The Subtle Art of Pairing Serif and Sans Serif Typefaces, Part II

December 15th, 2010

And now the second part of the two-parter on pairing typefaces in 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. Some other Oldstyle Serifs are: Jenson, Bembo, Caslon, Garamond, Palatino, and Sabon. Other Humanist Sans Serifs are Eras, Gill Sans, Lucida Grande.

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. Geometric Sans Serifs include Avant Garde, Avenir, Bernhard Gothic, Centruty Gothic, Eurostile Futura, Kabel, and Univers.

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. Frnice, New Century Schoolbook, and Walbaum. 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.

Entry Filed under: typefaces

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