be consistent — assign a specific role to each font in your design. For example you can assign headlines your bold san serif font, subheads with a medium weight san serif and body text with a light serif font. See the sample below how this might work.
I could write many more articles on the use of type. But if you follow these basic points, you’ll improve your presentations, proposals and flyers.
If you’d like to learn even more, here’s a link that gives you access to many tutorials specifically about typography: 82 top-quality typography tutorials. I can also recommend Lynda.com, a wonderful video training site with titles like: The 33 Laws of Typography, Foundations of Typography: Choosing and Combining Typefaces and Foundations of Typography.
Lastly, if you want to improve your typographic designs simply look; look at everything. But while looking, keep these basic principles in mind and ask yourself “Why do I like this?” Then start to see the structure behind the design.
Patrick Fultz is the President/CCO of DM Creative Group, a creative marketing firm producing work across all media. He’s an art-side creative, marketing strategist, designer and lover of all things type. His credentials include a degree from Parsons School of Design with 15 years of teaching at his alma mater, over 40 industry creative awards, and he previously served as President of the John Caples International Awards. Always an innovator, Fultz was credited with creating the first 4-color variable data direct mail piece ever produced. He continues to look for innovative ways to tap the powerful synergy of direct mail, the web, digital and social media.