There is no guaranteed, secret formula to draw an eye-catching piece of lettering. Yet, tastefully pairing lettering styles is a great recipe. The choice can be overwhelming though: how do you know what goes together? Is there some kind of rule behind it? And once you got the styles down, what’s the best way to put them together?
Rule n°1: Aim for simplicity
It’s not uncommon to see people clutter their compositions to try and make it stand out, and end up with something messy and hard to read. If this sounds familiar, you need to change the way you think. Stop looking for what you can add, but for what you can remove. Focus on making your subject flawless instead of trying to fill up every inch of negative space. Simplicity is always a good idea. The best design in the world is the simplest, so you have everything to gain from practicing at keeping things simple.
As a general rule, I try not to exceed two styles. This isn’t set in stone, but it’s a good thing to start with this constraint because it forces you to make the most of what you have. Pairing two styles that go really well together, and executing them flawlessly is a guarantee of a strong lettering piece that doesn’t need anything else to stand out.
One word: contrast
You should always go for contrast. This is a universal, basic rule that applies to even the most simple pieces of work, but for some reason people often stay away from it. The strength of wisely-used contrast is that it’s instantly eye-catching. It makes your work more interesting without cluttering it with fluff.
Instead of overcomplicating your lettering, try to spot where you could make extremes meet. Going for script lettering with thicks and thins and plenty of swashes? The right match might be something with no curves, no ornaments and a fixed weight, like sans-serif capitals. Thinking of using blackletter lettering with a gothic, ancient edge? The best option could be something ultra simple and modern, like sans-serif geometric lettering.
I usually try to think about the style that’s the most radically opposed to the one I want to use, but it doesn’t mean that it will automatically work. There’s a lot of research involved, and what’s a match on paper won’t necessarily be one in practice.
Another important things is, try to be deliberate about the message you’re conveying. On the above example, Tyrsa not only used two very different kinds of lettering, but he also drew them according to the meaning of the quote. Though detailed, this lettering is simple. No fancy background, no extra elements everywhere hurting the legibility, just the two words. Yet, what’s brilliant about it is that it’s using contrast by interpreting the message of the piece. This allowed him to have several levels of contrast; color, styles, textures, and even dimension. It doesn’t need more elements because it’s already eye-catching as is.
If you’re still new at lettering and this kind of virtuoso work makes you uncomfortable, don’t get discouraged. You can totally experiment contrast with a simpler approach. For example, have you thought about just playing with size and weight?
Here’s the back of my business card. It may not feel like it at the first glance, but it only uses one typeface. Yet, it displays three different weights in the font family, at four different sizes. Not only this creates a hierarchy, but it’s enough to make the card dynamic while remaining simple.
Try to do a lettering piece with a few words (two or three, no more) and apply one style with as many sizes and weights as there are words. Believe me, this seemingly strict constraint is going to fuel your imagination like never before.
Blending styles together
Okay, you got your different styles down, now what?
Now, you make your words communicate together.
This is the most common error I’ve seen (and done): on a lettering piece, you have words really well designed, using different styles, but with zero interaction. And by interaction I don’t mean the words have to touch each other, but they have to work together.
Look at this lettering. It feels like every letter is a piece of a puzzle, which fit together as a whole. You’re looking at a piece of art, without realizing that you’re actually reading it.
On this other example, the words are communicating directly, by using elements from one to link it to the other. The crossbar of the « H » becomes the upper swash of the « L », which lower swash goes through the counter of the « O », while the loop of the « g » wraps around the left stem of the « H », and the whole thing comes together gracefully as a seamlessly interconnected piece of art.
Now I know this looks elaborate, and you may be thinking that it takes genius to come up with something like this. Let me reassure you, that’s not the type of thing you find out right from the start. I can’t speak for him, but I’m pretty sure Sean threw a few concepts on the page before coming up with this. Even then, it was more a matter of iterating and refining than waiting for the perfect idea to pop in his brain.
Don’t be too hard on yourself, and wrap your head around the idea of working a lot to achieve convincing results. Lettering is an iterative process, just like writing. The first draft is rarely gold.
A little help from my friends
I use a few online tools to help me through the research phase. They can be useful, but always remember that they’re just tools. You’re the artist, they’re just algorithms. They can’t do the work for you. Always use them as ressources, not as a direct reference when you’re out of inspiration.
A typographic dating game to practice at finding the best match between typefaces.
A list of ideal pairs between Google Fonts.
- Just My Type
A collection of font pairing from Typekit and Hoefler & Co. Mostly print letters.
Select a font, and find the best match according to TypeGenius picks.
- Adobe Color CC (formerly Kuler)
My tool of choice for color matching.