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AscenderFonts Designer's Toolbox October 2009
Dingbats & Bullets & Sorts
Typographic insights from Steve Matteson
Words and ornamentation have gone together since the very early days of written communication. Scribes copied text and their illuminator colleagues added color and gold leaf ornamentation to finish manuscript pages.
As type evolved to moveable pieces of metal, artwork was added in the form of wooden engravings and even as individual pieces of type (figure 1).
There are many words describing these decorative elements: dingbats, sorts, fleurons, bullets, flowers and fists to name a few. Today there is a nearly endless variety of them for combining with type (figure 2). With a simple keystroke these elements can add subtle and understated flair or become prominent graphic features in a design. For the purposes of organizing the toolbox I’ll divide these graphic elements by how they might be used.
A bullet (•) separates items in a list by visually calling out the beginning of a new item. In many cases a very simple graphic element could be used to substitute the bullet without causing distraction. Arrows, stars and spirals are some examples – even simple drawings related to the theme of the list can be appropriate (figure 3).
Caution: Know the audience to prevent over-illustrating a list. For example, a presentation to investors may not be the best place to use informal elements like hearts or flowers.
Many dingbats can be used to make patterns and borders (figure 4). Some are designed to actually connect into continuous frames (figure 5). Borders are useful for creating menus, book jackets, report covers, scrapbooks and banners.
Many design pieces contain a great deal of text. Dingbats can break up the monotony of a page and even help guide the reader’s eye through a design. Menus, concert programs and directories may benefit from carefully chosen and placed dingbats (figure 6).
Rules of Thumb
Only two rules really apply to the use of dingbats:
1) Be careful to choose dingbats which complement the style and character of the accompanying typeface.
2) Be careful that dingbats do not detract from the message. When tastefully applied, they can increase legibility and enhance the written message.
Dingbats can provide new inspiration for a huge variety of projects. While dingbats have roots in hundreds of years of tradition they continue to be used in a variety of fresh new ways. Be sure to check out the pages listed below and let your imagination run wild!