Nicely Done: Tré Seals

It’s always thrilling to see designers combining type in interesting ways, an excitement that’s amplified when a designer uses an exceptionally large set of fonts in a single project. But it’s icing on the cake when that designer shows you ways of combining fonts you’d never have expected. Designer Tré Seals accomplishes all of these things in his new portfolio site, which uses a whopping six font families from our collection: Obsidian, Surveyor, Ideal Sans, Ringside, Operator and Tungsten are daringly diverse choices, which Seals uses to great effect, in clever and delightful ways. He takes a methodical, systems-based approach to select and deploy his type: most of the typefaces are only used in one context, others on just one page in the site. Finding them all is a bit of a typographic scavenger hunt, and a rewarding one for the design-minded.

For his project, Seals took inspiration from vintage postal labels, choosing the engraved Obsidian as his cornerstone when creating the type system for the site. Like Obsidian, the Surveyor, Tungsten and Ringside families have historic roots that connect with the traditions of stamps and labels, an assortment to which he added two novel ingredients: the quirky Operator, which serves as a bridge between the old and the new, and for a neutral voice, the clean, Humanist lines of Ideal Sans.

But Seals’s work isn’t only exciting because of the number of faces he uses or the themes they share. What makes it truly special is his creative eye in deploying the fonts in unexpected ways. When many people think of Tungsten, they immediately recall the robust bolder weights with their industrial presence, but Seals opts instead for a lighter weight that achieves an elegant and refined tone. Ringside is a similarly surprising choice: in less careful hands, its Grotesque construction might feel out of place next to Humanist designs like Operator and Ideal Sans, but Seals makes it work by using only uppercase letters, which naturally have simpler and clearer shapes. Overall, the site is a typographic delight that gives the audience a glimpse of Seals’s design inspirations, his systems-based problem solving abilities, and his creativity. He uses each of these six typefaces thoughtfully and with restraint to create an experience that shows off his work in the best possible light. — Bethany Heck

Typographic Doubletakes

While good typefaces have prodigious families of carefully related styles, some of the best typography builds unexpected relationships between unrelated fonts. Here are five ways to create typographic connections, to help keep your design engaging and inventive.

Archer with Sentinel; Gotham with Verlag.

1. Avoid the Obvious


When reaching for a different weight, turning to a sympathetic but distinctively different typeface can add drama to a design. Sentinel and Archer are two slab serifs with very different origins — one a nineteenth century ‘Antique,’ the other a twenty-first century invention full of circular ‘ball terminals’ — but using them together adds visual interest to an otherwise muted composition. Among sans serifs, Verlag and Gotham are two plainspoken typefaces whose unique flavors are sharpened by the contrasting of their details, Verlag’s pointy apexes (in its A, N, and W) offering a sparkling counterpoint to the upright candor of Gotham.

TIP: Changes in both weight and scale help to accentuate the differences between these pairs, and draw out the unique character of each design. Used together, Sentinel seems especially prudent and Archer especially happy; Verlag seems doubly elegant and Gotham twice as direct.


2. Create Practical Pairings


No task is more familiar to a designer than selecting two typefaces that can work hand in hand, each chosen to present a similar but distinctive kind of content. Text-heavy applications, whether printed or digital, often need two contrasting faces to highlight different kinds of information. A practical text face with a large x-height, such as Mercury Text, can be usefully matched by a sans serif with similar proportions, such as Ideal Sans. (Try a ScreenSmart font, even if you’re working in print: their generous fit and open gestures make ScreenSmart fonts especially readable at text sizes — and at sizes smaller still.) And don’t be bound to the convention of pitting serif against sans: if your body face is a sans serif workhorse like Whitney, try a more colorful sans serif alternative for contrast, such as Operator. Operator’s taut curves and punchy gestures offer a nice counterpoint to the sobriety of Whitney, and the fixed-width Operator Mono can introduce a strikingly different rhythm that usefully contrasts with the text.

TIP: A fixed-width typeface like Operator Mono helps to quickly identify something as a computer program. But when the manuscript calls for highlighting a code fragment in the middle of a paragraph of text, switch to the font’s natural-width cousin, Operator. Since Operator shares the same underlying design as Operator Mono, these bold keywords are instantly recognizable as pieces of code. But their more traditional rhythm of wide and narrow letters makes for a more comfortable read.


3. Strike Subtle Contrasts


Sometimes the most engaging combinations are the ones that aren’t immediately apparent. Even though Gotham and Vitesse are manifestly different typefaces — one a sans based on the circle, the other a slab rooted in rounded rectangles — both fonts are equally dramatic in their use of geometry, and can be rendered in very similar weights. But typefaces don’t need to share a common weight to be good comrades, especially if they’re used at different sizes. Compared with the smaller Sentinel, the stems in Quarto are nearly twice as heavy, and its hairlines one-fifth as wide, differences that disappear when the reader sees each at its own set of sizes.

