Choosing and Matching Typefaces

There is never only one typeface, or one typeface combination, that will work in any given design. It is more a matter of how the designer mixes or utilizes the various fonts available within a typeface family or the mix that results from pairing a serif and san-serif together.

Paying close attention to the visual relationship that results from changes in size, weight, spacing, posture and case are far more important than any single typeface choice or combination. (typeface variables)

Some general suggestions to consider early in this decision-making process include the following:

  • Mixing typefaces requires the designer to first understand the concept of grouping and visual hierarchy.
  • This concept is applied typography in several ways, but the first level is in the way Text Type and Display Type are distinguished. Display Type includes all versions of type treatments where the first and foremost job of the words are to grab attention. This would include logotypes, headlines, pull quotes, subheadings. On the other hand, the primary job of Text Type is to be readable. This is not to suggest that Display Type should not be readable, only where their primary job lies.
  • You may find elsewhere that display type is defined as anything above 12 points in size and text type anything 12 points and below. I encourage you to not use this definition because it does not consider the purpose for how the words are being sized. For example, a poster might quite possibly have no type that is 12 points in size or lower. However, the purpose of the headline is certainly different that the details of a web address or product specs placed on the same poster. The purpose should determine whether or not the words are defined as display or text and therefore whether they are treated to grab attention or provide readable information.
  • Display Type is where you might consider using a typeface that has a strong visual personality. You must read the copy/story/article first to get to know what the author is trying to say—and how she is saying it. Then, with that knowledge you can look for display type that has a personality that is similar in tone or voice—therefore it will help the author deliver their written message.
  • Text Type is where you should usually choose a typeface that has a more subtle visual personality. Its purpose is for readability, so you don’t want the typeface to distract from the ease of reading. Basic attention to variables such as line length, type size, use of emphasis, and leading are extremely important here. Even greater attention to the more subtle aspects such as diminuendo, kerning, tracking, hyphenation and justification, widows and orphans will begin to make a profound difference in the readability with any typeface choice.
  • Ultimately the combination you choose should be because of their compatibility, not their sameness. They are a visual typographic team. We already know that the primary roles of the Display and Text type are different, so first keeping that in mind, the next step in choosing a pair is to be sensitive to how the contrast between the two is beneficial to the story/article.
  • You are also being sensitive to basic visual balance, unity, and rhythm. So, look at how heavy, dense or light and airy are the resulting paragraphs compared to the titles. Is the result very even gray (monotone) or too much variety (ransom note). Neither of those extremes are desirable. You are instead looking for something between these extremes.
  • Finally, a general consideration to guide you. Treat similar kinds of information in a similar manner, and different kinds of information differently.
  • The choices for text type are many times the hardest. The classic typefaces are always a very good place to begin looking. If you look in the typography books on the shelves in the design studio you will get a good sense of what those typeface families are. (20 Classic Typefaces) A short list of them would certainly include the following;

Another list of twenty five classic typefaces including brief historical and design histories may be found here.

Choosing and Pairing Typefaces 

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