Typeface Combinations that Work on the Web

brand marketing made better by great web typography

2010 is turning out to be the year of web typography. There are two companies offering you the ability to customize the typefaces on your website, and they’re easy – and often free – to use.

Google’s Font API is free and offers a handful of open source typefaces. Typekit is a commercial solution that’s reasonably priced, and offers a wide range of fonts that’s growing every day. They have a free, entry-level offering, and paid options that vary by how many page views your site gets per month.

Typekit now has fonts from Adobe, Moveable Type, Veer and other major type foundries. On this blog, I recently switched from the web standard Georgia to Chaparral, which is an Adobe font I use in all my PDF materials. (Do you like it? Let me know in the comments!)

Fresh Fonts Served Daily

Both services work in a similar fashion: typefaces are “served” up onto users’ machines, much the way websites are served on the Internet. Users don’t need to have the typeface installed in order to see it used on a web page.

Decisions, Decisions

What this means is that although we had very few choices when it came to web typography just a year ago, we’re now going to get access to a broad range of type styles. Web typography is finally going to approach print typography in terms of choice and the ability to customize the look of your website.

Does all this choice seem overwhelming? Let’s go over the best way to combine and use typefaces on the web so it’s not so scary.

Pick Two

In order to maintain visual consistency, pick two typefaces. Just two.

It’s easier for your visitor to notice, absorb and remember two different typefaces than it is three, or four or more. Spend some time picking out two versatile styles and you’ll have what you need to establish a memorable visual brand.

The easiest way to do this is to pick one typeface for your text, and a different one for your headlines and subheads.

Your text typeface should be highly readable. This is where the bulk of your information will be conveyed, so you need to be sure it’s clear and easy on the eyes.

Your headline typeface will be used in smaller doses, so it can be slightly more challenging to read, or more decorative.

Mix and Match

A great way to decide which styles combine well is to study their letter forms. Look at two things: size and shape. One will affect readability, and the other will help you combine different typefaces. Pick your text typeface first (it’s more important), then look for a headline style that will work with it.

Large X-Height=Readability

When looking for a text typeface, notice the space between the baseline the letters stand on, and the tops of lower case letters or the “bowls” on letters like b and h. This is called the x-height.

brand marketing includes choosing a readable typeface

It’s easier to read text typefaces when they have a large x-height rather than a small one. Typefaces with compact x-heights tend to close up visually at a distance, making them hard to decipher. Both Google Font API and Typekit offer you the ability to view text blocks set in the style you’re considering. Be sure to check readability at small sizes.

Taming Typefaces

You’ve picked out a text typeface with a nice, large x-height. Now you want to combine it with a headline style, but where should you start?

First, try looking at the letter forms in the text typeface you chose. Look closely at the letters a, g and e.

For the best blend, look for typefaces that draw the letters a, g and e similarly. In the examples below, the serif typeface on the first line combines best with the second sans serif example. The serif typeface on the second line combines best with the first sans serif example.

brand marketing includes choosing good typeface combinations

Or Go For Contrast

Another direction you can take things is to make your headline text dramatically different from your body text. Don’t try to match letter forms: make them obviously different.

In the example below, notice how the headline typeface is dramatically different, yet this combination works, too.

brand marketing includes choosing typefaces that combine well

Don’t Be Wishy-Washy

The worst thing you can do is to almost match your letter forms. In the realm of graphic design, something that almost matches looks like a mistake. Be decisive: either make your letter forms match closely, or make them dramatically different. See the example below for an almost-match that doesn’t quite work.

brand marketing includes avoiding typefaces without definite contrast

Rock Your Type

It’s time to get daring with your web typography. Use the tips above to get started. Visit the Google Font API and Typekit, and follow their instructions for bringing custom typefaces to life on your website.

Questions?

