Designed by Hermann Zapf in 1978, the well-known symbol fontset Zapf Dingbats has provided us with a lot of fun over the years.
Most memorable is David Carson's story of how, when designing for Ray Gun in 1994, he set an entire interview with Bryan Ferry in Zapf Dingbats, as Carson found the interview "boring".
But no matter how much love Zapf Dingbats, as designers we're always looking for alternatives to add versatility to our typography. So whether you are looking to use a free font set of symbols in a conventional manner, or to push the boundaries of design like Carson, here is a selection of alternatives that might come in handy...
Created by Rebecca Fonts, the Symbols1 font set has definitely got a technological twist to it. Made up of 25 characters that translate from a basic Latin alphabet, Symbols1 mainly focusses on computer icons like loading sandtimes and cursors. But with sun and cloud symbols, there's a dash of nature to even things out.
02. Glyphyx One
Designed by font design veteran Nick Curtis, the symbols in the Glyphyx One set are all based around transportation. From cars to bikes, taxis to helicopters, this symbol font would be ideal for information graphics.
03. Dingbat Cobogó
The Cobogó is the inspiration for the digital font Dingbat Cobogó designed by the brazilian graphic designer Guilherme Luigi. The symbols were created from the synthesis of pierced elements found in photographs by Josivan Rodrigues for his book Cobogó of Pernambuco.
This free symbol font is a brilliant collection of pictograms, seemingly improving the diagrams already featured on the Milan Metro map. Designed by Moscow based designer Dmitry Goloub, there's an upper case and lower case collection as well as a number series.
Designer Aga Silva is a converted font designer & calligrapher. Starting out as an architect and working full time in Architecture Business, she discovered the joys of using dip pen and some of this creativity has resulted in a number of symbol fonts - including this one.
Created by Web Hosting Hub, this set of over 1500 high quality icons are easy to use with Bootstrap, other CSS frameworks and in any web projects. They also work in desktop software such as Adobe Photoshop or Microsoft Word.
07. Symbol signs
In this free collection, Dutch creative designer Sander Baumann has included commonly used symbol signs for public services such as toilets, telephone, first aid, elevator, information, restaurant, cafe, smoking, baby, recycle icon, shower, reception desk, arrows collection and much, much more.
08. Rhomus Omnilots
This symbol set comes from the team at Typotheticals. With over 120 glyphs to choose from, the set is predominantly snowflake and arrow designs as well as a few geometric shapes thrown in for good measure.
PizzaDude is a Danish designer living in Copenhagen whose name is taken from the Tom Hanks movie The 'Burbs. Since 1998 he has been relentlessly producing typefaces, which now number more than 400. In late 2002 PizzaDude decided to do commercial fonts but still creates freeware fonts every now and then. He considers his style to be loose, laid-back and goofy. 'PizzaDude Bullets' includes smiley faces, arrows, eyes, stars and costs you nothing.
10. Kalocsai Flowers
In a similar vein to the Efon set, this fragrant collection of 63 free symbol fonts was designed by Levi Halmos. It's incredible that he's made such a beautifully produced collection of fonts free to download.
Heydon Pickering is a web designer from Norwich, England who specialises in CSS, typography, semantic HTML and responsive design. He was one of the first early innovators to release a completely free, embeddable icon font for web UI designers. It's still available to download for free, and it's still well worth doing so.
In a blog post on Pickering's website he addresses the many advantages of using a web font (in place of images) to render icons into your UI design. And to help you out further, he's create this fantastic collection of 60 glyphs specifically intended for the accessorization and classification of textual cues such as hyperlinks, navigation elements and buttons.
13. Web symbols
Courtesy of Moscow based design agency Just Be Nice Studio there are some lovely renderings of oft-required symbols, including mail, wi-fi and and location icons in this set of 90 free symbol fonts.
Modern Pictograms is a typeface designed in early 2011 for interface designers and programmers. The pictograms are web-ready so you can install the OpenType file for Photoshop mockups and drop in the @font-face code into your CSS to embed them right in your web page.
Modern Pictograms is designed to work on websites at sizes down to 18 pixels but are best at higher than 24 pixels. This is a must-have for all designers, especially as it's currently free.
Adhesive Nr. Seven is a set of textured banners as a free download. It was designed to support the blackletter typeface that has a fixed stroke thickness representing adhesive paper tape; offering similar characteristics to a broad pen.
Personally I think the banners are more adaptable than the blackletter typeface and can be used on various design styles. The font itself features substitute alternate glyphs for repeating characters. If you are interested in Adhesive Nr. Seven Blackletter as well, you can purchase the it separately on MyFonts.com.
And here are a couple that might be worth paying for...
- Cost: $20-$108
Vintage Wedding has a versatile selection of shapes. Despite the name, this font is suitable for baby shower invitations, Valentines and many other bespoke applications.
The large collection of 432 icons is divided into four categories to purchase. The symbols can be used in an elegant vintage manner while retaining a modern vibe. You can find here such rare and beautiful objects as phonograph or cult eyeglasses.
The font includes many diverse elements that will help you create compositions out of flowers, choose commemorative vases, and even to dress the bride and groom.
- Cost: $40-$220
Originally designed for a Chilean newspaper in 2010, Acta family is a clean and fresh type system available in three styles with plenty of ligatures and alternates. Even though the foundry suggests the font is best suited for newspapers and magazine, I suggest you test-drive the new web-friendly feature.
The complete Acta Type System contains Acta and Acta Display both in six weights with matching italics. This font is an amazing collection of eye-catching elegant features. You’ll note that Acta is not the cheapest alternative to Dingbat, but having choice and flexibility is worth the investment.
Words: Aaron Kitney
Aaron Kitney is a freelance graphic designer and art director based in London and Vancouver. He specialises in branding, identity, web design, publication design, packaging and book design. Follow him on Twitter at @aaronkitney.
Have we missed your favourite symbol fontset? Let us know about it in the comments...