Encoding choices for symbolic fonts

Sometimes people make fonts that don’t have letters and such in them, but instead have some kind of symbols.

In many cases such symbols have legitimate encoding slots in the Unicode standard, which is used to dictate encoding for most fonts made today. But working with unusual characters from Unicode can be a bit of a pain. So sometimes people assign unusual symbols to the same slots as A, B, C, etcetera. This is technically wrong, but often convenient.

Here is a quick guide to the options and tradeoffs when creating a symbol or “pi” font. This advice is applicable across all font creation tools, not only ours.


  1. Use “proper” Unicode codepoints for all glyphs in your font. This means looking up correct Unicode codepoints for the symbols.
    • Disadvantage: People won’t be able to type the symbols directly, unless you create custom keyboard drivers for your font. Likely they will need to use a character picker built into their OS or app.
    • Advantages: If they switch fonts to another one that has the right symbols properly encoded, their content will remain correct. Unicode/text purists won’t complain.
  2. Use “normal” codepoints for your symbols, so that your symbols are assigned to a, b, c, 1, 2, 3, etc.
    • Disadvantage: If people switch fonts, the symbols will turn into alphabetic gibberish, and it may not even be apparent what was intended. Also, that alphabetic gibberish really is the underlying text, so this approach will confuse screen readers, search, and other things that rely on understanding the text. As a result, it is considered technically “wrong.”
    • Advantage: Can by typed off the keyboard!
  3. Use Private Use Area Unicode codepoints. These are codepoints reserved for special purposes, that have no pre-set meaning.
    • Disadvantages: Has all the disadvantages of using proper Unicode, plus most of the disadvantages of of assigning the symbols to alphabetic codepoints
    • Advantage: usually none, unless others have used these PUA codepoints in some consistent way.

How to Choose

Personally, if the font is going to be used to create public documents and text, I will tend towards option #1. If nobody is going to need to manually enter text using the font, or not often, I will tend towards option #1, If neither of those things is true, and the content will have more limited use or be in a closed system, I will tend towards option #2.
What if your symbols don’t even have proper Unicode codepoints? In that case, the first option is unavailable to you. You might consider whether there is a semi-standard solution being used for those symbols (for example, there is a block in the Private Use Area that has often been used for Klingon).
Thanks to the user who wrote me the question that prompted this blog post!

How to make stroke-only fonts in FontLab Studio 5 (& TypeTool)

People working with engraving machines and vinyl sign-cutting machines sometimes ask for special fonts that are made with single-stroke lines instead of closed shapes. Even though this is not legal in the font formats, it is possible to work around it in FontLab Studio 5 and TypeTool 3. Here’s how, and why you might be fooled into thinking you have failed even when successful.

Free FontLab Webinar: Typerobics Type Design Exercises

Please join us for an exciting new free webinar for beginning type designers!

Typerobics: Type design exercises
with Fábio Duarte Martins
Tuesday 16 June 2015
9:00 am Pacific / noon Eastern / 16.00 GMT / 18.00 CEST
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The video from the webinar is now available!

Are your letters feeling out of shape? Do you aspire to win the regional kerning championship? Typerobics is a type-making workout regime intended to shape up your Bézier biceps. Every sport requires exercise, and so does type design. Typerobics is your type design fitness plan: pick a word, pick a typographic style, draw that word in under 40 minutes-then repeat at least three times a week.

Free webinar: Sumner Stone on Superfamilies

Superfamilies graphicType Design Secrets Revealed!

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Superfamilies of closely related typefaces have become a common feature of typography in the twenty-first century. Sumner Stone talks about their history and conceptual background, and examines and discusses examples from his own work and that of other type designers, both historical and contemporary.