In my last blog, I discussed color and our emotional response to it. With this blog, I want to continue to look at our emotional responses to design – specifically typefaces.

Have you ever stood in front of a painting next to someone and said, “I love this piece,” only to hear the person next to you declare, “I hate it!” If so, then you understand that designing with type is personal; it can elicit a different emotional response in each of us. One person may think a font looks “wonderful” while another may think the same font is “boring.” By the way, I am not using font and typeface interchangeably. A font is a particular instance of a typeface. For example, Garamond is the name of the typeface; Garamond Italic is a font, an instance of the Garamond typeface family.

That said, the important thing here is figuring out how to choose a typeface combination for your flyer, brochure or web site that is suitable for your message or mission, that is attractive and is organized in a way that leads the reader through the copy in a logical manner.

Typefaces are the clothes words wear, and just as we make judgments about people by the clothes they wear, so we make judgments about the information we’re reading by the typefaces.” — Caroline Archer

Setting the Mood

As you may or may not know, creating type is an art form all on its own. There are volumes of books written on the subject. Taking a lesson from Caroline Archer’s quote, we choose font combinations to create a look or theme through which we communicate our intent, our message. Whether it’s a text email to colleagues, a corporate brochure or restaurant blog, we combine type to convey the emotion within the message. Like clothing, fonts lend themselves to the creation of various “looks/themes.”

To illustrate, Times or Times New Roman is a serif typeface long associated with newspaper print or journalism. So, it’s not difficult to assume that factual information could be presented successfully with Times or that Times combined with Helvetica can look official.

Another example is Garamond. It’s a classy serif font with its own distinct elegance. Combined with the sans-serif typeface Optima, the design will have a classical and timeless elegance.

Thus, type has its own voice. It speaks volumes; therefore, it’s important to decide the theme of the document prior to choosing a typeface. Think first about the “look” you want to achieve:

  • Graphic
  • Technical
  • Romantic/nostalgic
  • Corporate/conservative
  • Artistic
  • Playful
  • Natural

Once you’ve determined the look or theme for the document, understanding how to combine fonts appropriately will enable you to produce a successful communication piece. This brings up the rules for combining type. The Big Book of Font Combinations by Douglas Bonneville lists “29 Principles for Making Great Font Combinations.” If you are a student of design and looking to be successful, these principles are worth knowing and understanding. If you somehow stumbled into design as a result of a “bad economy” expecting more from fewer employees such as, it is worth perusing and grasping some of the concepts. Either way, paying attention to some or all the principles will help.

To illustrate, Bonneville’s principle 21 is age-old in my opinion. I can’t tell you how many times, I’ve offered this advice to colleagues. Simply put, principle 21 says, “stick to two typefaces.” By choosing two typefaces, you have potentially eight fonts with which to work in their normal, bold, italic and bold italic states.


When choosing font combinations, there are no absolutes but try to achieve:

  • Contrast
  • Distinction
  • Suitability

Play with Contrast

Try to achieve contrast with font combinations. It helps lead the reader through the copy in a logical manner. That is, in print, we choose a sans-serif typeface like Futura for headlines and sometimes subheads and a serif font like Palatino for the body copy. For the web, however, the opposite is more suitable. On the web, serif fonts are harder to read and slow the eye down due to the low resolution of monitors, thus making them more suitable for headlines and sub-heads. Contrast can also be achieved by varying font weight, playing with leading, word spacing and kerning or tracking.

For each Typeface a Distinct Role

Assign each typeface a role and stick with it. That is, if you choose Palatino for the body copy and Syntax for the headlines and sub heads, stick with it. A serif and sans-serif typeface combination is a ”tried and true” solution. Also, make note of the lightness or boldness of the italic and bold font variations of each typeface. It will help you achieve a distinctive and winning header and body combination.

A Mood, a Suit

Just like you dress according to the event, so should be your choice in typefaces. Chose two suitable typefaces based on your theme or mood. Choose wisely as typefaces can be:

  • Graceful/delicate: Garamond or Caslon
  • Friendly: New Century Schoolbook, New Baskerville or Antique Olive
  • Harsh/Ugly: Ad Lib and Amelia
  • Sparkling/Fresh: Optima, Syntax
  • Sophisticated: Goudy, Palatino and Caslon
  • Strong: Impact, Futura Extra Bold, and Helvetica Compressed

I recommend the following two books to help you get started. They are: Quick Solutions for Great Type Combinations by Carol Buchanan and Bonneville’s The Big Book of Font Combinations.

Carol Buchanan’s book is the older of the two, but it delivers as promised and, in my opinion, is the best place to start. Although Buchanan uses only 16 classic typefaces like Garamond, Goudy, Futura and Optima, the number of themes created by these combinations will surprise you. Buchanan’s book describes each typeface briefly and goes as far as to list a theme followed by the “swipeable” typeface solution used to make that theme.

In my early years as a designer, books like these helped me “work smarter.” These books contain information that sped up my decision-making and helped me understand when and how to break the rules.

Thus, if you have a certain theme or mood in mind for your communication piece, these references can certainly help you quickly chose a specific combination of fonts in that regard. If you love typefaces and want to study and explore typeface combinations to eventually achieve your own success, you’ll find these references extremely helpful. They will certainly take some of the stress out of designing while allowing you the opportunity to explore font solutions and eventually get it right.

Other resources

EsperFonto: What is the most appropriate typeface or font for this job?

Typefaces that work together

The Big Book of Font Combinations