Enduring characters

Whether ornamental or practical, it has proved a vital weapon in the typographer’s armoury since the early days of print. Now OpenType technology offers a raft of new possibilities for this ever-adaptable format. Gavin Lucas explores the past and future of the dingbat

How the word ‘dingbat’ was first coined in relation to typographical devices other than letters or numerals is an etymological mystery that has defeated even the Oxford English Dictionary. However, thanks to the DTP revolution and more specifically to Herman Zapf’s hugely popular 1978 ITC font, Zapf Dingbats, most computer-users will be familiar with the word and understand that dingbats are non-alphabetical characters such as asterisks, arrows and other symbols potentially of use to a typographer or graphic designer.

Just as there are thousands of digital typefaces in use around the world today, so there is a huge variety of non-letter (often called ‘Symbol’ or ‘Pi’) fonts which roughly fall into two distinct categories: those which allow the user to create patterns and ornaments, and those which provide handy symbols, illustrations and graphic tools for use in specific circumstances. Need a picture of a party balloon or the symbol for Mastercard? There’s a font for that.

While the notion of gathering such marks and devices into ‘typefaces’ is very much one that has gained popularity in the digital age, the use of ornaments (also known as ‘fleurons’ or ‘printer’s flowers’) is as old as printing itself, as retired university professor of Old and Middle English and author Peter J Lucas explains: “At the beginning of the era of printed books in Europe at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th Century, books followed manuscript tradition and had a colophon at the end which stated the name of the printer and usually the date and place of publication. This was not very commercially useful, so printers and publishers (usually the same person) started to use title pages at the front of the book to display this information. These needed to look attractive to customers visiting their shop, so a decorative woodcut with a frame in which to print the title, author and printer/publisher, was introduced: it was attractive to look at as well giving the essential information about the book. Some printers used a bar with a geometric design so that several pieces could be set together to create a frame.”

Ornament, a handsetting tradition

For as long as typesetting was done by hand, ornamentation in typesetting was hugely popular and even served to help identify publications as being by particular publishers. But with the advent of machine typesetting in the 20th century, says Paul Barnes of Commercial Type, the production of ornamental type characters went into decline. “For foundries selling type for hand composition, [ornament] was of huge importance for the jobbing printers they sold to,” he says, “whereas with machine composition primarily for books, magazines etc, it wasn’t so important. Ornament was increasingly out of fashion in the 20th century and the skills of using ornament were dying out – it wasn’t just a design skill but a composition skill and with less and less handsetting, there was less and less time for ornament.”

But that didn’t mean the end of non-alphabetical or numerical characters. Instead, the emphasis switched from the ornamental to the practical as printers used graphic elements for, as self-confessed type obsessive Erik Spiekermann explains, a variety of tasks that “can today be done using other graphic tools, like the criss-cross pattern under a signature field or the black marks invalidating a carbon copy. These had to be composed from bits of metal and the typographic duodecimal system with its 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6 dividers was the perfect way to work out multiples and endless combinations of these elements into whole pages, strips or frames. Even complete typefaces could be made up from graphic elements, like Super Veloz created by Joan Trochut in the early 40s and since digitised by Andreu Balius [this was a dedicated system of lines and other shapes created specifically for combining to form type or illustration, inspired by the efforts of Catalan printers during the Spanish Civil War to create modernist illustrations using whatever pieces of metal they had to hand. See CR April 2009]. Futura (created in 1927) had its own ‘typosignals’, with arrows, squares, triangles, circles and other bits that could be combined into typographic illustrations.”

Digital dingbats

When technology shifted again and digital type came into being, printers and designers were able to draw on a huge variety of specially-designed symbols created as fonts. The Monotype catalogue alone now devotes some 34 pages to Pi and Symbol Typefaces encompassing everything from species of fish, signs of the zodiac and foodstuffs to roadsigns, dinosaurs and facial expressions. And ornaments too.

While many dingbats have a practical use (Linotype’s Warning Pi, for example, is a collection of hazard warnings for signage use) others appear to have been created just for kicks – the dingbat is where type designers let their hair down. They can even be a forum to do good, as the Font Aid series of collaborative typefaces sold for charity (typesociety.org/fontaid) demonstrates.

Dingbats have also benefitted from the demand for bespoke typefaces. Just as companies wanted to commission and own their own corporate typefaces, some required their own sets of unique symbols and icons. Prolific type designer Rian Hughes originally created his Box Office dingbat font as a commission from Radio Times magazine for its TV and film listings. For the commercial release available from his site, it has been augmented with an extended international set of icons covering a broader range of uses.

