This article was originally published by R/m Design School, a free e-series of educational projects about design.
There are many ways to put it. We talk of marrying typefaces, of finding mixtures that work, combinations that hit it off, pairings that make sense. Whatever the words, the heart of the matter is the same: we want an appropriately expressive presentation of text that works in practical terms. The look and feel of what we want to communicate depends on getting the combination right.
Overall, anyone who lays out texts faces two kinds of problems: practical-functional and aesthetic. Finding what works across the board takes time and effort—lots of it. And every designer has his or her own way of going about the “how” of it. Some rely on instinct, a “feel;” others on rules for combination drawn from experience, and still others on the winning examples of others. Yet every typographic situation is different, even unique, and success can only be measured by readers’ unconscious impressions.
The four pairings of typefaces offered here are matched in terms of: proportions (Futura and Garamond), in look or plastic quality (Farnham and Benton), and by a kind of contrapuntal interplay (Century Old Style and Sweet Sans; Chaparral and Proxima Nova). Just a word more: there are no hard and fast rules for combining typefaces. Our suggestions are meant to spark your own thinking.
Futura & Garamond: why do they match?
The marriage of Futura and Garamond is based on a unity of opposites. Despite differences in origin and character, they combine brilliantly, thanks to their proportions, to form a powerful typographic ensemble with a rich range of possibilities.
Futura and Garamond have almost identical vertical metrics—the relationship of lowercase and uppercase letters (x-height) and the length of extenders. The moderate height of the lowercase letters along with the height of the ascenders give, in addition to a feeling of “slimness,” a sense of space between lines even where there is little leading.
The capitals of both typefaces use the classical proportions of Roman capital letters, each letter of which derives from a simple geometric form: triangle, circle, square (or one of their segments). The drawing of this kind of face is rhythmically complex. The “voice” is never monotonous.
Garamond’s lowercase letters are noticeably different in width, a feature deriving in part from the not quite extinguished link to the proportions of humanist minuscule, the basis for the first serif typefaces of the 15th–16th centuries, which were much influenced by Renaissance ideas of “beautiful form.” Odd as it may seem, the proportions of the lowercase letters of Futura, a face of quite a different time and character, are very close to those of Garamond. But, for Futura, a typeface meant to last long after the era of its creation, use of the time-tested classical proportions was entirely natural and wise.
Like many other handwriting-based Renaissance serifs transformed by the chisel into type, the letters of Garamond have a direct, expressive link to their origin in script. On the other hand, Futura is one of the first typefaces whose letters are based on the idea of “pure” geometry. But Futura’s geometry is a matter more of the eye than of mathematics—a geometry created with compass and ruler but adjusted countless times before reaching final typographic acceptability.
Farnham & Benton Sans: why do they match?
Farnham and Benton Sans are quite similar in the energy and dynamics of their letterforms, proving that faces of various epochs and styles can work well together despite the absence of specific shared elements. Farnham, a contemporary version of a transitional serif, teams up well with the early 20th-century American sans serif through a likeness of temperament and proportions.
Notwithstanding the obvious difference in physical dimensions (the blockiness of the Benton is part of its adaptation for use as a text face for screens), the faces are alike in the squatness of their lowercase letters, which have distinctly short ascenders and descenders. Benton Sans has a bit larger x-height than its partner.
Farnham and Benton Sans are regularly proportioned typefaces. Notable in their capitals is the suggestion of rectangles and ovals rather than squares and circles.
The lowercase letters of both are wide. Given that “a well-ventilated” line is easiest to read, openness of letterforms is important when it comes to choosing a text face. In Benton Sans, note the undisturbed simplicity of the apertures with outward-pointing terminals. In Farnham, whose letters tend to be compact, openness is cleverly achieved by the squareness in the counterparts, letting the lowercase letters gently open up.
The very close similarity in proportions—the large x-height and short ascenders and descenders—optimize the readability of both faces for small text blocks and create a more regular and fairly tight (perhaps calmer) leading.
Farnham is clever and resourceful in many ways, but its baroque details and vibrancy are always at the service of essentially pragmatic tasks. On closer examination, the businesslike, deliberately plain forms of Benton Sans have almost the same degree of dynamics as Farnham, the serif partner.
Century Old Style & Sweet Sans: why do they match?
The pairing of Century Old Style and Sweet Sans is a pairing of maximum contrasts. Unlike as they may be, each typeface seems to say to the other—Hey, look, I’ve got everything you haven’t! And they not only can get along well together but offer something very special in simply switching roles.
While very different in appearance, the faces do share some things—relatively large x-height and the similar length of the extenders. In all else, they differ significantly. Century’s capitals are taller and narrower than Sweet’s. Century tends to bunch its hanging elements, while Sweet lets them fall freely. Century’s ascenders are the height of its capitals. Sweet’s are taller.
Century and Sweet’s capitals differ in width but are very similar in their proportions–both are regularly proportioned types. Century tends to frame its capitals in a narrow rectangle (with sides in an approximate relationship of 2×3), while Sweet’s capitals tend to squareness.
In the lowercases, both typefaces carry forward the intention announced in the capitals. Century seeks maximum compactness, while Sweet lounges comfortably across space. At the same time, unlike Sweet, whose lowercase letters are relatively equal in width, Century’s lowercase letters include several notable exceptions: the letters -e- and -s- are wider than the others by just enough to stand apart distinctively in text-sizes.
Despite their important differences, both faces work very well as text type. Sweet has everything that a sans serif needs for comfortable reading. On the other hand, it is best to go with as large a Century as possible, for the Century image is not well adapted for showing on screens.
Century Old Style is consistent in mixing a late-19th-century typeface with elements of letterforms from a century and more before. It does not draw the elements from a single model but blends elements from many. Sweet Sans, unlike Century, is a typeface with a direct connection to its prototypes—the engraving-likescripts of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.