If you’re confused, or you’d like another set of eyes to take a peek at your typeface choices, post a comment below. The readers of this blog are very helpful and willing to weigh in on the typefaces you’re considering, so use this community to get feedback on your choices and let’s talk type in the comments!

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Comments

  1. says

    Very informative post Pamela, and love the new font on your site! I love playing with fonts but I’m never sure what works. I can usually spot really bad fonts, but the wishy-washy not so easily.

    What about a family of fonts that has a variety of serif and sans serif, bold, condensed and books to choose from. Something like DejaVu. Is it a good idea to use the whole family for headers and body text, if we’re looking for harmony, or does that get too close to the wishy-washy line? Could we blend serif and sans from the same family for headers and body copy?

    So many choices, and now even more!

    • says

      Marlene, using a font family that has both serif and sans serif is a great way to handle this, and super easy. They’re drawn to work together, so if you can find one you like, go for it!

      Christopher, I’m glad this was helpful. Thanks for your comment!

  2. says

    Hi Pamela,

    I’ve been following your posts for a few months now and, since I am going through a complete blog re-design, wanted to ask you 3 questions:

    1. What kind of fonts do you recommend that I use on http://www.SingularityWeblog.com?

    I am currently using Arial for it is a safe font but I feel that it doesn’t give me a sufficiently unique, cutting edge look and feel

    2. What kind of background color do you recommend for my blog?

    Some people like my current background but others complain that it is distracting. In my first re-design mock up so far we are going with a green background derived from my logo color…

    3. There seem to be 2 main types of blog footers: One is the minimalist style similar to yours. The 2nd one is a more information-dense footer similar to the ones used by Darren Rowse on http://www.problogger.net/ or Yaro Starak on http://www.entrepreneurs-journey.com/
    I myself am leaning towards the latter example for my new design. Any thoughts on why I should or shouldn’t have a more substantial footer?

    Thank you very much for your help!

    (If you need demographics for my visitors you can check out my stats here: http://singularityblog.singularitysymposium.com/advertize-with-singularityblog/)

    • says

      Hi Socrates,

      One simple change you could make to your blog that would make it easier to navigate would be to use a different typeface for your sidebar than your main content area. You have busy sidebars with ads and type, and if your content area used a serif typeface (Georgia, or one of the new ones available for Thesis through the Google Font API) it would help your reader to decipher what is content, and what is navigation or ad information.

      I think the background color is fine, but the texture is distracting. You could try either a solid or gradated background, or simply reduce the contrast in the background you’re using.

      The footer style is a personal decision. If there’s anything you plan to put in the footer that is important, be aware that some people may not page down that far, and might miss it. So if you have really important information, consider running it elsewhere so it won’t be missed.

      Good luck! Thanks for reading.

  3. Mike Korner says

    Thanks Pamela. It’s great to get your view on these innovations in the font industry. Also, thanks for the information on how to choose fonts.

  4. says

    Hi Pamela,
    Thank you very much for your help!

    I have decided to change the background to solid or fading green in the same green shade as the logo.

    The footer will include a ton of info which will be available at other places too.

    The only thing left is figuring out the fonts: Yesterday, I played with all the Thesis 1.8 fonts for 3 hours and when I was done I returned everything back to Helvetica… In your opinion of my content is helvetica what should I use for the sidebar and the titles?… I just didn’t find anything which seemed to work that well… Do they really have to be different?

  5. says

    This is a great article, a subject I’ve been planning on writing for some time, but just finished one focused on combining fonts for print.

    http://bonfx.com/29-principles-for-making-great-font-combinations/

    I don’t think we are too far off from having all our favorite classic typefaces available on the web through any one of about a dozen services (and counting).

    That said, here is a GREAT resource I’ve flagged to keep track of changes regarding who is offering what in the web font services category:

    http://sprungmarker.de/wp-content/uploads/webfont-services/

    It’s a big chart with just about everything on it. I had Google Reader create a feed from this page, though there is no RSS for it. It notifies me when it gets updated.

