Towards the end of last year a friend of mine, who was working on a web-based typography tool, asked me for tips on how to pair typefaces. I know how I approach the task but I started to wondering if there were well defined techniques to share. Digging through typography books (old and new) I couldn't find much on the subject. One or two writers basically say, "Just don't do it!", advising you to stick to one font family. After all, that's why it's been designed as a family (well, one of the reasons). Interesting, good advice, but the urge to contrast typefaces is still there. Are there any more encouraging answers?
And, perhaps, now more than ever an encouraging answer would be helpful. Not least because of the whole new generation of graphic designers (whether they call themselves that or not) whose work manifests itself in some digitally-based form but whose journey has not taken the "conventional" route. They haven't got to where they are via a lengthy stay at the university of typographical hard knocks. But the desire to learn is great.
What would/do I do? The first and most obvious approach, I think, is to look to type designers who have produced a range of typefaces and see if sympathetic pairs can be identified from within their body of work.
It's not uncommon for type designers to use similar letter structures across different typefaces. Some are plainly obvious, Spiekermann's Meta goes with his Meta Serif; Sumner Stone's self-titled Sans sits nicely with it's Serif sister and Informal brother.
More recently we've seen the term "Super Families" become more visible, describing sets of typefaces, some with incredibly extensive variations. Super Families hand us sympathetic font pairs on a plate and that's very helpful; not least for the fledgling typographic designer.
But what if you want to freestyle? Go off-typedesigner or off-superfamily in search of a pairing with greater contrast or all of your own making. How do you start?
I can think of two ways (there's probably more):
The easiest way is to cheat. You go looking for examples that work and you copy the same pairing. It's not stealing; it's not a terrible way to approach it really. Except that you're not going to learn much. It's a bit like the old, clichéd "Give a man a fish…" cliché.
A better way to approach the challenge is to get closer to the type; intimate in fact. Get under the skin of type design, analyse the characteristics of typefaces to discern what one (say, serif) face has in common with a different (say, sans) face. Learn about its historical and, even, its geographical contexts.
Enter, stage left, Stephen Coles' new book The Geometry of Type (or if you're Stateside, The Anatomy of Type). A timely publication, given the still fairly new but ferocious interest in typography from the designers and builders of the digital realm; Stephen's book, I think, couldn't have come at a better time. It presents just what those new to designing with type need to know.
The Geometry of Type leads you through the classification of typefaces, their historical background and reveals their distinguishing characteristics. Armed with a detailed grasp of this knowledge, the designer can see that, for example, a particular typeface that falls into the Humanist Serif category may well work well with another face that could be described as a Humanist Sans. Or how a Geometric Sans might work well with a Rational Serif (more traditionally known as a Modern). Of course, with any one single volume only a limited collection of typefaces can be included. Perhaps the most important lesson that the book teaches is to look closer at whatever typeface we're using. It teaches what to look for; where the critical details can be gleamed.
I think this is a book that could, and probably should, become a staple for a generation of typographic designers. From talking to a few people who are coming to typographic design with a digital background, our time feels not unlike that period when design studios were just installing Macs for the first time. When graphic designers were getting their hands on type which they'd previously relied on others to control (typesetters).
It's a little different but it's similar because there are designers using type with very little proper understanding of its intricacies. I was like that way back then and what I had to do was learn lots of stuff. I can wholeheartedly relate to the plight of these designers; that's just what I was like. And what I needed back then was a nudge here and there to set me on the right track. Stephen's book is one of those very helpful nudges.