Fonts, they're more useful than you might think.

I was recently introduced to Symbolset, a company that creates "semantic symbol fonts". What this means is that you can type keywords (or unicode characters) to produce glyphs or other icons. At first, I didn't see what the big deal was. Why would you want a whole font when you could just import a .png of the icon? It wasn't until I started using them that I realized how awesome they are.

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I first used symbolsets for a new iPhone app that I am working on. I had previously been struggling with finding the right set of glyphs to use. Finding the right size and color is a pain in the ass with a .png or even a vector. With a vector you have to open up Illustrator (or some vector graphics editor), resize, and then reimport into your app. I installed the symbolset font once, and I never had to leave the code again. It really is pretty cool. Open up a new document in a text editor, and watch as your keywords magically turn into icons. I had a slight hiccup when the keywords weren't working with iOS and did some research to find out how symbolsets actually work. 

Basically, symbolsets use ligatures to turn keywords into icons.

Li•ga•ture | ligəCHər | noun - a character consisting of two or more joined letters, e.g. æ, fl.

Their font consists of keywords where typing 'delete' is a ligature for an X. Ligatures aren't enabled in UIKit, however you can enable them in core text by setting 

kCTLigatureAttributeName

to a value of 2. This enables all ligatures in a font, which is necessary to use symbolsets. However, I wasn't ready to dive into core text, which has many things that I don't need. So, I decided to use unicode. Yes, symbolsets also work with unicode values. This makes using them a little bit more difficult, but it is still a lot easier than using .png's. Now I can resize and change color on the fly! Because it is so easy, symbolsets allow me to explore my creativity with colors and sizing of an icon, something which I previously would not have done.

Another great example of an icon set that utilizes fonts are Climacons. Climacons are "a climatically categorized typeface for web and user interface designers". Essentially, they are a set of weather icons packed into a font. Unlike symbolsets, they do not use ligatures for their symbols. Instead, they have different characters represent a different icon. This is a bit harder to use, as I have to keep referencing their key, but it still provides a much better interface to use than downloading their png's.

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More people are starting to create other uses for fonts besides text, and I have a feeling you will start to see a lot more unconventional fonts hit the market soon. I find them very helpful to use as glyphs or icons and can only imagine the other possible uses of fonts. What do you think of fonts and their evolving role? Answer in the comments below, join the discussion on Hacker News, or send an email to:

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