A common issue I see with new letterers is the use of too many styles in one piece. Typically this is because they see styles they like in several different pieces and bring them all together thinking it will make one epic piece.
Of course, what you end up having is a mess. It’s very hard to read, the words aren’t very legible and there’s just too much going on.
There’s nothing wrong with using ornate styles, but this is something to be used in moderation with careful consideration.
You’re going to find that styles range wildly from person to person and with different tastes. I make a case for simplicity because I see lettering as a form of voice. It’s a way to communicate.
If your letters are so ornate and complicated that no one can read your message, then what’s the point?
We hand letter to bring beauty to words and visual interest to a message. It’s important that our stylistic expression enhances the message rather than gets in the way.
Contrast & Complement
When using different styles, you want to make sure they are complementing each other. Ideally, they will be different enough to create a nice contrast. If they are too similar, this will create discord.
What you don’t want is conflict or competition (that’s a lot of “c” words). Each style needs to do its job. You don’t want words competing for attention, you want the right words to get the most attention and the others to support it.
This is why it’s quite difficult to effectively pull off the use of many styles in a single piece. Using three or four can be done in extreme cases, but it’s so rarely appropriate that you’re best off sticking to the rule of thumb: use just one or two styles.
Start With Simple Variance
What a lot of hand letterers don’t realize is there is of whole lot of variance and visual interest you can get from a single style. You don’t have to incorporate a second style to get a contrasted look or to create a visual hierarchy.
Start with a single style and change the weight of the letters. Use the above variance factors to create visual interest. Make important words bigger, or heavier, or extended.
Extended and condensed letterforms are not stretched. If you go into Illustrator or Photoshop, type some text, transform it and drag it out or in, you are stretching the text. This is a big faux pas and is not the same as letters that have been designed to be wider or narrower.
I would encourage you to start with a single style and practice using variance factors to create visual interest. Get a handle on how to establish visual hierarchy without the crutch of a second style first. Once you understand that, then you can bring in new styles and employ them with intentionality.
Create Variance Even With Just A Single Style
The above example only uses sans-serif letters, but it still manages to be visually interesting by varying the letters within this single style.
First, the important words are heavier to draw attention. However because the piece utilizes a box composition, some words that are narrower or wider than others (like “try” compared to “never”). Some are drawn in extended form so as to span the width of the line.
For the less-important words in the message, the letters are much smaller, lighter weight, and regular width to be less assuming.
All of the above “R”s used in the piece are sans-serif, but one is big and wide, another bold, and the last small and light.
You can get a remarkable amount of variance without adding styles. Before jumping to combining different styles, make sure you’ve exhausted the possibilities with your first style.
In many cases, you will have more than enough variance without adding an additional style and as a result, your piece as a whole will feel coherent.
Find the Important Words First
If you haven’t seen it yet, watch the thumbnail concepting video above on Designing Quotes for Strong Compositional Hierarchy. This will give you an idea of how to go about highlighting the important words in your piece.
Once you’ve identified the important words you want to showcase, then decide what style best fits. What is the mood you’re trying to convey? Start with the style of the most important words. Everything else is secondary.
Now the goal is to select a secondary style that enhances your primary style. Remember, the goal is not to compete! Seek to enhance the message. Often the best secondary style is one that is unassuming and does not draw attention to itself.
Typically, I will use a regular sans-serif in a smaller size to support the more ornate primary words. This allows me to deliver the necessary, but less-important words in a legible, but out-of-the way fashion.
Assign Roles and Limit Sizes
Decide what style your important words will have and what style your secondary words will have. Stay consistent with your choice in style, but also be mindful of how many different sizes of letters you have.
Generally speaking, the more sizes you have, the less intentional the piece will feel. Establish a clear hierarchy of importance by using two or three different sizes.
The first thing is to build up a mental bank of typographic inspiration. Study examples of the style you want to try.
Here are a few I would suggest studying:
Serif styles to reference:
Sans-serif style to reference:
Slab styles to reference:
Script styles to reference:
Well-made typefaces will rub off on you when you study them. We’re going to talk a lot more about deliberate practice, copying and studying typefaces, as well as pairing in the Learn Lettering Starter Class. Stay tuned!
Look At the Letter Skeleton
Learning to see the underlying structure of letters is a game-changer. You could pair a serif and a sans-serif from the list above, but it may not look quite right if the letters don’t have similar skeletons.
Imagine that every letter has a spine. If you could put it under an x-ray and simplify it down to it’s most basic form—a single line—what would you see?
Learning to visualize a letter’s skeleton is like having a superpower. You know how some lettering pieces you see just feel so well-put-together but you can’t quite put your finger on why? If you look back on those pieces and analyze them, you’ll often find that it’s because the letters had a similar skeleton.
The style of a letter is like its clothes. You can have different styles of letters dressed differently, but when you pair styles that share a skeleton, the two are harmonious.
When pairing typefaces, you’re simply going to have to find typefaces that fit your criteria and have matching skeletons. This is no easy task.
However, when it comes to lettering, we have a unique advantage: we get to create our own letters. This means you hold the power! You get to create that skeleton from scratch. What’s great is this means you can take inspiration from a typeface in terms of the letter’s “clothes” and adapt it to a skeleton that matches another one of your existing styles!
This is huge once you understand this. You basically possess the ability to look at any of the above examples of fonts and recreate lettering in a similar style but do it in such a way that the style fits a consistent skeleton.
There’s a lot more to this that we’ll be getting to inside the Learn Lettering classes, but hopefully this whets your appetite!
2 Tips for Finding Complimentary Styles
Combining styles and trying to find well-paired typefaces is an art. We’ve covered some great suggestions and guidelines, but it does require a discerning eye and there are not hard rules—and plenty of exceptions.
However, there are two methods of very quickly narrowing down your selection to groups that will be much more conducive to agreeable pairings:
- Look for typeface examples from the same era.
- Look for typeface examples from the same foundry.
Now, obviously this doesn’t guarantee that anything you find within these two subset will go together, but it will at the very least get you a step closer!
Typefaces from the same time period will be more likely to feel like they belong in the same context. It’s just a pointer and not a hard rule, but it can be helpful.
Foundries often develop what are known as “super families”. Super families are the holy grail of typeface pairing. They are comprehensive groupings of typefaces specifically designed to be used together. Often they can span styles and include serif, sans-serif and more.
Typofonderie has a great case study on Parisine if you’re interested in further reading.
Don’t Overdo It
Keep things easy-to-read. You want your letters to remain legible. If you go over the top with crazy styles, it’s just going to be a distraction to the reader and they’re not going to read your message.
If you feel like a legible, single-style piece is too boring, spice it up in a subtle way. Less is more.
Start with a simple concept and make it interesting through your execution. Something as simple as using a bold weight for the most important words is going to make a huge difference. Don’t forget that you also have the option of color or a unique fill. A little will go a long way.
Remember, styles are yet another tool in your arsenal. You don’t need to go crazy with them to make a visually-interesting piece.
The purpose is to present the message in the most concise way that you can. You want to present the message in a way that is readable, legible, and clear.
Use styles to your advantage. Use them to emphasizes parts of your message. It’s ok to be simple. The style should never detract from the message.