Years ago someone ran a series of advertisements on the front page of the Guardian which began ‘Are you ashamed of your mistakes in grammar?’ Those days are long past. But many people are ashamed of their choice of fonts, and, arguably, vastly more ought to be.
If you are familiar with the campaign against Comic Sans, or the plugin that makes every website only in Helvetica, or perhaps have even seen the film about Helvetica, you may resonate with this. On the other hand, if you think that Comic Sans is a perfectly reasonable choice, and like to use ten or eleven fonts to make your point in a business letter, then you may be wondering what all the fuss is about.
Well, just as you wouldn’t wear a T-shirt with a tie, or Simpsons socks to an important job interview, fonts have their own rules of formality, fashion, function, and, above all, combination.
You can’t mix Avant Garde Gothic with Helvetica and expect it to look right. You can’t mix Futura and Univers, or Cooper Black with Trajan, or Garamond with Bookman.
The trouble is, unlike advice about whether to wear a spotted bow-tie with a stripy shirt, for which there are hundreds of books available, there are very few books or websites which go beyond fairly basic and hard to follow advice to actually telling you what you can put with what. You can learn what the rules are very quickly: fonts that are too similar clash, use fonts with similar proportions, don’t ever use more than four fonts — in fact, there’s quite a good article on it here, but for most people, these just don’t give enough to go on. The linked article also includes the famous and often reproduced page from U&lc September 1992, which shows a table of 22 typefaces and how well they combine in text and display. If you want to play it safe, you might want to stick with those (except, please do realise that Souvenir, even though it matches with all the others, looks dated and clown like in almost any usage).
There are a few websites which offer combination guidance, however, these won’t actually tell you how to combine the fonts which you have on your computer. All fonts are copyright of their owners, of course, so you should be careful about installing things you haven’t paid for or got from a reputable source. There was a time when free fonts were almost always bad fonts, but with the advent of Museo, and others, there are now a good number of free weights on sites such as fonts.com which can spice up your fontlife without guilt or bad typography.
The problem still is, how do you know what goes with what? If you’re a designer, you’ve probably been collecting fonts for years, scratting round every free offer, all the fonts that came with Photoshop or QuarkXpres, and maybe conserving the fonts that came with CorelDraw or Deneba Canvas (which was a lot of fonts).
There is an answer, and it’s lovely. I discovered it yesterday. It’s called TypeDNA, and it’s a low-priced (£28, with a 60 day free trial period) font scanner that can also act as a basic font management tool. It’s actually nowhere near as Linotype’s Font Explorer when it comes to management, but it does one thing brilliantly: it scans all the fonts you have, and then tells you what goes with what, as well as what your alternatives are.
For example, if you are suicidally dedicated to using Comic Sans, then TypeDNA will work out that you can use Jenson Pro or Bodoni Bold Condensed as a headline. It will still be obvious that you have Comic Sans as body text, but at least it will look harmonious. A more sensible use, in this context, would be to discover that you could use AdPro, Chalkboard, Dom Casual or Noteworthy Bold, or, even better, Lexia, Tekton or, escaping the handwritten look altogether, Futura Medium.
If you want to upgrade your business presentation in one go, get a better job and be the envy of your friends, then going from Comic Sans to Futura Medium would be the equivalent of abandoning a brightly painted clown car and turning up to work in an exquisitely restored 1930s BMW, except without the cost, time, and effort.
Once you’ve upgraded your life from the Simpsons Socks and Rupert Bear Bow Tie to understated suit and expensive shoes, you may be wondering what goes with Futura Medium. The answer is, Century Old Style, Lucida Bright, Goudy Catalogue, Warnock Pro, Sabon or Egyptienne. Or whatever it is that you have on your computer, because TypeDNA works out its suggestions from the shape of the letters, not from a database stored elsewhere.
If you’re a real type buff, then you’ve probably at some point scanned your handwriting and converted it into a font, perhaps, using Open Type, even with contextually changing letters so that it really looks handwritten.
TypeDNA is fine with that. As well as telling me that my handwriting is similar in spirit to American Uncial and Carlin Script, it also tells me that I can match it with Bernhard Modern, Brioso Pro and URW Typewriter Light Narrow, or headline it with Cooper Black, American Typewriter Bold, or Goudy Heavyface.
TypeDNA is available from TypeDNA at TypeDNA.com, which is at least attractively consistent. The application isn’t entirely stable, and has crashed a few times, though never with damage to anything else. It comes with on-the-fly plugins for Photoshop and Illustrator, and works with your existing font management tool, or standalone if you don’t have one. It’s £28, and comes with a generous 60 day trial period, Mac and Windows.
TypeDNA also allows you to browse free webfonts from Google, and buy fonts online. This may be a bit dangerous: at an average of £45 per font weight, you may find fonts an expensive addiction.