Choosing typefaces is one of the two most important choices you make when designing a book. Aside from a cover photo or illustration, it’s the detail that is most “out there” in front of readers. In this short piece, book designer, page compositor, and layout artist Stephen Tiano shares advice on best practice for combining fonts.

Typeface characteristics

Fonts* used on a book cover make the initial reading impression and, when properly chosen, prepare readers for how the reading experience will feel when they turn to the first page.

I know of two ways to select typefaces for book projects. First, the lazy — though not necessarily uninteresting way — is to choose superfamilies comprised of both serif and sans serif fonts. The other way is arguably the more creative way, and is what, intuitively, one expects to pay a book designer to do: dope out perfect matches for each book he or she works on.

A few of my favorite type superfamilies are Fontin/Fontin Sans, Liberation Serif/LiberationSans, and FF Scala/FF Scala Sans. (As a bonus, both the Fontin superfamily and the Liberation superfamily are open source — that is, free to use.) There’s also an interesting list of forty superfamilies in an article on Peyton Crump’s Viget Inspire blog. Stay on your toes, however, as not each of these pairs is suitable for making books.

The second way to pair types is the “hard,” creative way; the doping-it-out kind of way, where the book designer does the matching. And that leads to the two ways to pair serifs and sans serifs: by contrasting or by matching.

Contrasting, at first blush, is by far the easier of the two ways to work out pairings. Theoretically, nearly every difference provides contrast.

Some obvious points to compare are letter height, x-height, stroke weight, character shapes, and direction of the axis (vertical or angled). The most practical contrast, however, when using serifs and sans side-by-side are roman to bold — the more extreme, the better; and size — one of the fonts should be at least a few points larger than the other.

When matching types, there are certain combinations that work naturally, because of the weights, shapes, and proportions of the characters. Oldstyle Serif types, with their angled stress and mild difference between thin and thickness of stroke, pair nicely with Humanist Sans Serifs — Minion and Frutiger, for instance (both available from MyFonts).

Other Oldstyle Serifs such as Jenson, Bembo, Caslon, Garamond, Palatino, and Sabon, combine well with other Humanist Sans Serifs such as Eras, Gill Sans, and Lucida Sans.

Transitional faces have a vertical stress and the contrast of thin and thickness of a character’s stroke is more obvious than with Oldstyle faces. Some examples of Transitional Serifs are Bell, Bookman, Bulmer, Caledonia, Joanna, Mrs Eaves, New York, Perpetua, and Times Roman typefaces. Transitionals are paired well with Geometric Sans Serifs such as Avant Garde, Avenir, Bernhard Gothic, Century Gothic, Eurostile, Futura, Kabel, and Univers (all available from MyFonts).

Modern typefaces have much more pronounced contrast between the thin and thick of their stroke than the Transitionals, and larger x-heights. Examples of Moderns are Bernhard Modern Roman, Bodoni, Didot, Fenice, New Century Schoolbook, and Walbaum (all available from MyFonts). Geometric Sans Serifs, as with Transitionals, make nice pairings with Modern Serifs.

For book design, I stop here, except for my desire to sometime set a book in Optima, a Near-Serif Sans.

*A word on the two separate and distinct terms, typeface and font. A typeface is the name under which all the characters (letters, numbers, punctuation marks), in all styles (roman, italic, bold, etc.) and sizes, of a particular design are unified. A font is a typeface in a single size and a single style. So Bembo is a typeface, but 10 point Bembo Italic is a font.

Many thanks to Stephen Tiano for sharing his knowledge.

Font combination resources

combining fonts