Typography is vital for communication in design. Understanding the fundamentals of type and how to choose the best typeface pairings can improve your designs dramatically. After reading this guide, choosing fonts will be a breeze.
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room first. Font vs typeface, what’s the difference? Which is correct? The terms typeface and font are sometimes used interchangeably which can be a little confusing.
A typeface is a collection of fonts while a font refers to a specific style or weight within a typeface family. So let’s put this context with an example. Helvetica is a typeface. But Helvetica Bold is a specific font within the Helvetica typeface family. Here’s a visual example so you can see the difference between a typeface and fonts.
Now that we understand what a typeface and a font are, what is typography? Typography is the art and technique of arranging type. Whether you’re designing a website, an app, or a poster, you’re using type to deliver a message.
Typography serves two main purposes. The first is it must be legible. Can a user read and understand it? The second is how you use typography to create a mood or design aesthetic to attract a specific audience.
Learning the fundamental rules of type, so you can break them later, will help you become a better designer. It just takes practice and a little knowledge. If you want to learn more about type and how it relates to design, check out this article What is typography?
In order to know how to choose fonts, we need to understand the various categories of type, the characteristics of each, and recommended usage. In this guide, we’ll refer to three different categories of type when choosing font pairings.
A serif is a small line or stroke attached to the end of a larger stroke, often referred to as the “feet” shown at the bottom of letters. Not all serifs are equal. Some have slight variations depending on the typeface and that is part of what makes them unique. An advantage of using serif typefaces is how many font weights they usually have within a family. One serif family might have a regular, italics, semi bold, semi bold italic, bold, bold italic, small caps, and more.
Serif typefaces are more formal and traditional. They’re often used editorially such as in newspapers, magazines, and the body copy of books. One of the most well-known serif typefaces and probably the first font you ever used on a computer is Times New Roman.
Sans serif typefaces do not have serifs (the French word sans, means “without”). These typefaces are more modern, bold, and great for eye-catching headlines. One of the most popular sans serif typefaces is Arial which is a copycat of Helvetica. Our main brand fonts here at Flux are two san serif typefaces.
This category of typeface should be used sparingly, most for titles and headlines. It can range from scripts to monotype, and anything in between. These are a great way to add character to your design but should be avoided for long paragraphs of body copy as they can be difficult to read.
We’ve discussed what typography is as well as some of the main categories of type, now let’s dive into tips for how to choose the best fonts.
An important part of the design process is research and inspiration. One of my favorite places to find design inspiration is on Pinterest. Let’s say I’m working on designing a poster to advertise an event. On Pinterest, I searched for “bold poster design” and this is what I found. There’s a lot of fun typefaces that might inspire the next one you use for your design.
Notice from this moodboard, how type really influences the mood of the design. For more tips on why typography is important in design, check out this article to learn more.
No matter what you are designing, you should have a main font. When it comes to web design, most likely this will be used in your title or headline text. It’s meant to be an accent, to stand out, and influence the mood of your design. It doesn’t really matter what type of font it is, but knowing the first one will help you choose your second.
Check out this video video where Ran gives 3 tips to improve your typography.
Now that you have a main font for your design, the best way to choose a good secondary font is to make sure it’s dramatically different yet complements the design. You wouldn’t want to choose two serifs that look similar, there is no contrast and in fact, it looks like a design mistake. Take a look at this example, these are two different serif typefaces but it’s difficult to tell.
One of these ways to choose fonts is to choose a pair of opposites. A good example of this is to use a big and bold serif for your headline and a nice traditional serif typeface for the body copy. Take a look at this example, to see this tip in action.
Another tip is to think about the width of the typeface and how they complement each other. For example, maybe you want to pair a condensed sans serif typeface with a wider san serif. While they are both the same category of type, they vary in contrast due to their width. Take a look at this example for inspiration.
Typefaces can have geometric or organic attributes in their shape. One of the most well-known geometric typefaces is Futura, notice how open and round the O is in this poster design example.
In this example, the main headline uses a modern geometric sans serif typeface. This font choice helps establish the rest of the design, it pairs well with the Lomography logotype, the camera product photo, and other design elements.
In contrast to the above geometric typeface, notice how organic this typeface pairing is. There’s plenty of variation in the characters, it almost looks a little hand-done. This adds a quirky quality to the design if that’s what you are going for.
Just like choosing a color palette, it can be easy to get carried away with all the options available to use for your design. A good general rule is to stick to about 2–3 different typefaces total for a design. Now of course this might vary depending on what you are designing but it’s a good rule of thumb.
For example, if you’re designing a logo you’ll most likely modify one main font and maybe use a secondary typeface. For a website or an app, you’ll likely want to follow the same rule. Especially when designing for digital screens, legibility and accessibility are key to creating a good user experience.
Take a look at this poster designed for the Tribeca Film Festival. It’s a successful design for many reasons such as using scale with type, a good use of space, and hierarchy. But notice how they limited the design to three typefaces. The “CUT” and “TO” are two distinctly different bold serif typefaces. The first is thick and condensed while the second is still bold but wide. These are further paired well with a third monotype (think, typewriter) font for the main body copy with the fine details of the event.
You want to choose typefaces that stand the test of time. Be wary of trendy or popular typefaces that you see everyone else using. If you choose something too niche or close to the times when designing a logo, for example, you’ll find yourself having to redesign it after a few short years. To avoid your design becoming outdated, include classic and well-known typefaces. Check out this fun article on 25 classic fonts that will last a whole design career.
If you’re designing a brand or a website for a client, are they in an industry where they need a lot of trust from their customer? For example, maybe it’s a banking app. Or are they trying to disrupt the space they are in? In the same example, maybe you’re creating a site for a cryptocurrency app. Yes they want to gain the trust of their potential customer but they also want to stand out, maybe be a little more modern and bold to gain the attention and respect of a potential customer.
Understanding the intention behind the design will dictate your font choices.