What font pairs well with _____?” 

It’s a ques­tion a lot of young design­ers grap­ple with, if inter­net message boards are any indi­ca­tion. And it’s one that dozens of websites are all too happy to answer, with specific sugges­tions that purport to take the guess­work out of all this diffi­cult type-​pairing stuff.

If only it were that easy. 

Google Fonts even builds this right in, in case you want to just hand the deci­sion over to the wisdom of the crowd.

The trou­ble is that “pair­ing” is the wrong way to think about what you’re doing when you’re choos­ing type. When you’re pair­ing, you’re focused on how your font choices relate to each other, rather than how they relate to the jobs you’re asking them to do. You’re acting as a match­maker, when you should really be some­thing more like a cast­ing director.

An illus­tra­tion of what I mean: I remem­ber learn­ing about pair­ing in college through the exam­ple of Futura & Bodoni, which despite super­fi­cial differ­ences share certain skele­tal char­ac­ter­is­tics: ratio­nal, upright, and more influ­enced by geomet­ric construc­tion than by hand­writ­ing. And for certain kinds of work (a poster or a book cover, say) they can be a fine team: Set a few words nice and big, play up the contrasts, and let those under­ly­ing simi­lar­i­ties tie it all together.

But what if you’ve got a differ­ent role you need them to play? Maybe you need to set some long passages of very small text? Suddenly your expert-​recommended pair­ing isn’t so perfect, because neither of its members can perform as you need them to. Bodoni’s thin strokes disap­pear at smaller sizes, unless you’ve got a version with a proper opti­cal size (and even then, I find it fatigu­ing to read at length). And while some people insist that Futura is perfectly usable as 8-​point body text, they are wrong.

Evidently I’m not the only one who got this Futura–Bodoni advice. 

Of course it’s good for all the type to have that inef­fa­ble sense of “feel­ing like it belongs together,” but that’s secondary. First you have to consider what you need the type to do in your project, and make sure you’re choos­ing type­faces that are suited to those roles.

In my publi­ca­tion design work, I often like to work “from the inside out”: I start by choos­ing the type that will be read most—the body text—before find­ing play­ers for the support­ing roles. Sturdy text faces aren’t glam­orous, but if you get that first choice right, you’ve set the tone for every choice that follows.

Depending on the needs of the job, I might next add a work­horse sans-​serif that plays well with the body-​text choice and is flex­i­ble enough to cover multi­ple roles (like a char­ac­ter actor who can do a bit of every­thing). Then one or two display options, which depend­ing on the project might be a little more assertive in personality—your scene-​stealer types—and finally any special­ized util­ity play­ers if the design calls for them. 

A sample page from my recent Road Grays magazine.

Notice that at no point am I limit­ing myself to a specific number of type­faces. Instead I’m think­ing only about what roles must be filled, and then find­ing the right typo­graphic candi­dates for them. My “pair­ing” might be a trio or quar­tet, or it could even be the members of a single font family. But no matter the size of the cast, the goal is always to build an ensem­ble that’s right for the job at hand, not just a pair that’s happy together.