Book Review: Combining Typefaces

26 April 2013

The craft of combining typefaces can feel like a daunting prospect. It’s easy to shy away from the adventurous cross-pollination of different typefaces and stick to families and superfamilies to achieve typographic harmony.

Thankfully Five Simple Steps’ latest addition to their helpful Pocket Guides series from Tim Brown seeks to offer reassurance and open-mindedness when it comes to making typographic decisions. Tim approaches the subject from a web designer’s perspective:

We need to think about compositions not as layouts, but as coordinated chunks of typeset elements that do specific jobs and exist in many states simultaneously shifting dynamically among those states.

The book itself is the living realisation of Tim’s own words. The methodology described within its pages is broken down into digestible chunks for quick reference and assurance. There are recurring themes of pausing, stepping back and patience. Combining typefaces is an intricate craft that is more rewarding with practice and knowledge about the faces you work with. Tim expresses the importance of absorbing the type, its purpose, its features, the relationships between spaces and rhythms at a micro and a macro level. The deeper you know about the characteristics of different typefaces and the content that the typefaces are going to represent, the easier it is to find harmony between both entities.

Here’s the bottom line: absorb the text and the author’s or client’s intentions with vigor, because it is integral to your success. If the visual decisions you make aren’t meaningfully connected to the ideas they represent, then your typeface combinations don’t matter.

It’s a purposely open-ended book, because with design there are few definitives. The skill of combining typefaces is nourished with learning from, documenting and critiquing work. A few years ago I naively believed there were certain formulas for this practice. After reading Tim’s words I am excited about looking at typography through a more meaningful lens. Combining Typefaces is valuable addition to any web designer’s desk — one that I’ll be keeping within reach.