mixing fontsLess is more

En­thu­si­asm for fonts of­ten leads to en­thu­si­asm for mul­ti­ple fonts, and then the ques­tion: “How do I get bet­ter at mix­ing fonts in a document?”

Mix­ing fonts is like mix­ing pat­terned shirts and ties—there aren’t black­let­ter rules. Some peo­ple have a knack for it; some don’t.

Keep these prin­ci­ples in mind:

  1. Mix­ing fonts is never a re­quire­ment—it’s an op­tion. You can get plenty of mileage out of one font us­ing vari­a­tions based on point size, bold or italic, small caps, and so on.

  2. The rule of di­min­ish­ing re­turns ap­plies. Most doc­u­ments can tol­er­ate a sec­ond font. Few can tol­er­ate a third. Al­most none can tol­er­ate four or more. (If you’re mak­ing a pre­sen­ta­tion, con­sider all your slides to be part of one document.)

  3. You can mix any two fonts that are iden­ti­fi­ably dif­fer­ent. If you’ve heard that you can only mix a serif font with a sans serif font, it’s not true. On the con­trary, much like mix­ing col­ors, lower con­trast be­tween fonts can be more ef­fec­tive than higher contrast.

    For in­stance, you wouldn’t mix Palatino and Palatino Nova (see palatino al­ter­na­tives) —the dif­fer­ences are too sub­tle. But I would con­sider mix­ing Lyon and Har­riet, even though they’re both serif fonts. For in­spi­ra­tion, look at any Amer­i­can news­pa­per—typ­i­cally, the body text and the head­lines are both in serif fonts, but dif­fer­ent ones.

  4. Font mix­ing is most suc­cess­ful when each font has a con­sis­tent role in the doc­u­ment. In a re­search memo, try one font for body text and one font for head­ings. Or in a mo­tion, try one font for things in the cen­ter of the doc­u­ment (body text and head­ings) and one font for things at the edges (line num­bers, footer, and other mis­cel­lany). 

  5. It rarely works to have mul­ti­ple fonts in a sin­gle para­graph. Bet­ter to re­strict your­self to one font per para­graph, and change fonts only at para­graph breaks.

  6. Though I’m typ­i­cally re­luc­tant to en­dorse rote meth­ods, this one works re­li­ably: com­bine fonts by the same font de­signer. For in­stance, Har­riet and Al­right Sans, both de­signed by Jack­son Ca­vanaugh, would mix well. For that mat­ter, so would Con­course and Eq­uity, both de­signed by me.

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