Type Part 2: Contrasting typefaces

contrasting typefaces
This article was originally written by me for Hubze, a former Social media news and tutorial source.

Hello again, Hubze Nation!

OK, so the title of this piece may be a bit sensationalized, but I needed to get your attention.

Today I have a JAM PACKED lesson for you about contrasting type. If you haven’t read part 1 of this series on the Categories of Type, go read it now!

Learning how to effectively contrast type is one of the most important lessons you can learn in design. Type is the main basis for your communication, and if you know how to effectively display it as both a language and art, your designs will carry an incredible amount of power.

The 6 ways to contrast type are as follows:

  • Size
  • Weight
  • Structure
  • Form
  • Direction
  • Color

Let’s go over each contrasting method and show how the same content can take on many forms simply by toggling between different contrast techniques.

Size

The method behind contrasting size is pretty obvious, make two sections of text different sizes. But remember, we’re talking contrast here, so their sizes should be very different. You can’t contrast 12pt type with 14pt, or 65pt with 72pt. The difference has to be deliberate and obvious.

Not enough size contrast
Not enough size contrast

The image above contains text of different sizes. But why are they so similar? If we want to call attention to one part more than the others (in this case “HubzeTV”), then why not do it?

Better size contrast
Better size contrast

This is much better, and was achieved by doing nothing more than contrasting the size of type. Notice how “HubzeTV” commands your attention right away, followed by “Coming in September.” The “Get ready for an all new season of” completes the thought, but doesn’t need to stick out; people will read that if the rest draws them into the piece.

Big contrast doesn’t necessarily mean big text

Small text can still contrast
Small text can still contrast

Take a look at the example above. The type is very small, but it contrasts with the large empty area of space, which draws your eye to it. The small headline also contrasts with the larger logo, and because the proximity is far enough away, the impact is still realized.

All caps vs Small caps

When you need things to really draw attention to themselves, you make them big, right? And to make them really, really stand out, you may even make them all-caps to be even bigger, no? Well if this is the case, I have some bad news. Setting your type to all caps actually forces you to use a smaller size than if you were to simply enlarge a lowercase version.

All uppercase letters doesn't mean larger
All uppercase letters doesn’t mean larger

The text on here is pretty big, but the width of all-uppercase letters forces me to keep it to 106pt. Let’s see what happens when I make it lower case.

Lowercase letters can be larger
Lowercase letters can be larger

By changing the text to lowercase, I was able to make the headline 126pt font, and bolder at that. The result is greater impact, which was the goal in the first place.

Weight

The weight of a typeface refers to the thickness of the strokes. You can add weight to any typeface, but the trick to effective contrast is to make the difference in weight really obvious. Don’t contrast a regular weight with semibold, or a bold with a black. A general rule of thumb is to move at least 2 steps up or down from the typeface you want to contrast.

For instance, if your typeface has a light, regular, semibold, bold and black weight options, you’ll want to contrast light with semibold (or darker), semibold with black, etc.

Adding weight adds contrast
Adding weight adds contrast

An example of the power of weight is shown above. We took the exact layout from the size contrast section, and simply added weight to the “HubzeTV” part. This brings out the contrast even further, and therefore increases the impact of our design.

Structure

The structure of the typeface refers to how it’s built. Specifically with structure, we pay attention to the thick/thin transitions, whether or not it has serifs, their position and thickness, etc. Think of building a typeface using man-made materials. Would your typeface be made out of a garden hose with little-to-no thick/thin transitions like a sans-serif, or would it be carefully crafted and cut out of wood, like, say a Modern typeface?

Structure may be the most important contrast to pay attention to, because if two fonts of similar structure appear on the page, they will almost undoubtably conflict, not contrast. Let’s go even further and make a rule. Never put two typefaces from the same category on the page. That means don’t put two Oldstyle fonts together, two Modern fonts, two scripts or even two sans serifs. The similarities are just too great, and there’s no benefit to doing so.

Mix serif and sans serif fonts for best results

Following the above rule will keep you out of most trouble, but sometimes even going across categories isn’t far enough. Some Oldstyle and Slab Serif fonts may conflict on a page due to their similarities, along with an Oldstyle and Modern, etc. To make things easier to start, try to mix a serif with a sans serif only until you really get the hang of things.

Mixing fonts from the same category is bad news
Mixing fonts from the same category is bad news

The above example has 3 different oldstyle typefaces on it. It may not scream at you that there are 3 different fonts on the page, but it’s not hard to tell that something is off. Your viewers won’t know what’s wrong, but all it takes is for them to know that something is.

mixing sans serif and serif fonts brings immediate contrast
Mixing sans serif and serif fonts brings immediate contrast

Here, I make both oldstyle fonts the same typeface (Minion Pro), and replace the middle font with a bold Sans Serif (Agenda). The result is a much cleaner, non-conflicting design.

sans serif contrasting with serif
sans serif contrasting with serif

Here is another example of successfully mixing serif and Sans Serif. I use Myriad, a great sans serif for the top and bottom sentences, and stick a bold serif (Goudy Heavyface) in the middle.

Contrasting structure with Sans Serif typefaces

You may be thinking to yourself that sans serif typefaces are so common, and there are so many that I must be crazy to tell you not to mix them on the page. Well, I’m not crazy and I am serious, but I have good news; there is a way to achieve the look you want without breaking any rules.

