‛What Type Faces Go Together?’ Perennial Problem

  • You can develop an understanding of design characteristics of type
  • Learn to select the correct style of script for particular job
  • How to acquire a basic knowledge in the mechanics of good type usage

Probably the question most frequently asked of experienced typographers and designers is, “What types go together?” It would be wonderful if there were one pat answer to this query. But the sad fact is that the beginner will become more confused with every answer he receives.

At first have often said that one of the basic sources of confusion in combining type faces is the embarrassment of riches in the specimen books of the foundries and composing machine manufacturers. With so many types available, the problem of effectively combining them has become increasingly complicated.

First of all, the printer should restrain his impulse to use a large number of type faces. This can be quite difficult, particularly when so many well-designed and well-executed specimens are procurable from founders. Every typographic designer, no matter how strongly he feels about the possible over-production of new faces, can be bowled over by a type which he feels is just the one he’s been looking for.

However, the fewer the types available to a compositor, the simpler it is to use what he has in the most effective manner. A great American printer, Daniel Berkeley Updike of the Merrymount Press, made a world-wide reputation in fine printing with fewer than a half-dozen types in his composing room.

In defense of the foundries and manufacturers it should be mentioned that, as type is their product, they must continue to exploit new designs in order to exist in our economic scheme. In addition, many of the new types are created at the request of printers and advertisers, often for a particular job.

Printers should realize, however, the best way to offset customers’ demands for new types is to utilize present typographic facilities effectively. To do this the printer must acquire an understanding of the design characteristics of existing types, rather than depend upon the faces merely because they are different.

An article in a recent typographic publication attempted to give specific information on combining types in advertisements. It seemed the author implied that the ability to mix various types in one job was a secret process which can only be mastered by a few adherents of some high in mystic order of design. This appears to be an unrealistic approach, particularly to the compositor in the small plant who is concerned about what type to use in the everyday work of the shop–business cards, tickets, etc.

Printers Acquire Reputations

In the past a number of well-known American printers have acquired broad reputations by using a single type family in a variety of printed jobs. Examination of the standard Roman type family discloses these following possibilities: all lower case; upper and lower case; all caps; small caps; caps and small caps; italic and lower case; italic upper and lower case; italic caps.

To this group add the availability of a bold face, and perhaps an open or in-line version, along with changes in point sizes. It is clear that the printer has at his command all the makings for variety and interest in typography.

The point I am attempting to make is that many of the combinations of types which we now see in commercial printing and advertising are not necessary. In the scores of types which have been introduced in the postwar period, many are badly designed and are simply undistinguished. The printer’s task is to distinguish a mediocre type from a good one. An understanding of such factors of selection may be acquired by the study of important faces like Cloister, Centaur, Garamond, Caslon, Baskerville and Bodoni.

An understanding of the characteristics which have made these types or their historic models endure can be used as a basis for judging new designs. The same basic understanding and appreciation of good design is necessary when one chooses types that mix satisfactorily. It is not necessary to publish a list of combinations here to make the selection comparatively simple.

This question, for example, is often asked, “What type goes with such and such a script?” The question would be better posed in reverse, as the script type is the occasional letter. The real problem is the selection of the text type in the job, the display type being secondary. There are many scripts available, but they fall into various classes such as broad-pen (or calligraphic), and such varied models as brush letters in steel-pen letters. The style of the script, therefore, has a great deal to do with its selection in any given job. For the moment we are not interested in the correct style for the job but in a combination with a given Roman type.

The calligraphic scripts (Rondo, Quillscript, Lydian Cursive, etc.) based upon early 16th century models, are best used with Romans of the same period, such as Cloiseter, Weiss, Deepdene, and the Garamonds. The brush scripts, being rather monotone in stroke, complement such faces as the same serifs. The steel-pen letters (Typo Script, Bank Scripts, etc.) fit well with the contrasty romans such as Baskerville or Bodoni. Since scripts are decorative letters in themselves, they should never be mixed, but must only be used to complement and to add visual interest.

To carry such general principles a step further, it is obvious that if a roman type is available with a good bold-face version, it is not necessary to mix types by using a display face of different design. Should no bold be available, or should additional contrast of display be desired, the printer still has plenty of leeway without resorting to incongruous selections.

Mixing Simple With Bodoni

In the use of Bodoni, for example, the many design variants of that letter simplifies mixing. The strong contrasts of it and thin strokes present in Bodoni may be amplified by using Onyx, Corvinus, Ultra Bodoni. This may be over-simplification, but it brings out the point of departure in using type combinations.

There can never be an easy way, via chart or formula, to provide for the happy mixture of one type with another. Many typographic designers develop their understanding to a fine edge, but in most cases this can be accomplished only by study and trial and error.

Even as distinguished a typographer as the late William Addison Dwiggins stated, “What type shall I use? The gods refuse an answer. They refuse (sacrilege though it may be to say it) because they do not know.”

A study of the historic development of the types printers use everyday can offer dividends in the mechanics of good usage, both in the selection of the proper type to do the job and in the reasonable mixing of different designs.

In addition, an important consideration is the more subtle use of spacing and grouping. Without this, even a careful and considerate selection of types would fail to show to advantage.

The young compositor, seeking to develop his talents typographically, will be off to a slow start unless he goes back to sources and reviews the work of important printers were ever material may be found.

This article first appeared in “The Composing Room” column of the November 1957 issue of The Inland Printer.


  1. […] Of course, finding typefaces that play well with each other has been a perennial problem. […]

  2. edward petko says:

    Well done! Bravo!

Leave a Reply