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.

Options:

  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
Register now!

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 régime 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!

Watch the recording on YouTube

https://​www​.youtube​.com/​w​a​t​c​h​?​v​=​l​w​q​A​b​M​h​b​LoQ

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.

Fix Fonts Fast for Half Off

OTMaster: 50% Off Summer Sale

From now until the end of August September 21, the incredibly powerful and useful OTMaster 3.7 font editing tool from our friends at Dutch Type Library and URW++ is 50% off! For even more savings, you can save 25% on Fontographer 5 in a bundle with OT Master at half off!

DTL OTMaster is a technical font viewer and editor that allows in-depth examination and fine low-level tuning of any OpenType font, TrueType font or TrueType Collection. Because of its non-invasive nature, DTL OTMaster allows type designers and font developers to make small modifications to specific parts of an .otf, .ttf or .ttc font without changing other aspects of the font. It can also serve as an excellent font testing tool. Professional font users benefit from OTMaster’s ability to examine the fonts’ inner structures, and to fix some common technical problems. Software vendors and developers will find DTL OTMaster an indispensable tool that will aid their globalization and internationalization efforts.

Fontographer 5.2 is our font editor for designers, easier than ever to use, but with industrial-strength FontLab technology under the hood.

Both OTMaster and Fontographer are available on both Mac OS X and Windows.

Size-specific Adjustments to Type Designs, 2nd edition

Until June 29, Tim Ahrens is offering a pre-publication discount on the brand-new and much expanded/revised second edition of his book, Size-specific Adjustments to Type Designs.

This is not just the best, but really the only significant work on this intriguing and complex topic. Highly recommended for intermediate and advanced type designers, and anyone else interested!

Read more (and buy) on Tim’s blog.

How to Install (Free) Python & friends for FontLab Studio

I just added a big article to our Knowledge Base with step-by-step how-to instructions for both Mac and Windows users!

Read the article here!

There are a host of utilities that can make the font making and editing experience easier and faster. Some work directly in FontLab Studio via the Python scripting language, and others are separate items. Here is how to install Python-related tools, and the many scripts and things they enable, to work with FontLab Studio 5.1+ on Mac OS and Windows. (If you are using earlier versions, please upgrade to 5.1.x Mac and 5.2.x Windows. Upgrades from 5.0 and higher are free!)

You do not have to be a programmer to make use of these tools! While folks who are at least moderately geeky and technical will get more out of most of these tools, almost anybody who can use FontLab Studio will find value in tools such as TTX, and benefit from some scripts they can run “out of the box.” Once you get this stuff set up, you can install more macros/scripts just by dragging them to the FontLab macros folder, and restarting FontLab Studio.

Advanced FontLab Studio webinar with David Bergsland

David Bergsland’s first webinar on troubleshooting font creation in FontLab Studio got a standing ovation from the attendees! David’s no-nonsense designer-friendly approach is accessible to all. Now he is following it up with “Advanced Font Creation,” Tuesday June 10 at 9:00 am Pacific / noon Eastern / 18:00 CESTRegister now!

As Jim Gallagher, our tech support and instructional guru says, “Most designers won’t give these kind of tips away, but Dave spills the beans! You will wonder why you never saw some of these things before.”

Attendance at David’s previous webinar is not at all a pre-requisite for this follow-up with even more information and ideas about how to make font creation easy. However, you can still register for that previous webinar even now, after the fact, and watch the recording.

There will be a live Q&A session at the end of the webinar, when you can ask David about the things that puzzle you!

David Bergsland has been a type designer for 20 years, and is the author of both Fontographer and FontLab Studio editions of Practical Font Design. Read more about him.

There are a limited number of seats available for this webinar, so don’t be disappointed—register now!

FontLab Studio font design workshop: Pune, March 3–5

There are still spots left! Just over a week until our intermediate-level type design workshop with FontLab Studio 5 right after Typography Day in Pune India, with a coalition of expert font folks teaching. Join me, Adam Twardoch, Ted Harrison, Pradnya Naik and special guest Prof. Mahendra Patel for three days of intense font-making goodness!