Combining serif and sans serif fonts successfully can be a challenge, but it’s much easier once you know a few simple rules. It’s worth learning, as combining two fonts can really make your book design look professional. So don’t be daunted by the thousands of fonts available! The font-combining basics explained here will help to get you going quickly and easily.
When you’re experimenting with mixing fonts, you’ll see right away that some combinations work and others don’t. Below are some simple rules and examples you can use as a starting point.
Choosing serif and sans serif fonts that combine well
How can you tell if two fonts will complement each other? Here are two easy ways:
Use fonts designed as a pair
Fonts that are specifically designed in pairs definitely complement each other. You can spot font pairs easily since both fonts share the same name, such as Stone Serif and Stone Sans. Here are some examples showing the sans serif font used for the heading and the serif for the text:
Fonts created by the same designers can combine nicely too. For example, Adobe Minion (a serif designed by Robert Slimbach in 1990) and Adobe Myriad (a sans serif designed by Robert Slimbach and Carol Twombly in 1992) have become a widely used combination:
Use fonts that have similar letterforms
Serif and sans serif fonts that have similar letterforms are also a good match. Focus on the lowercase letters a and e to make sure they have similar shapes and angles. Take a look at these pairs and see how well they go together:
Comparing the letterforms is a quick way to see whether two fonts will complement each other without delving into the history of type design and comparing the differences in type from each era.
Creating contrast using size, weight, color, and font
Even though your chosen serif and sans serif combination may harmonize nicely, chances are that you’ll want one of those fonts to appear more dominant than the other to draw your reader’s eye. So let’s look at some ways of creating contrast using size, weight, color, and font.
Size creates a hierarchy of headings
Obviously a word or phrase that is larger than the surrounding text stands out. It’s useful to note that if the type is larger, it doesn’t have to be bolder or darker to be prominent. In the example below, the heading stands out because of its size, even though it’s set in a Light instance of Whitney and is a paler color than the surrounding text.
Large headings like the one above are particularly useful as chapter titles in nonfiction books and for titles on book covers. Most often, the serif font is used for the book text, and the sans serif for the main headings. Subheadings can be set in a serif or sans serif font, whichever suits your material best.
Varying the font weight creates contrast
An easy way to create contrast is to use different weights of the same font. Some fonts come with a variety of weights, which is very useful for making specific lines more prominent than others. In the example below, three instances of Trade Gothic LT Std are used: Condensed, Bold, and Light. And there are many more instances of this typeface family available.
Sans serif fonts with several weights (Trade Gothic, Myriad, to name just two) are great for book covers, as you can set each piece of info in a different weight. Clarendon, a slab serif, combines well with Trade Gothic because of the contrast between the super-plain Trade Gothic and the super-embellished Clarendon.
Color draws the eye
If you’re using serif and sans serif fonts that harmonize well at the same size, add some color to create contrast.
You may be printing with black ink only and therefore not able to add color. If so, you’ll need to create contrast using weight instead, or by using two very contrasting fonts (see below).
If you’re reversing type on a dark background, sans serif fonts are very readable in reverse type at small sizes.
For book pages, sans serifs are commonly used for headings and serifs for book text. However, in the example above the serif Bodoni is used for the heading. Serifs often mimic display type at large sizes because of their distinctive letterforms. Bodoni is particularly well suited as display type because of its clean letterforms.
Use contrasting fonts for emphasis
Sometimes you want the typefaces to really stand apart from each other while looking good together, too! Here are some examples of what to look for in your experiments with contrasting fonts: wide vs. narrow, modern vs. classic, round letterforms vs. narrower ones. I usually like to keep the two x-heights just about the same, even if it means using two different type sizes.
I still struggle to combine serif and sans serif fonts in attractive and interesting ways. These simple rules helped me a lot and I hope they help you too! There’s lots of good info online, so if you’re ever feeling stuck, just search for inspiration. I found A Guide to Combining Fonts very helpful even though it’s about web fonts (all the same principles apply to print fonts too), and it describes mixing modern and traditional fonts in an easy-to-understand way.
When I started designing books, I had to purchase the fonts I wanted to use. So I had to absolutely LOVE a font and know that I’d use it again and again before purchasing it (often a few hundred dollars). That font had to be super versatile, and I really got to know a font and exactly what it was capable of. Thousands of fonts are available now at Adobe Fonts through Creative Cloud, and that’s a good thing! You’ll still fall in love with a few fonts that’ll become your favorites, and that’s how your design style will evolve.
Happy designing, and good luck with combining fonts!
Read more: Typeface vs. font » Why you should know the difference.
And read more: Basic principles of book design » What are they?
Read even more: Design a coffee table book » A great place to combine fonts creatively.
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