The art of pairing typefaces

Am still very much a novice when it comes to typeface pairing, but it would seem to me that there’s very much a subtle art to it and that it’s not just a simple case of one typeface is san-serif and the other is serif. :thinking:

Are there any ‘rules of thumb’ to help you identify what’s a good match that will compliment your chosen typeface i.e the X-height should be roughly the same or whatever…?


Figure out what you want to say; what emotional response you want to elicit. That is the best bit about type pairing, you can achieve a much more subtle, nuanced approach by using two font families (never more than two, in my opinion, without very good reason), than by using a single family.

As to understanding this; only time and experience (plus some historical knowledge) will teach you the difference between, say, Franklin Gothic and Akidenz Grotesk, in terms of what they communicate, emotionally.

Until you understand how to play with these differences, font pairing is going to be a bit of trial and error. One day, it will just click – with enough prior effort.

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Serif and Sans is one way.

Avoid same nomenclatures.
Use different weights
Assign a role to a certain font, like TIPS, FACTS, CHAPTER TITLE etc.
Avoid fonts that are jarring - like a script that tilts left and a script that tilts right

Use fonts that convey the brand.
Modern/Futuristic/Tech/Luxury/Kids/ etc.

There’s a bit to it - but get to finding out what you want to say - then pick suitable fonts around the language being used.


In addition to what Sprout and Smurf2 have said, one rule of thumb might be contrast. Most of the time, paired typefaces need to be quite different from each other. For example, as has already been mentioned, serif and sans serif. A lyrical cursive paired with a heavy geometric sans, might be another.

Using a musical analogy, a single typeface is a note. Two paired typefaces creates a chord where pitches come together to create a harmonic sound that can’t be achieved by a single note. It takes practice, experience and a good ear to know just the right chord to use within the overall composition.

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@sprout @Smurf2 @Just-B That’s very fascinating, from what you guys have said it sounds like a good pairing is based around visual harmony, contrast and accurately communicating the intended message (which makes a lot of sense!).

For some reason I had it in my mind that it there was a dark art to it :mage:, or that there were certain metrics in both fonts which needed to match!

As you touched on, disparate x-heights can look odd, but equally, that can be compensated for, to an extent, by relative sizes.

As smurf said, serif and sans is where I’d go 99% of the time. It is a rare thing I’d mix two of the same, unless, for example, you had, say, Sabon body, then something very contrasting, very heavy and slab for heads, like Lubalin Graph Extra Bold. Get it wrong, though, and it goes very wrong, very horribly.

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Oh no … I’ve said too much! :flushed:



Sooner or later somebody will write an app that all one has to do is type in “Helvetica” and out spews “Arial”.

Thanks guys, will stick to the basic serif / san-serif combo until I can appreciate and recognize the naunces.

nonsense, go and play!


experiment as much as you want, A big influence for me in type is David Carson. he uses really experimental out there designs and some of his typographic works looks very chaotic. to quote him “use your eyes, not the rules”

OK, I’ll bite…

Personally, I like Carson’s work, but it has its place – mostly for other designers (and surf dudes) to pore over.

However where I take objection to the above quote is, it is all well and good, but you usually have to know the rules to be able to break them, otherwise you end up like Mr Carson, very niche – and even then only if you are really lucky. He is talented enough to have made an impact and has an innate understanding of space and proportion. He is one of those rare beasts who has natural talent but is not formally trained in design,

That’s definitely not the norm. Most people who go for the grunge look without knowing the rules will end up producing little more than a visual cacophony.

He was also successful because of the time his work emerged. It was highly influenced by the California surf culture ( he was a pro surfer for a time), but it gained wider popularity as a result of over-polished, highly corporate, very conservative prevailing trends. It was this climate that fostered the likes of Carson, Brody, Vaughan Oliver. They broke new ground. They were original. All those who emulated it fell by the wayside.

Little of this makes for effective design, in terms of clear communication. It makes for inspiration for other designers and pushes more towards art than design.

Anyway, where I was going with this, is if you want to learn typography, don’t learn it from Carson. Come back to it later. In reality, whatever it’s appeal, for the most part, most designers’ clients are not going to be well-served by a such a niche aesthetic. You need to have much more in your arsenal. I just can’t see you average startup bakery doing well with type that is intentionally illegible and has the wrong tone of voice to people looking for hand-crafted, crusty cobs.

Anyone can play an A above middle C on a piano, but you have to be able to play Rachmaninov’s 3rd to be able to do it justice.

Use your eyes and your head and know the rules before throwing them out.

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Experimentation is fine and should be done, but if one is approaching this from the practical perspective of earning a living, a David Carson approach as a substitute for learning the rules might make finding a job difficult.

David Carson and others, like Rudy Vanderlans, approached typography from an experimental or fine arts perspective. This is great. I love this kind of work, but it doesn’t have a whole lot of direct relevance to the vast majority of work most designers do.

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