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In Typography, what is a Dingbat?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A dingbat is a typographical ornament, or a symbol such as an arrow or a pointing finger. Dingbats have a long and illustrious history in typography, despite their somewhat humorous name. Many type foundries continue to produce dingbats for people who work with letterpress, and dingbats are also available in the form of digital fonts for people who work on computers. Many computers come with several dingbat fonts installed, and it is possible to obtain more.

When people first began setting things in type, printers also began developing ornaments. Printer's ornaments served several functions. In the first sense, they broke up the printed material in a design, making it easier to read and more aesthetically pleasing. They were also simply ornamental, of course, as the name implies, and they also occupied white space which might have looked awkward in a finished piece.

Classic printer's ornaments can be very small, discrete shapes, or they can take the form of decorative scrolls, bands, and lines. Most people use “dingbat” to refer only to a single distinct symbol, rather than to the decorative engravings which once ornamented the edges of many printed pages. Dingbats are also known as typographical ornaments or simply ornaments.

Dingbat styles can take a number of forms. Some use floral motifs, in which case they are commonly known as fleurons. Others may be more geometric in style, or they may mimic animals or natural features. Dingbats can also serve a symbolic function, as might be the case with a pointing finger positioned to highlight a line of text, and mathematicians can use dingbats for unique math symbols.

Historically, printers kept their ornaments in separate type cases, although some fonts arrived stock with several ornaments which would be stored with them. Ornaments were divided by size, so that a printer could quickly find, for example, a 14 point dingbat to fit in with 14 point text. They could also be custom designed and carved in wood or stamped in lead, the traditional material used to make movable type. These printer's flourishes could turn an ordinary document into a masterwork of art.

Digitized dingbats come in the form of complete typefaces, although some can be created by typing alphanumeric codes. A standardized code known as unicode can be used to display a large number of commonly used symbols, from the degree sign on a temperature measurement to the Euro symbol used when discussing European money. Many companies which produce computer fonts also make several dingbat fonts for typographers to use.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Musical Expert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By miriam98 — On Sep 04, 2011

@Charred - I once played with ornamental dingbats, not for decoration, but because I thought I could use them as a kind of “secret code” to write some stuff in.

I had the idea of writing out my thoughts completely in the dingbat font. However, when I tried to convert back to regular fonts, it was a hit and miss proposition.

Some of the characters converted back OK, but there were also a lot of special characters that appeared here and there in the text, making my notes somewhat incomprehensible. Of course I realize that’s not the way they are supposed to be used, but it's just something I noticed.

By Charred — On Sep 03, 2011

I’ve used dingbat fonts as easily accessible clipart. Dingbat clipart takes up less space in your document and can be manipulated in ways that only fonts can. You can underline them, bold them, italicize them, etc.

Further, I’ve found dingbats with a wide range of expressions. I downloaded a complete set of Christmas dingbat fonts and I had access to just about every Christmas icon and image you can imagine, in font form.

The only disadvantage is that you are limited to twenty six images of course, since they are fonts, meant to reflect the alphabet. Regular clipart can be endless.

Still, you can download other similarly themed dingbat fonts to expand your versatility. I used nothing but these fonts once to create flyers and stuff for our Christmas program at church.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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