Like we touched upon earlier, there are many typefaces out there that come with varying weights included, but there are also many that come with different forms and structures as well. Often in a typeface with a large variety you’ll see condensed and extended versions. These can be mixed in with the regular forms to achieve a dynamic effect.

sans-serif family
Sans-serif family

The above example uses only one typeface, Agenda, but it uses both black and Ultra light Condensed. The result is a dynamic design that still follows the rules. You may want to be cautious even with this approach, however, as sometimes going overboard can still have a conflicting effect. The feeling of what works and what doesn’t will come with time, so don’t be afraid to try something different and take risks.

Form

The form of a letter simply refers to its shape. An easy way to think about it is to imagine the difference between an uppercase and lowercase version of the word.

lowercase letters create unique shapes
Lowercase letters create unique shapes

Notice how the lowercase versions of letters have a distinct shape? For this reason, lowercase words are much easier to read than their all-uppercase counterparts. Our eyes take in this shape without us even thinking about it, which aids our processing time when reading words.

Uppercase letters have rectangular form
Uppercase letters have rectangular form

Notice how all-uppercase letters form a straight box around the words. This has a much different shape than the lowercase version.

Italic form

In addition to uppercase vs lowercase, italic versions of type are a different form than their roman versions.

Italic fonts have different form than their Roman counterparts
Italic fonts have different form than their Roman counterparts

Here, I use nothing but the italic form to contrast the three blocks of text. Of course I could have added more weight to further enhance the contrast, but I wanted to show that by simply changing the form of a word, contrast can be achieved.

Since we’re talking about italics, do you notice that italic forms of text can resemble script typefaces? For this reason, we need another rule: Never contrast an italic font with a script, their forms are too similar and will contrast.

Direction

Direction deals with, well, the direction the type makes your eye move. An obvious example is putting text on a slant.

Slanting type creates contrast
Slanting type creates contrast

Putting text on a slant is a clear contrast to the horizontal plane the rest of the text is on.

We can, however achieve direction without actually rotating type. Take the next example, for instance.

Direction can be created without rotating type
Direction can be created without rotating type

All type is written left-to-right on a 180 degree angle, but by stacking the text in short bursts on top of each other, I have created a vertical effect with the type. This direction clearly ads contrast to the rest of the content.

Color

An obvious way to contrast type (or just about anything, really) is to change the color. While color is a whole element of design that deserves its own lesson or lessons, there are some immediate things we can do by changing the color of type.

Neutral color
Neutral color

The above is a neutral color design (ignore the color in the logo for now). You see that the hierarchy of importance is clear, “HubzeTV,” has the greatest importance, followed by “Coming in September.” However, if we change nothing but the color of the type, we can mess with this hierarchy.

Warm color of text stands out
Warm color of text stands out

By changing the “Coming in September” phrase to a warm red and muting the “HubzeTV” a bit by making it a softer gray, I can change the emphasis of each section. “Coming in September” still may not be the most noticeable element on the page, but it’s clear that it carries more importance due to its color.

Black and White Color

Contrasting color does not simply mean changing the hue. We can contrast type with color by using nothing but black and white. Let’s revisit the example above of the big, bold lowercase treatment.

Lowercase letters can be larger
Lowercase letters can be larger

Take a look at how dark this design looks on the page. There’s only one color, but the impact is clearly bold and dark.

Weight, size and spacing of text can affect the color
Weight, size and spacing of text can affect the color

In this example, I actually make things bigger, but the overall look is a “lighter” page. By changing the weights and letter-spacing I made this version look much lighter in color than the previous without messing with the color wheel whatsoever. Color is another contrast method that can be very powerful and versatile in conjunction to the other contrast techniques.

Typography and art

The contrast methods laid out above can be very powerful in design, and can turn a normal text-document into an inspiring design by simply applying one or more methods. How you use this knowledge is up to you, but I suggest you get inspired, creative and bold.

Push the limits of contrast. Try to design a piece using nothing but type and see what happens. The more you can do with type, the less you have to worry about finding good photography or images, which will make you that much more valuable to your clients.

Read part 1 of the series, Typeface Categories

6 thoughts on “Type Part 2: Contrasting typefaces”

  1. Hello my name is Deanna Brady and I just wanted to send you a quick message here instead of calling you. I came to your Type Part 2: Contrasting typefaces – Kevin Tomasso website and noticed you could have a lot more hits. I have found that the key to running a popular website is making sure the visitors you are getting are interested in your subject matter. There is a company that you can get keyword targeted traffic from and they let you try their service for free for 7 days. I managed to get over 300 targeted visitors to day to my website. http://smpl.city/events/7Yypu

  2. I must say you have high quality content here. Your website can go viral.
    You need initial traffic only. How to get it? Search for: Miftolo’s
    tools go viral

  3. I see your page needs some unique & fresh content.
    Writing manually is time consuming, but there is solution for this hard task.

    Just search for – Miftolo’s tools rewriter

  4. I see your site needs some unique & fresh articles.

    Writing manually is time consuming, but there is solution for
    this hard task. Just search for: Miftolo’s tools rewriter

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *