How to Pair Fonts and Overcome Your Type Anxiety
An Interview with Bethany Heck on her upcoming Font Review Journal and how to make stronger choices when pairing fonts
Bethany Heck is the Executive Design Director of Audience Engagement, Video & Data at Vox Media, as well as the designer behind the beautifully designed Eephus League baseball scorebooks. In this interview she talks about her latest project, The Font Review Journal which aims at helping designers make better font choices.
Ulrik Hogrebe: Bethany, first of all welcome to TypeThursdays! Today we are going to talk about your latest project “The Font Review Journal”, but before that; you really are quite the prolific designer. Do you want to say a few words about yourself before we get into the weeds?
Bethany Heck: Sure! I certainly don’t feel very prolific, but thank you for saying that. I am currently the Executive Design Director (talk about a mouthful) of Audience Engagement, Video & Data (more words!) at Vox media. My educational background was in print graphic design and was very type-focused, and I took that knowledge into a career working in web and product design.
Apart from that I love to write about type and design and I do a lot of little side projects like the Eephus League, which is where I sell the baseball scorebooks I designed while I was still a student.
UH: Errh… that does seem quite prolific to me! So this might be a daft question, but what exactly does an Executive Design Director of Audience Engagement, Video & Data do?
BH: I oversee a team of designers across those 3 areas, and we focus on how the audience for the Vox media brands consumes our content, which is a convoluted way of saying I oversee our website design and advocate for the best user experience. The video team oversees video, and the data team, data. Fascinating stuff, really.
UH: It is! Designing for media / content is fascinating and complex! I might try to return to that a bit later but maybe we should start with the Font Review Journal? That’s a side project too, right? Can you explain a bit about it?
As a designer who has a passion for typography, I’m truly frustrated that there’s not more writing in general around typefaces.
Font Review Journal
BH: I’d love to! The Font Review Journal is a web project I’m starting to try to fill the gap that I feel currently exists in typeface analysis and discourse between type designers and graphic designers. I will go to conferences like Typecon and Typographics and it’s fascinating to me how differently the two professional talk about their work. As a designer who has a passion for typography, I’m truly frustrated that there’s not more writing in general around typefaces. I am stunned by the number of fonts that get released after years of effort and then the designer only writes a paragraph on the font and why it’s special! And I think a lot of designers struggle to talk about type because there’s not a lot of examples of other people having those conversations either, so they don’t know what to look for, or what to say.
UH: And so the Journal is meant to fill that gap? Tell me a bit about the format?
BH: That’s my hope. I think it’s equal parts information and inspiration for designers to find new typefaces or learn to appreciate familiar ones in different ways. Secondly, some of it is for my own selfish benefit; to let me play with type in a very analytical way and learn things about specific typefaces I wouldn’t have otherwise.
The general format is that each “review” contains a specimen graphic of the typeface, a general overview of the font, then I dive into historic references if they exist, or talk about the design system the font works within. From there I talk about the things I find to be specifically strong about the typeface, and the last section is about quirks the typeface might have, just so folks can be a bit more aware.
I don’t want the tone to be negative. These are celebrations of good work, but of course the reviews should also be honest for the designers who are reading them. All the sections will be illustrated with examples, whether it’s designs that use the font or historic examples that show the roots of a design. Sometimes I’ll pull in a second typeface to show against the one being reviewed so certain characteristics become clearer. There’s also a little section where I can spotlight any individual glyphs the font has that I really love.
I think one of the end results of the lack of discourse is that there are large swaths of designers who are “type scared.” They go with safe choices that they’ve seen everywhere…
UH: I’ve had the pleasure of a preview, and I am honestly delighted. I think — as a self-taught “visual designer” and type designer, it’s always been difficult for me to learn the vocabulary of type and in some ways, I think that impedes having “the eye” as well. And type design is a very specialized skill, with a lot of “arcana” to it — so it can be frightening to open your mouth, you know?
So the issues you are seeing — the lack of discourse and debate — how do you see that playing out in design today?
Dialogue in Design Today
BH: I am with you about feeling afraid to speak up. I am sure there are mistakes in the reviews I’ve written so far. I feel like the more I talk about type the more I open myself up to saying the wrong thing and losing credibility in the type community. But I don’t want to go about my work scared, and I do think I know enough to translate some things for people who aren’t as comfortable in those realms.
I think one of the end results of the lack of discourse is that there are large swaths of designers who are “type scared.” They go with safe choices that they’ve seen everywhere (is “no one ever got fired for buying Helvetica” the designer’s version of “no one ever got fired for buying IBM?”) because they are afraid that if they try to pick something new, it will somehow be wrong.
A lot of the traditional typography educational materials out there are very old-school. They don’t translate to web or even print design as it exists today, so I think a lot of designers feel unmoored as they are trying to make decisions.
The other result is that you have designers who only talk to other designers about type and likewise type designers who only speak to other type designers. I think there could be a lot more back and forth between the groups.
UH: It is weird. Especially as graphic design today has a lot of roots in people who would set and design type for a living. But often now, it feels like almost two separate fields sometimes.
So type plays a really important aspect in your work — whether it’s the Eephus league or Vox which I feel like also really uses type; both to facilitate the content, but also to make a brand statement. How do you go about choosing type yourself?
I bought Styrene back when it was released and I kept waiting to find something where it felt like the right fit. Then I set “Font Review Journal” with it and threw my hands in the air. The J!!! Those are the moments I live for.
How Bethany Chooses Type
BH: I’m a collector by nature. It’s in my blood. So I’m always looking for foundries I haven’t heard of and type I’d like to try. A lot of times I buy families without a specific project in mind and few things bring me more joy than finally finding the perfect use for something. I bought Styrene back when it was released and I kept waiting to find something where it felt like the right fit. Then I set “Font Review Journal” with it and threw my hands in the air. The J!!! Those are the moments I live for.
Sometimes I hunt for fonts in my collection or otherwise based on a style I see somewhere else, whether it’s a modern piece of design or something vintage that I want to find an approximation for. I want to set up the framework for where I want the type to go first; Am I making a badge, if so, what’s the general composition? Is it a website? Let’s figure out the content and the layout. I usually jump around to several aspects of a project and test out type until I find something that sticks and then I build the type pairings I use from there.
UH: Right — and pairing type is something I feel you are quite famous for? Or at least I have seen your talks on it. Are you choosing pairings on aesthetics only? Or is there an element of storytelling in there too?
BH: I’d love to know what you mean by storytelling. Maybe I do use that and just haven’t synthesized it in that way.
Ulrik Hogrebe: I mean, when the choice of typefaces tell a story through their history or references. I.e. using a typefaces because they have a connection with the content, beyond looking good. I guess it’s one of my own musings — if knowing more about the history of a font can help me make better choices. Does that make sense?
It feels shallow to say I’m pairing only on looks, but isn’t that why we choose typefaces?
How Bethany Pairs Typefaces
BH: It does make sense! I think a lot of people like to think that way when pairing type. I usually pair typefaces by aesthetics and how well they play a role. If there’s a part of my design that isn’t being well served by a typeface I’ve chosen, I have no qualms adding another, and I’m not particular about the era/country/designer/etc the fonts come from. Do they do their job well and do they look good in their context? Great, you’re hired.
The Font Review Journal will use 3 sans serif faces: Styrene for the wordmark and a few scattered subheadings that label specific, repeating sections of the framework of the reviews. Untitled Sans for the heading for each review page (what better use for the font that’s supposed to say nothing than on a font review website?) and an as of yet undetermined third sans for the subheading copy of the articles, because I didn’t feel either of the two matched perfectly with the look of the paragraph text.
It feels shallow to say I’m pairing only on looks, but isn’t that why we choose typefaces? I might pair two faces because there’s a shared arc or line in two characters across two faces. I might put a similar but slightly different face right next to another section of text for contrast, just so you can appreciate something you might have otherwise missed if everything was set in the same font. Or if it was placed against something totally different; in which case, your brain just says “oh, those two are different”.
Well, why aren’t we pushing for more people to develop that eye? Why aren’t we helping people get better instead of drawing a box for them to play in?
UH: I dont think it’s shallow. On the contrary, I think my own need to over-intellectualize is probably just me looking for a handhold to defend my choices vis-a-vis what you mentioned before about being ‘type scared’. Say what you will, but that stuff is hard!
BH: Yes. On that, one last thing I’d like to address is that, particularly when it comes to choosing/pairing typefaces, I’ve seen a lot of “leaders” in the design community throw out rules about limiting typefaces and prescribing font pairings and giving these bite-sized tips to make your type better in 10 simple steps! And I think that’s a real shame.
Whenever I’ve pushed back on these sentiments, what usually comes back to me is “well, you can break these rules because you have a good eye for type.” Well, why aren’t we pushing for more people to develop that eye? Why aren’t we helping people get better instead of drawing a box for them to play in? We should expect more designers to be better typographers and we should be doing more to help them get there, and a lot of that means not falling back on stock rules. It means talking to people in a language that’s more grounded in objective aesthetics and formal qualities, and not saying unhelpful things like “that type is horsey”.
I think a lot of the gap that exists between people who “get” type and those who don’t is because we veil so much of it in jargon and we don’t put in the effort to understand why WE see things the way we do, so we can pass that along to others. It’s so easy to fall back on gut reactions and wishy washy phrasing to describe why we like or don’t like something. I think type and design leaders need to improve on that, myself included.
Try to synthesize the reasons why you’re drawn to it. Don’t just take the surface level — these colors, this typeface, this illustration style — try to understand what it’s making you feel and relate that back to its formal qualities.
UH: That is actually incredibly liberating — and I think you are nailing it. For myself and I think many others, the things impairing me is partly type-fear and then also a lack of training and advice when it comes to formal qualities. So they kind of feed on each other — never try anything too wild, so never fail and learn from your mistakes.
Bethany, we never got to talking about Vox and designing for media, but I feel perhaps that’s a whole separate interview. Any last advice for designers out there? And also, how do I get a hold of The Journal?
Bethany’s Advise to Designers
BH: I think I’d urge folks not to be afraid to reach out to people whose type they admire to try to get some mentoring. I know how much it aches to know you aren’t quite hitting the mark with something and not being sure how to fix it. Do that, and try to really be thoughtful as you analyze the pieces of design you like. Try to synthesize the reasons why you’re drawn to it. Don’t just take the surface level — these colors, this typeface, this illustration style — try to understand what it’s making you feel and relate that back to its formal qualities. Same thing goes for choosing type. Know why you like it!
The Font Review Journal site will be up in a few weeks, I hope, at fontreviewjournal.com. If I was smart and planned this out beforehand I’d have a landing page with a newsletter signup on it, but alas, I am a fool. In the mean time, you can follow me on twitter, dribbble or instagram if you want to hear when it’s all live!
Ulrik Hogrebe: Thanks! Best of luck with it — and looking forward to seeing the first edition live!
Want to see more of Bethany’s work: Check out her envy inducing portfolio site here
Love baseball and typography? The Eephus League is for you
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