“Dingbat fonts are especially useful in situations like Radio Times’ listings because they flow with the text box and are easily editable,” says Hughes. “It’s much simpler to choose a glyph from a font than find and insert an EPS vector file.”

Another of Hughes’ Dingbat fonts, Anytime Now, comprises all the required elements to create a number of different clocks and comes with information about how best to layer the elements using different software packages. However, recent developments suggests that soon such fonts won’t need accompanying ‘how to’ documents but will actually perform the required layering automatically as a new era of ‘interactive’ fonts begins.

New possibilities

Travis Kochel recently designed and released Chartwell, a typeface that takes advantage of OpenType ligatures to create graphs within a text box. Users simply enter strings of numerical values which are automatically transformed into charts. The font is loaded with hundreds of different graphic elements stored in the font as alternate characters. The OpenType function selects the right element depending on the string of values entered, meaning that rather than package up numerous glyphs that users have to layer up and arrange manually, the font does the work for you.

“I think there are a lot of opportunities to push interactive fonts further,” says Kochel. “Certainly there are more styles of charts that can be created, but the tools don’t have to be limited directly to numbers and infographics. There are already a few typefaces that use similar tricks to allow easier access to icons or dingbats, such as Greta Symbol, FF PicLig (which translates words and certain letter combinations into relevant symbols as you type), Sauna, Symbolset, Detroit…”

Kochel is keen to point out the potential for clients and brands to commission a new kind of corporate typeface based on their logo or brand colours that could be realised in the form of an interactive typeface. “Even without a client’s brand in mind, it would be nice to find a way to incorporate shapes that are more difficult to describe mathematically. Computers are already very good at creating simple shapes like circles, lines and boxes. I’d like to bring the human craft of type or illustration back in to this somehow.”

Perhaps Kochel should collaborate with London-based design studio Kapitza who have recently self-published Organic, a compendium of designs created using their own typefaces which are comprised of scribbles, irregular shapes, wibbly lines and other seemingly random marks. It’s the follow up to a previously released Geometric tome which showcased dozens of patterns all created using their numerous geometric shape fonts. Comprising the talents of sisters Nicole and Petra Kapitza, the studio specialises in creating pattern fonts, but not revivalist ones that look to the past, although the premise is the same in that each glyph in one of their fonts is a building block that can be used to create a pattern.

“Our fonts are sets of illustrations that work together as a group or as a sequence,” explains Nicole. The duo both produced illustrated symbol typefaces while at college in the mid 90s, inspired both by a friend who worked as a type designer at Emigré at the time and also by Neville Brody and Jon Wozencroft’s FUSE magazine (CR April 2012)which, they say, “really made working with digital typefaces an exciting prospect”.

While the pair have made dozens of pattern fonts over the last decade, using them requires patience, skill and no small amount of time to arrange, colour and layer the forms as required. The idea of a system that could automatically do this for the user, to make it easier to use the fonts as the tools they’re intended to be, is an ongoing concern and their Geometric iPad app, released earlier this year, looks to make pattern creation as simple as swiping a finger across a screen. Using the app, it’s not difficult to imagine the potential for Kapitza’s typefaces to become the core elements in a powerful pattern creating application that could potentially be used to design all manner of products such as wallpaper, floor tiles and anything else that might be made all the jollier for sporting a pattern.

Exploiting limitations

So what is it about the digital font that makes it the perfect vehicle for such non-typographic experimentations? For Kapitza, it’s about the limitations of the medium: “You have an idea but then you have to make that idea into a piece of work that has a name, a bit like a musician conceives an album,” says Nicole. “And you have to be able to extend that idea across at least 52 characters and illustrations and that’s a kind of limitation. It’s a format and it inspires us. If we take that away we don’t know what to do.”

For Kochel, it’s about accessibility. “The great thing about the font format is that it’s so universal,” he says. “Once it’s installed, a font can be accessed from applications that have support for advanced OpenType features. No extra software or interface is needed. All you have to do is type. From a developer’s point of view, the process is relatively simple. The keyboard is an amazing device for getting information from the user. The application takes care of displaying the glyphs, searching for context and performing any swaps. The interface is there already. It just needs someone to lay down the rules.”

Ever-adaptable, the dingbat, symbol or Pi font, whether ornamental or practical, will, it seems, always be with us.

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