TIP: Rendering two contrasting typefaces with a similar fit can help close the distance between them. In both the examples above, careful thought has been given to the tracking of each typeface, with the intention of synchronizing the rhythm of letters and the spaces between them, even as the fonts themselves change.


4. Assemble Elegant Duets


Whether a sans serif with finely-drawn strokes or a serif face with delicate hairlines, light typefaces have long been a mainstay of fashion and luxury typography. Many species of hairline fonts pair handsomely together, especially when additional motifs reinforce their elegance. Here, the “low-waistedness” of Landmark, clearest in its A, R, and K, gives the design a deco-era elegance, a smart counterpoint to the crisp and evenly balanced Chronicle Hairline. Another strategy is to match faces with both common weights and a common approach to construction, like the starkly geometric Vitesse and Gotham — which careful readers may have noticed, reversed, in the section above.

TIP: When working with hairline fonts, decide early what size each font is suited for: some can perform at large text sizes, others are best used only for the largest display typography. When evaluating a serif face such as Chronicle, look not only at the weight of its hairline strokes like the crossbar of its H or the thinner arm of its Y, but also the weight of its serifs. Serifs are often considerably thinner than hairlines, and it’s these delicate gestures that will define how small the font can go.


5. Introduce Strange Bedfellows


Some of the most dazzling typographic pairings — and certainly my favorites — are those that use unexpected fonts together. At left, the grey flannel suit that is Tungsten Compressed is paired with crimson silk doublet of the St. Augustin Civilité, a fiery sixteenth century typeface that demands a good foil. The contrast between Tungsten’s restraint and the swashbuckling Civilité makes for a marvelous palette, and the contrasting proportions of these faces emphasizes the solemn verticality of one and the racy horizontality of the other. At right, the unconventional Acropolis Italic, made only of straight lines, meets the energetic Surveyor Display Italic, a typeface without a single straight line. Lending the fonts extra cohesion is their insistent angle of incline: both lean forward considerably more than a typical italic.

TIP: Keeping eccentric typefaces at arm’s length helps accentuate their uniqueness, something that’s easiest to do by segregating each font by size. In these examples, each typeface is assigned a specific range of sizes that’s free of other fonts, a clear and inviolate ‘altitude’ that further distinguishes its role in the design. —JH

How to Use Clashing Fonts

Designers are trained to believe that similar typefaces should never be used together. But breaking this cardinal rule can sometimes be the perfect way to create ordered, elegant typography.

As powerful as typography can be in setting a reader’s expectations, it’s often the dialogue between typefaces that most effectively communicates how information is meant to be understood. Dictionaries use bold Antiques and delicate Ionics to distinguish their headwords and definitions; wayfinding systems use different fonts to identify routes and destinations. Find the most monotonous piece of design you can, and it’s still likely that its logo, headlines, and text are wearing different typographic dress.

It’s therefore customary for designers to reach for palpably different typefaces when assembling a palette. If not, why use more than one font in the first place? It’s hard to imagine the design that truly needs both Univers and Helvetica, and designers who mix both fonts indiscriminately do so at their own peril. Think of a trustworthy website, whose login page is one day mysteriously rendered in Times Roman. Even the most visually indifferent readers feel these disruptions.

But just as the most stylish person you know can pull off wearing four different kinds of check, or live in a room painted six different shades of orange, there are techniques for successfully bringing together typography’s first cousins, its doppelgangers, and its long-lost twins. Here are three types of font pairings that are traditionally scorned, but when used with purpose, can be supremely successful. We’ll be retiring that old chestnut “don’t use fonts that are too similar” in favor of a more constructive philosophy: “make each font’s purpose clear, and use every one consistently.”


1. Two Fonts in the Same Category


Designers contemplating two different fonts of the same general style often limit their choices to designs that have distinct personalities and pronounced characteristics. No one would consider “two serifs” likely to clash if one were tall and lithe, and the other a stocky text face. But few would consider pairing two different Old Style faces, let alone two Dutch Old Styles with the same large x-height and dark strokes, and many similar details. Quarto and Mercury are two such typefaces, and while their differences are clear enough to the typographer, we should assume that the vagaries of serifs and ball terminals are lost on the average reader.

Curiously, it’s this very ambiguity that suggests a union of the two typefaces, in which each is free to assume the role for which it’s best qualified. Quarto is a display face, with the snug fit, delicate hairlines, and discreet serifs that recommend it specifically to headline sizes. The Mercury family contains two kinds of faces for smaller sizes, each with the generous fit, thicker hairlines, and clearer gestures necessary for reproduction at text sizes: Mercury Text was designed for print, and Mercury ScreenSmart was designed and engineered for the screen.