    • says

      Hi Douglas!

      These are both great resources: thanks so much for sharing them. You’re right: it won’t be long before we can look back and laugh at the days we couldn’t use any typeface we wanted on the web. Personally, I can’t wait!

  6. says

    Heyhey,
    rely awesome fonts and nice tips. The only frustration so far i´ve when i tried to pick another webfont for my projects is that my main work language is the portuguese and 80% or more of the new types available to use it are not prepare. Missing some glyphs like:
    á é º ª and other ones that are pretty needed in Portuguese lang. In english you don´t have that concern.

    But well, i´m still looking and searching for good fonts. somaday i´ll find it :D

  7. says

    I like your new font (Chaparral), it’s awesome! Often the problem with these serif fonts (in small size) for a text-typeface on the web is that they look less clear than a serif typeface. To be honest I also find that your typeface looks a bit less clear, but yet I don’t really have problems reading it. It looks smooth.

  8. says

    Hi Pamela! I really enjoy your blog and tips! I thought I’d share something I’ve been struggling with to see if you have any ideas… on my site I am using Museo Slab & Museo Sans (through TypeKit)… in the slider particularly, Museo Slab looks HORRENDOUS on a Windows machine. On a Mac (which I am using) it looks great – smooth, like it is intended to look.
    I think the issue is that most Windows machines have “ClearType” enabled, which makes the majority of web fonts look this way.
    I am open to using other fonts, I just want to pick two and stick to them… I really like Museo Slab’s italic, because it looks like Archer (which is the font I really want to use, but it doesn’t come in a web font). If I had my pick of any fonts, I would probably use Gotham & Archer (or other H&FJ fonts, like Didot or Chronicle).
    Thanks for any tips or advice you may have! :)

    • says

      Hi Stacy,

      Well, I’m looking at it on a Mac, and of course it looks great to me! I have found just the opposite — that Windows users often don’t have ClearType enabled, so web fonts that are being served up look jagged. There’s a post about it here: https://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/using/setup/learnmore/cleartype.mspx

      You might want to check your stats to see what operating system your visitors are using. At any rate, it’s a good idea to make sure your fonts look good on Windows machines.

      Can the slider text be converted to an image? That would be one way to work around it. Just create one big image with the photo on the left, and the text on the right.

      We are in a transitional time when it comes to web fonts: in a few years, I suspect we won’t have these issues. Most machines will display type correctly. Until then, though, we may have to create these workarounds.

      • says

        Don’t know how I missed both of your replies! Thank you!!!
        The slider could be an image, and I think that’s what I may have to do, the only issue being that I will lose the nice buttons (but I guess those don’t show for some people too, so….).
        I wish the majority of my users were Mac people, but alas, they’re not.
        Pamela – thanks for the help… looking forward to the reopening of your membership site, I think I’m in a good place right now to join in. When will it be open? I think I may know a lot of the material, but good templates and font stacks already done are hard to find!

    • Mike Korner says

      Stacy,
      Does it happen in Firefox and Internet Explorer on the Windows machine?

      p.s. I’m in Windows 7 with Firefox 3.6.13 and it doesn’t look horrendous. If I look close, which I do now because I’ve been learning from Pamela — it looks just barely jagged. But, I really have to be looking close.

  9. Hannah says

    I am redesigning my university’s newspaper. I’m trying to make the whole thing feel more modern, fresh and young. I would like to incorporate Museo Slab in my type wardrobe. Would Museo Slab make a good body copy? Or would it only really work for headline type?

    • says

      Hi Hannah,

      I love the “type wardrobe” analogy! I might have to write a post about that. :-)

      Museo Slab would be great for headlines, but I wouldn’t recommend it as a body copy font. There’s a related font — Museo Sans — that would blend with it perfectly. You’d have to check to see how it looks set up in paragraphs.

      Thanks for the question, and good luck with the redesign project!

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