Before Apple's LaserWriter Plus printer came along, the only exposure the general public would have had to the word "dingbat" was Archie Bunker’s use of it to insult his wife, Edith in the 1970s sitcom, All In The Family.
But starting in 1985, Apple's laser printers included a resident font called Zapf Dingbats—designed by legendary font designer Hermann Zapf—and the world began puzzling over just what the heck a "dingbat" is, and why they were called Zapf.
Before the advent of desktop publishing, a dingbat was simply a decorative printer's ornament used to end an article in a magazine or a chapter in a book, or as a typographical embellishment on a page. Many text fonts included a few dingbats created by the font's designer, but often a set of dingbats was gathered into a group for all-purpose use. Zapf Dingbats falls into this latter category, and its glyphs range from fleurons to geometric shapes, stars, checkmarks, circled numbers, and various arrows and pointers. If you've purchased professional typefaces, have a look at what's included—they may have a font named Extras, which contains dingbats designed to be used with the typeface.
Exploring the characters of your dingbat fonts is an easy way to boost your typographical design options. To do this, use the Characters window available from the pulldown menu at the bottom of the Fonts window in many Mac OS X (iApp) applications. If you have QuarkXPress or Adobe InDesign or Illustrator, open the Glyphs palette or panel under the Window menu (usually located in a submenu). These Glyph viewers are also useful for discovering whether any of your other fonts include extra dingbat characters tucked into slots that would otherwise be used for text characters. Just scroll down to see all the gyphs available in a font. There are more than 100 slots available for letters, numbers, and other glyphs that font designers want to include. Even with non-English characters and accents, there are usually empty slots that the designer can fill with dingbats to complement the type characters.
As the desktop publishing revolution evolved, other companies developed similar dingbat fonts, such as Wingdings, Webdings, and Monotype Sorts. (Dingbat fonts are also known by other names such as Picture fonts, Pi fonts, or Symbol fonts.) In the early days of Web page design, these were often used to create icons.
A dingbat font isn't necessarily limited to printer's ornaments—in fact, most aren't. They may contain literally any kind of line art, from scribbles to finely crafted fluorishes, drawings, and logos. Adobe's Woodtype Ornaments and Letraset's Type Embellishments are excellent examples of finely crafted marks.
Some dingbat fonts can be used to generate borders, and were in fact designed for that. These border fonts have corner elements, as well as horizontal and vertical elements. By simply typing them one after the other, you can create a border of any size. Good examples include Font Diner's Certified Series, DSType's MuseeBorders, and ITC’s collection of border fonts by Monotype and others. Linotype’s Opal font package includes several border fonts, along with decorative dingbats.
Fortunately, you can make a border out of almost any dingbat font—if you're clever. Here's the trick: many design applications let you type characters onto a path, so you can create a path using any of the program's object drawing tools, convert the object to a text path, and then type a dingbat character along that path.
If you look on the Web, you'll find dingbat fonts that are free, but their quality can range from excellent to embarrassing. Using a tool such as FontLab's SigMaker 3 ($30), anyone can create a dingbat font from their own drawings. I've seen everything from toy trains to ghouls and spiders, game characters, realistic flowers and leaves, geometric designs, African and Asian ornaments, artists' signatures, logo collections, postage stamps, and road signs. One source that collects free dingbat fonts is Dingbat Depot.
With a little exploration into your fonts and a little creative spark, dingbats can make your typographic designs come alive—try making one huge and giving it a light tint of a color. Place that behind another page element, perhaps hanging off the edge of the page. Dingbats also make attractive motifs — just repeat one glyph over and over to fill an area. Your ho-hum text page will suddenly become much more inviting to read!
[Jay J. Nelson is the editor and publisher of Design Tools Monthly, an executive summary of graphic design news.]