How-to: Font Pairing for Beginners

 

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What makes or breaks a design? Is it the size of the graphic? No. How about the colors? Eh, sometimes. But what happens if you have 8 different fonts in different sizes and you have no idea where to look or what some of the things say and now you're totally overwhelmed and you're thinking in run-on sentences because that's what bad font choices can do sometimes? Bingo.

The fonts you use on your graphics for your website, social media and print materials can make or break or small business or organization. It can either make you look 100% professional, you have your stuff together and can provide awesome services or products... Or look like you're running an operation out of the trunk of your car part-time. Choose your fonts wisely!

First, let’s break down some of the font terms:

TYPEFACE

Another word for font! You may hear your designer use typeface and font interchangeably. Don’t panic: it’s totally normal. Now you are prepared and can join the ranks of pro designers who dare never use the word "font." Kidding, we all swap the two terms.

SERIF

A serif font or typeface that has lines attached to the endpoints or stroke of each letter. What does that mean? It means you’ll see little feet, known as a serif, on the bottom of most letters like the H, i, I, m, s, r and f in the graphic below. A terminal appears as a rounded end on some sans-serif characters, like a and f in the graphic below.

Examples of san-serif fonts are Times New Roman (below), Garamond, Bodoni.

Fun fact: Serif fonts have been proven to be more readable when used at smaller font sizes, such as large blocks of text since the serifs on each letter lead into the next letter more easily.

 

SANS-SERIF

Once you get the hang of serif, sans-serif is pretty self-explanatory. Sans = without. A sans-serif is a font without serifs, or lines attached to the endpoints. Examples: Arial, Helvetica (below), Museo Sans.

Fun fact: The font, Helvetica, has its very own documentary by Gary Hustwit. It’s not on Netflix Instant, but with a quick online search, you can easily find it online to stream or purchase.


While fonts can easily be broken down into even more categories under serif and san-serif, fonts are typically broken up into three categories: Serif, san-serif and script.

Here are some quick tips on pairing fonts for documents, whether you’re designing a logo, social media graphic, e-book, course or the hundreds of types of collateral for businesses.

USE NO MORE THAN THREE FONTS

This is a golden rule of graphic design, especially for smaller designs. It's usually broken up into three categories: Header, sub-header and body text. Keep in mind that using the bold and italics on the same font does not mean you're adding an extra font! Same font, different weight.

For social media graphics, I recommend only using two fonts. One can be your heading or a large, decorative text, and the other the body text (small-ish type that is often seen in paragraphs). Check out how I design my Instagram graphics:

 
You see two fonts in this graphic: The header and the body text. I repeat the header text at the bottom, in a different, complementary color for my brand to attribute the quote..

You see two fonts in this graphic: The header and the body text. I repeat the header text at the bottom, in a different, complementary color for my brand to attribute the quote..

 

On larger design documents like annual reports, media packets, brand style guides, etc. it's common to see more than three fonts, especially to represent different sections. And of course, this rule can be broken ALL OF THE TIME... as long as you're doing it right. Just starting out? Stick with this rule until you're ready to branch out and can find fonts that complement one another.

PAIR TWO TYPES OF FONTS

Just because you want consistency in your brand identity, it doesn't mean all of your fonts have to look alike! Pair a serif with a sans-serif, or a handwritten with a book font. Find a fun, script font and give it a modern, thin and sleek font to give it pizzazz. It's like yin and yang.

NEVER USE SCRIPT OR NOVELTY FONTS IN LARGE BODIES OF TEXT

A good rule of thumb is if it is more than 5-8 words, it shouldn't be a script font. It's not about being a party-pooper, it's about readability. You want your audience to know what important words you're telling them, quickly and easily. The longer someone has to spend deciphering words, the less likely they'll comprehend it and the less likely they're going to keep reading.

Script fonts are perfect for big, bold headlines and logos. Anything else, you might consider swapping it for another font. Try to think about someone who may have never seen that font before, rather than the fact you can read it.


My favorite spots for fonts: Google Fonts, Creative Market and Font Bundles, all of which offer free, discounted and paid fonts.

Adobe Typekit is a great resource for free fonts, some of which linked above, if you are an Adobe Creative Cloud member. If not, click here to get any (or all!) Adobe Creative Cloud programs starting at less than $10 a month.

If you're a current student, you can receive 60% off Creative Cloud, too.