Dingbats as font: free font maker for Macs

Suppose you have a design which uses a set of dingbats as bullets or endmarks, or what have you. You could use the tired old Zapf Dingbat font or Wingdings, but pretty much everyone has seen those dings before. You could also draw unique dings (wouldn’t your clients prefer it?) in Illustrator (or any vector based drawing program) and place each one, say, as an anchored object, in your layout, but then you’d have to keep track of the links–which can be problematic if you archive your files and forget to leave the dings on the server or hard drive.

Why not have the best of both worlds? Turn your unique dings into a proprietary font that only you (or your client) owns.

There are a number of free font maker programs available on the web. Trouble is, as usual, they are all for the PC. On the Mac side, the least expensive software comes from Fontlab, which seems to have monopolized the market on Mac fonts. You can get Typetool, which is a beginner’s software for $99.00.

Not that stiff, I know, but I’m a real cheapskate, so shellling out $99.00 on a font program to make a small number of fonts doesn’t seem like the best way to use my money, especially when I’m coveting my next Amazon purchase.

Lucky me, I found an open source font maker that works on Linux, Windows, and Macs. It’s from George Williams at Font Forge. You can go directly to the Mac download page. George even provides a pretty in-depth tutorial on making fonts, but the real easy way is this:

  1. Make your dings in Illustrator.
  2. Save as .svg files. George says you can save them as .eps files, but these did not work for me, where as .svg did.
  3. Create a new font in Font Forge.
  4. Click on one of the font map areas (to make it easy on you, I would use the numbers, or you could get very techy and use one of Unicode code numbers for dingbats. Those are the charcters numbered in hex from 2700-27B0. For information on Unicode tables and their values, see Unicode.org’s website.
  5. Use File/Import, browse to your .svg, and click Okay.

You can move your ding around in the Font Forge window (you should make sure it rests on the dotted horizontal line, which is the baseline.) You can resize it or even modify it on the fly using bezier curves.

One issue I found was that Font Forge does not like compound paths (go figure). I was trying to make a font with a number against a black square. I used pathfinder in Illustrator to delete the front most object (the number) to give me a square with a compound path in the shape of the number, but Font Forge wouldn’t accept it. Instead, I just put the outlined number on top of a black square, and Font Forge had no problem parsing it.

The bigger issue is that George has ceased making package files for Macs, so if you want to download a .dmg file to open to a package file that will install when you click on it, you’ll have to have Leopard or earlier versions of Mac OS. If you have Snow Leopard, you’ll have to use XCode to compile it…and that’s another whole ball of wax.

See ya soon.

Gregory Ledger

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