On their website, filmmakers Not To Scale pair Quarto and Mercury ScreenSmart beautifully, by assigning each font a specific and exclusive range of sizes. Quarto is restricted to headlines, with Mercury ScreenSmart supplying everything else. The relationship between these two designs is further articulated by the designers’ use of Quarto’s heaviest weight and Mercury’s lightest, and by routinely pairing one font’s roman with the other’s italic — something the designers archly do in both directions.

Quarto Semibold and Mercury SSm Medium

WHY IT WORKS: Related typefaces can be successfully used together if each inhabits its own altitude, one at text sizes and the other at display. For this to work, each typeface must have the visual characteristics appropriate for its size range, with the hairlines, proportions, and fit that are tuned for either text or headlines. For large sizes, look for serif fonts with Fine, Display, or Titling in their names, as well as sans- and slab serifs with extreme weights such as Hairline or Ultra. For small sizes, look for print fonts named Text, and webfonts that are specifically built for small pixel sizes, such as the ScreenSmart collection.

TIP: Explore the contents of the text and headline faces you choose, reviewing both their styles and their character sets. Display faces often have a broader range of weights to choose from, offering subtle shadings that come alive at large sizes. Text faces often contain features such as small caps, tabular figures, fractions, or symbols, which can help both articulate and decorate text at small sizes.


2. Fonts with Similar Drafting Styles


Typefaces that have similar mannerisms, if they’re intended for the same range of sizes, can make truly ponderous companions. Sometimes such fonts are the work of the same type designer, who exhibits a strong personal style; other times the resemblence is coincidental. The following two typefaces are each the product of a radically different brief: Ideal Sans is a sans serif that renders a Humanist framework with handmade gestures, and Operator is meditation on the technical aesthetic of the typewriter. Yet both faces meet at some unforeseen crossroads, sharing the same motifs of angled stroke endings and asymmetrical curves, similarities that would seem to disqualify them from ever being used together.

For the publication of his longform essay The First Roman Fonts, author and publisher John Boardley chose this very pairing for his website, I Love Typography. Both faces, in their ScreenSmart versions, are used at small sizes, Ideal Sans for text, and Operator for the supporting footnotes and commentary. That both fonts were designed and engineered for small sizes might make either one a good choice to satisfy both functions, but Boardley’s selection of different fonts for different textual roles helps formalize the site’s distinction between text and annotation.

On the site, each typeface serves a function that’s sympathetic with its origins. Ideal Sans, with its large vocabulary of organic shapes, produces the kind of complex texture traditionally associated with seriffed text faces. Operator, with its roots in typewriting, can effect an authorial, academic voice, the perfect choice for the commentary that surrounds the text itself.

Ideal Sans Light and Operator Book

WHY IT WORKS: Instead of dividing the typography by type size, these typefaces have been assigned different semantic functions. The choice of typeface is prompted by the structure of the content itself, with each selection informed by both the fonts’ abilities and their intentions. Spending time with the fonts’ character sets revealed that their superficial resemblence goes no deeper than a handful of letters in a few core styles, and uncovered some useful textures in the auxiliary styles, such as these very different forms of italic.

TIP: Remember that even fonts that share the same visual cues can have wildly different proportions, which affect the leading, column width, and tracking they require. Compared with Ideal Sans, Operator has narrower letters, a larger x-height, and dramatically shorter ascenders, descenders, and caps, which together invite much tighter settings. Varying these parameters can help play up the differences or similarities between the two typefaces.


3. Two Revivals of the Same Source


To many designers, historical revivals are the core of the typographic canon. Those who depend on these classics are tasked with the duty of presiding over many different revivals of the same original, and choosing a single correct version for every project. (To see something beautifully set in Adobe Garamond, with a late addition hastily added in itc Garamond, produces a special kind of dissonance. Typography is that art in which the tiniest errors are always the most conspicuous.)

Many consider the idea that revivals aim to be definitive — that history is heading toward one ultimate Garamond revival — to be outmoded. Instead, contemporary designers often approach historical material in a more interpretive way, finding qualities in historical artifacts that resonate with ideas and requirements of their own. Some of the most interesting contemporary typefaces are those that are grounded in historical forms, but are less “recreations” of old typefaces than “occasioned by” them. This invites the possibility that a type designer might revisit the same historical source many times during his or her career, and produce many different interpretations that have both differences and similarities. Sometimes these designs will conflict with one another, other times they’ll be compatible. Most often, they’ll do both.

