Marrying Types: Sans on Sans

Finding typefaces that work well together can be tricky. There are no mix-and-match rules, and even attempts at thoughtful guidelines tend to be too general. In a new intermittent series, I’ll look at specific design examples—typeface marriages—and tease out insights into why they work (or don’t). For a summary of the conclusions I draw from each case study, skip down to the subhead “Lessons Learned.”

In future installments, I’ll range over a wide variety of document types, from magazines, to ads, to brochures. If there’s a certain kind of document or layout you’re particularly interested in, or there are typefaces that you’re having a hard time with, send up a flare using the Comments button below. I’ll try to address your questions in future articles.

Looks Simple, But It’s Not
I chose the esteemed book-production text, Words into Type, as the inaugural case study for a few reasons. First, its design is spare, even minimalist—which is not to say that the design or typography is simple. In fact, it’s subtle and sophisticated. But it looks simple, so the points I’ll make aren’t lost in background noise. Second, its choice of typefaces violates one of those typeface guidelines that you do sometimes see: Don’t combine two sans serif typeface families.

The designers of Words into Type‘s third edition chose Paul Renner’s Futura (1927) for display and heading type and Hermann Zapf’s Optima (1958) for the text.

The title page of Word into Type introduces the happy couple—Futura and Optima—whose graphic balance on this simple page portend the harmonious relationship that unfolds in the coming pages.

The typography in Word into Type is the epitome of clarity. Its apparent simplicity belies sophistication of the visual clues—including six levels of headings—that guide the reader through the page, sorting a complex hierarchy of information into a an easy-to-follow road map.

The main reason these typeface families work so well together is their dissimilarity: They represent two very different species of sans serif type.

Futura is the classic example of a geometric sans, Renner’s attempt to reduce the shapes of all characters to their minimal shapes, with all traces of ornament or handwriting influence stripped away:

Zapf’s Optima, on the other hand, is a classic humanist sans serif, its lowercase letterforms drawing their inspiration from early 14th-century Italian inscriptions, with the proportions of the uppercase characters based on those of the famed inscription on Trajan’s Column in Rome.

Optima’s strokes are modulated in weight, tapered, like those of seriffed faces, and it’s perhaps the most readable of all sans serif faces.

A key to the rapport between Futura and Optima, then, is contrast. They share a cleanness of line and a keenness of definition, but their textures are very different, and the shapes of each one’s characters are distinctive. They can’t be mistaken for each other.

A close-up view shows the contrasting character shapes of the two faces, distinctive, yet not incongruous.

They’re doubly useful for the designer because they both come from extended families, which offer a host of options for headings, subheads, run-in headings, and headers and footers. In other words, the combinations they permit yield a wide variety of forms and styles of contrast. The complete Futura family consists of some 32 faces in six weights, with condensed and oblique alternates. Optima comes in 12 versions: 6 weights, each with an oblique complement.

In Words into Type, major headings are set in Futura medium in 24- or 14-point, primary subheads are in 10-point Futura Bold Condensed, and section subheadings are set in 10-point Futura Bold, run-in (followed by a simple word space). Subsection headings are set in 9-point Optima Medium Italic, also run in, while the text itself is set 9-point Optima Medium on 10 points of lead. Footnotes are set in Optima Medium, 8 on 8.

A Clear Road Map
The ability to quickly differentiate text elements of a page and the hierarchy of its component parts is essential for a reader to implicitly understand the structure of a text and navigate it efficiently. Contrast in weight and stance (roman vs. oblique or italic) within a single typeface family may not be enough by itself to make this scheme evident, and constantly varying point sizes can make a layout too busy. But the contrasting designs of Futura and Optima assure success in this regard, even with little or no variation in point size.

This fictitious book’s original Futura Bold run-in heads in the upper sample pop clearly from the text, owing not just to the contrast in weight, but the contrast in character shapes as well. When a member of the Optima family is substituted, below, even though it’s an ultra-bold weight, the contrast isn’t as effective, and the subheads appear more murky than distinctive.

But ultimately, it’s not just the positive and complementary aspects of two typefaces that assure a harmonious wedding. It’s also the absence of points of alarming difference or confusing similarity.

Using Roger Excoffon’s Antique Olive (1962) in place of Futura in this design, for example, would be less successful, because it has certain confusing points of resonance with Optima, such as its modulated stroke weights and generally similar character shapes.

When Word into Type‘s original Futura faces are replaced by equivalent weights and sizes of Antique Olive, the result is a clumsy blend of shapes and proportions.

Such design similarities—evident especially here in the all-caps passages—can make two typefaces start to look like bad imitations of each other. At the same time, Antique Olive has a very large x-height that makes it look ill-proportioned next to the sleeker Optima. In other words, although in general contrast is good, it has to be the right kind of contrast.

Lessons Learned
Words into Type demonstrates that sans serif typeface families can work well together when they’re very different species of sans serif type that nevertheless strike a graphic balance.

To be as successful with your own typeface combinations, look for contrast in textures, character shapes, weight, and stance (roman vs. oblique or italic).

Keep in mind that too much contrast can work against you. For example, a face with a very large x-height looks ill-proportioned paired with a face with a short x-height.

And finally, when possible, choose extended typeface families so you have a wide variety of forms and styles of contrast at your disposal.


Posted on: July 21, 2010

James Felici

James Felici has worked in the publishing industry—in both editorial and production—for more than 30 years. A veteran journalist and former managing editor of Publish magazine, he has set type by hand as well as on systems from IBM, Linotype, Compugraphic, CCI, and Magna. His books include The Complete Manual of Typography (Peachpit Press), The Desktop Style Guide (Bantam/ITC), How to Get Great Type Out of Your Computer (North Light), and contributions to The Macintosh Bible (Peachpit Press). He has written for numerous publications, including PC World, Macworld, and The Seybold Report, and has been a featured speaker at Seybold Seminars, Macworld Expo, and other events worldwide.

8 Comments on Marrying Types: Sans on Sans

  1. Your comment about Zapf’s Optima perhaps being the most readable san serif is interesting.

    Here’s a related anecdote: I’m told by typographer Ronald Arnholm, the designer of ITC Legacy Sans, Serif (based on the original Jensen), and Square Serif, that Herman Zapf said Arnholm’s Legacy Sans was as readable or more readable than Gill Sans, which heretofore I believe has been considered the most readable sans.

    R Sherman

  2. Excellent article! I look forward to the rest of the series. Thank you very much.

  3. Thanks for the great article !

  4. Enjoyed the article – learned something – comments were interesting also. Thank you.

  5. This was a thoughtful, clear explanation of how to match fonts. I know some combos can be disastrous. Thanks for the tips.

  6. Sorry, but I just can’t agree that these typefaces work well together. The examples are not pleasing to the eye. I think the old rule of single sans family and/or a single serif family still applies.

    Daniel Peterson
    Artesian Design Inc.

  7. …couldn’t disagree more. As para headers this might work but inline the discontinuity between font heights makes it look as though there is something wrong. Any visual discontinuity makes it less appealing to read. I didn’t comment but I thought the same when you published this same article six months ago. But hey, repeat it a couple of more times and we’ll all be won over…

  8. …run-in head. Good contrast, bad contrast, it doesn’t matter to me. It slows me down when I’m reading and I don’t like it.

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