Finding a specific font character (glyph) can be difficult and time consuming. Even the most basic fonts have glyphs that are not visible on your keyboard, such as trademark (™), copyright (©), and cents (¢), and some font glyphs—such as the symbols in Wingdings or Zapf Dingbats—are similarly hard to find. And with the more recent arrival of OpenType and its support for Unicode, there can be tens of thousands of glyphs in one font—with no obvious way to locate them.
To provide access to these glyphs, some applications—such as Apple’s Pages ( ), Adobe InDesign ( ), and QuarkXPress ( )—have a Glyphs palette or panel (notably, Photoshop [ ] does not.) While these tools do an admirable job of helping you find and use such obscure characters, they don’t help with more complex typographic tasks such as finding alternate designs for the same glyph across different fonts. And most other applications don’t provide any tools at all to access hidden glyphs.
To make it easier to find and use all of a font’s glyphs, there’s a unique system-wide background application called PopChar (named for “pop character”), that’s now about 20 years old. The new version 5 for Mac OS X provides some updated interface enhancements and a large number of smaller improvements that make this software a very good prospect for artists or business users.
PopChar X adds a small P icon to your Mac’s menu bar in either the right or left corner, or as a standard menu bar item. When you click the P icon, a floating window appears that shows all of the glyphs (characters) in any of your active fonts. If you double-click a glyph, it pops into your currently active document at the location of your text cursor. When you click onto your document, PopChar’s window can either close or stay open, depending on how you set its preferences. New to version 5 is the ability to invoke PopChar with a keyboard shortcut, rather than having to click a menu bar icon.
If your font is in OpenType format and has an extended set of glyphs, PopChar shows all of them, clustered into standard Unicode blocks such as language, punctuation, currency symbols, numbers, arrows, geometric shapes, and dingbats. You can even search for glyphs by category name, such as “arrow” or “trademark”. A unique feature then lets you see the selected glyph in all active fonts where it exists, by clicking the All button. This is incredibly useful for choosing a specific design for an ampersand (&), arrow, or other glyph, for example, even if it’s from a different font. Without this feature, you’d have to go through the tedious process of choosing each font and scrolling through the Unicode blocks to see if it has that particular glyph—and even then you wouldn’t be able to compare the glyphs side-by-side.
To help you discern differences between glyphs, PopChar offers a magnifier tool that enlarges each glyph as you roll your mouse cursor over it. The glyphs you’ve used before are highlighted in yellow, which helps during subsequent searches. If you use a particular glyph over and over, you can add it to a new Favorites section for instant recall later—even if you’re using a different font. This is particularly handy for inserting a dingbat character from a different font than the one you’re typing in.
However, you don’t have to insert the glyph into your document using the font currently selected in PopChar. Buttons at the bottom of PopChar’s window let you choose to insert the glyph in three different ways: using the font currently selected in PopChar, the font currently active in your document, or as HTML code for your Web pages (in either numeric or named HTML code). If a glyph has a keyboard equivalent, PopChar also displays the keys you can press to generate it in your document—a real timesaver for often-used glyphs.
Macworld’s buying advice
If you work with multilingual or technical documents, or if you frequently use dingbat fonts, PopChar X 5 will quickly pay for itself. Graphic designers will appreciate PopChar’s ability to display the same character across multiple fonts, and Photoshop users will appreciate being able to visually find and choose special characters. Anyone interested in fonts will enjoy PopChar’s organized view of the glyphs hidden within many of their fonts.
[Jay J. Nelson is the editor and publisher of
Design Tools Monthly
, an executive summary of graphic design news.]