An example from our library is the pairing of Champion Gothic with Knockout, two divergent type families created years apart, and both inspired by the same historical source. Champion Gothic was my first typeface, designed in 1990, and intended to be a modern interpretation of nineteenth century American wood types. Designed for Sports Illustrated, its sentimentality is checked by the needs of an energetic editorial art department, and its design shaped by a magazine format that required five closely-related condensed faces plus one heavy outlier.

A few years later, I revisited these typefaces with different goals in mind, thinking about how this material might be rationalized into a larger grid of both widths and weights, to ultimately produce the 32-member Knockout family. Above are nine of Knockout’s styles, alongside all six of Champion’s, showing the common ancestor that both fonts share.

Just as a designer might pick the most appropriate Garamond revival for a project, most designers can evaluate Champion and Knockout’s merits and decide which fits the project at hand. But some designers use styles from both families together, and sometimes to great effect: the example below is a favorite, pairing two styles of Knockout with Champion Gothic Heavyweight.

Knockout No. 34, Champion Gothic Heavyweight, and Knockout No. 26

WHY IT WORKS: When working with two different families built on the same historical ground, look for points of overlap and differentiation beween them. If both families have the same range of styles, and include the same kinds of features and character sets, stick with the one that feels best for the project. But if there are outliers in one family that aren’t represented in the other, try using them together. This design works because its central style, Champion Gothic Heavyweight, is the farthest afield from the styles in Knockout, not only in weight and width, but in character. Similarly, the two weights of Knockout used here are ones that have no analogue in Champion, whose weights never go this wide, this narrow, or this light.

TIP: Look first to the extreme ends of a family to see what makes it unique. Many historical revivals take on the challenge of adapting traditional models to new purposes, often including the weights, widths, or optical sizes for which the original source wasn’t intended. Also spend some time with both fonts’ character sets, looking for any points of departure. Subtle adjustments like the alternate R in the top line here serve to heighten the differences between this font and its neighbors, further ensuring that these closely related designs never clash. —JH

Introducing Operator

A monospace typeface, a monospace-inspired typeface, and a short film about type design.

About two years ago, H&Co Senior Designer Andy Clymer proposed that we design a monospace typeface. Monospace (or “fixed-width”) typefaces have a unique place in the culture: their most famous ancestor is the typewriter, and they remain the style that designers reach for when they want to remind readers about the author behind the words. Typewriter faces have become part of the aesthetic of journalism, fundraising, law, academia, and politics; a dressier alternative to handwriting, but still less formal than something set in type, they’re an invaluable tool for designers.

I acutely felt the need for such a typeface, and immediately thought of places I’d want to use it on Discover.typography. And while I liked the idea of creating a new typeface that would have this kind of voice — minus the nostalgic clackety-clack look of an actual typewriter face — I wondered if we could achieve these results without the many compromises required of a fixed-width design. Fixed-width faces force every character into a box of the same size, creating charmingly long serifs on the capital I, but tragic, procrustean disfigurements of wider letters like M and W. So I suggested that we relax the system, to create a font that feels monospaced, but behaves more professionally.

Andy made an equally compelling counterproposal, reminding me that the command-line editor — these days, home to so many people who design things — could really be improved by a fully fixed-width typeface. What if, in addition to shedding the unwanted baggage of the typewriter, we also looked to the programming environment as a place where type could make a difference? Like many screen fonts before it, Operator could pay extra attention to the brackets and braces and punctuation marks more critical in code than in text. But if Operator took the unusual step of looking not only to serifs and sans serifs, but to script typefaces for inspiration, it could do a lot more. It could render the easily-confused I, l, and 1 far less ambiguous. It could help “color” syntax in a way that transcends the actual use of color, ensuring that different parts of a program are easier to identify. Andy hoped this might be useful when a technical pdf found its way to a black-and-white laser printer. It was an especially meaningful gesture to me, as someone who, like three hundred million others, is red-green colorblind.

So with designers, developers, and most of all readers in mind, we decided to design it both ways. Operator Mono® is our new family of fixed-width typefaces, with a broader range of weights than a typical typewriter face, and an italic that positively shines in code. Its more editorial companion is the natural-width Operator® family, which offers the voice of typewriting but none of the compromises. Operator extends to nine weights, from Thin to Ultra, and includes both roman and italic small caps throughout. Both families are supported by companion ScreenSmart fonts, specially designed and engineered for use in the browser at text sizes.

In developing Operator, we found ourselves talking about JavaScript and css, looking for vinyl label embossers on eBay, renting a cantankerous old machine from perhaps the last typewriter repair shop in New York, and unearthing a flea market find that amazingly dates to 1893. Above is the four-minute film I made, to record a little of what went into Operator, and introduce the team at H&Co behind it. —JH

Your project exceeds the 1,000k limit, so your changes have not been saved.

Try adding fewer fonts, fewer styles, or configuring the fonts with fewer features.