A typeface consists of a great deal more than letters, numbers and basic punctuation. Assorted symbols are also part of the character set. Some of them are essential for branding and identity projects; others are optional for certain functional or decorative purposes. Some symbols appear regularly in text, while others occur only occasionally. Regardless of frequency of use, symbols can be an important design element in typeset copy. Here is a list of the most common, including their traditional and contemporary usages:
The word asterisk is derived from the Greek word for “little star.” This typographic symbol, which usually has five or six points, is designed to complement a given typeface in style and often in weight. An asterisk may be solid or hollow, pointy or rounded, upright or angled. This symbol was historically used to indicate birth dates, but today it has a range of usages. It is frequently used: to indicate footnotes, citations and other references; to represent omitted letters; and to signal a stage direction, such as *smirk*, in theatrical scripts. Recently, asterisks have been put to work to set off a word or phrase for emphasis when italics or bold are not available, notably in plain text email formats and text messages.
Dagger and double dagger
These two decorative symbols are typically used to indicate footnotes, similar to the asterisk. Because the dagger has two designed forms, it’s preferable to use them, rather than a single and a double asterisk, when two references fall on a page or in a chapter. Historically, the dagger had several uses, including indicating the date of death. Today, it has several specific yet obscure uses in the fields of mathematics, biology, chemistry, and even chess and cricket.
The at symbol has undergone quite a transformation in usage since the commercialization of the Web. Originally referred to as the commercial “at” sign, it was (and still can be) used to indicate pricing, either “at the rate of” or “each at,” as in 12 oranges @ 50¢ (with each being understood). But in the modern world, the symbol’s primary function is in email addresses, such as email@example.com, where it stands for “at,” directly preceding the domain name. The @ has also been adopted on some social media web sites to direct a message to a specific user or group.
This symbol is commonly (and typographically) referred to as the number sign, particularly when used to designate a number or position: #1 in her class, #2 pencil. Its range of uses, which can vary from country to country, includes: as the typography and proofreading symbol for space to be inserted or deleted; as a copywriting convention (in press releases ### can indicate the end, whereas in technical writing, it generally means “more to come”); as a specialized symbol in mathematics, computing, medical shorthand and chess. This glyph is also called the pound sign, stemming from its use as an abbreviation for weight in some countries; the pound key, as on a telephone keypad; and the hash sign or hashtag, referring to its use in social media, specifically on the Twitter® and Facebook® web sites. It is also occasionally called an octothorp, referring to its eight “legs.”
Legal symbols [™ ® ©]
The legal symbols for trademarked, registered, and copyrighted are www.creativelive.com common occurrences in typesetting. They appear in running copy as well as following single words or series of words in logos or titles, particularly in branding. These three designations usually have specific rules and guidelines, either legal or corporate, dictating their required usage, including frequency and, in some instances, their size and precise location.
While these symbols are included in virtually every font, their size and appearance can vary greatly. A designer or typesetter may choose to customize one or more symbols in terms of size, weight, position, spacing, and even style, or to use a symbol from a different typeface altogether, in order to improve its appearance for the required usage.
The paragraph mark, also known as a pilcrow, was traditionally used to separate paragraphs or sections, usually within continuous text that offered no other visual indicators. Today, this usage is more stylistic than functional, and can be attractive in certain relatively short text settings. The paragraph symbol is now a standard mark in word processing and design software, as an “invisible” to show paragraph breaks. The paragraph mark is on occasion used for purely decorative purposes.
All trademarks are the property of their respective owners. Additional information regarding Monotype’s trademarks is available at monotype.com/legal. Fontology is a trademark of Monotype Imaging and may be registered in certain jurisdictions.
- Editor’s Note:Ilene Strizver, founder of The Type Studio, is a typographic consultant, designer and writer specializing in all aspects of typographic communication. She conducts Gourmet Typography workshops internationally. Read more about typography in her latest literary effort, Type Rules! The designer's guide to professional typography, 4th edition, published by Wiley & Sons, Inc. This article was commissioned and approved by Monotype Imaging Inc.