Brick by Brick, the FontStruct Blog

The FontStruct Blog

What makes a complete font?

Tips | | February 11th, 2013

When you open the FontStructor you are presented with that familiar row of character slots sorted alphabetically. If you’re like many FontStruct users, you build your FontStruction by following these slots in order — starting with the caps, then plodding along, drawing one character after another, through the lowercase, numerals, and basic punctuation until you finally reach that lively little tilde (~) that seems to wave like a victory flag: “You’re done!”

But are you done? Not if you want folks in Sweden to use your font. Or Denmark. Even Germany, France, or Spain will take a look at the fruit of your tireless labor and find it woefully incomplete. The countries of Eastern Europe are out of the question. Not to mention the rest of the world.

Above: On the left is my WPA Gothic, a FontStruction I was pretty proud of … until I saw what an uneducated slob it is! The font has about 200 glyphs but it’s still missing the characters necessary just to set a simple sentence in languages commonly used throughout the Western world. By contrast, the multilingual Modular Blackout Bold Condensed is capable of all these languages except the oft-neglected Vietnamese. (Language labels set in Renovare S2. Missing character boxes set in IconoMono.)

A 26-glyph, 52-glyph, or even 200-glyph FontStruction can be a useful exercise for prototyping and experimentation, but it is rarely considered a working font. So let’s look at what else your font needs to advance beyond a fun little piece of art to a truly useful tool.

Basic Latin

In the interest of simplicity this initial row in the editor is limited to only the bare minimum of letters and punctuation. Thus the title of the character group: “Basic Latin”. And while 100 or so glyphs seem like a lot — especially when you’re limping through the set of a particularly challenging design — this group of characters is really not enough to say more than a few things in English.

What’s missing? Accented characters (or diacriticals), of course. The bits that English-centric folk might consider superfluous appendages or “extra” characters are actually standard and necessary in other languages. In Spanish, the n and ñ are individual and distinct letters of the alphabet, each with an identity and pronunciation of their own. In French, a mouthful of sablé (cookie) is more desirable than a mouthful of sable (sand). In German, you can get by without an ß (eszett) by typing ‘ss’ but in most cases it’s linguistically incorrect. And none of this even touches non-Latin languages like Russian (which uses the Cyrillic writing system) and Greek.

So what makes a complete font? The answer isn’t so simple. In fact, an absolutely complete font probably doesn’t exist. Fonts that are bundled with operating systems have a massive arsenal of characters, covering most of the Western world, but even most of those don’t speak languages like Arabic, Hindi, or Chinese.

More Latin

But lets take a step back and assume you want your FontStruction to be usable in at least the most common languages that use the Latin script. Head on over to the character set menu and move beyond Basic Latin to More Latin. This set covers much of the Western world, from North and South America to Western Europe. Even Turkish is supported. Not counting the extra punctuation, fractions, and currency symbols at the end of the row, it’s 65 more glyphs to build. Feeling overwhelmed? Don’t despair — many of these characters are variations on letters you’ve already made. With a few exceptions, you can get by with a copying, pasting, and adding a diacritical mark. The “Copy to Latin Accents” command in Expert Mode expedites this process. If legibility and cultural sensitivity is important to you — and it should be! — take some time to learn how these marks are designed and placed. Microsoft’s Character Design Standards and the Diacritics Project are very helpful guides. Once you complete these characters your work is on par with the entry-level of most commercially available fonts.

Extended Latin A

If you want your font to get play in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe you’ll need to graduate to Extended Latin A. This range covers languages like Croatian, Czech, Finnish, Hungarian, Latvian, Polish, Romanian, Serbian, and Slovak. Once you cap that last ‘z’ with a caron you will have completed a font with the same linguistic chops as the most premium commercial releases. Products with this extended language support are often stamped with a “Pro” label (see Adobe and FontFont’s definition) and are sought after by multinational corporations, publications, and any organization whose interests are global.


So you’ve got the letters necessary to speak all the languages you want to support. But you can’t string together meaningful sentences without punctuation. While there are myriad esoteric symbols for specialized fields like music, math, and science, let’s focus on the basic punctuation required for written texts in most Western languages. The obvious necessities are:

  • period (.) comma (,) semicolon (;) colon (:) and ellipsis (…)
  • question mark (?), and its inverted form, used in Spanish (¿)
  • exclamation marks (!¡)
  • straight quotes, single (') and double (") — though they really have no proper typographic function, computers have made them the default quote mark
  • proper “curly” quotes, single (‘’) and double (“”)
  • some languages, like French and Swiss German, quote with guillemets («» ‹›)
  • …which are not to be confused with the lesser- and greater-than symbols (< >)
  • dashes in their three most common lengths: hyphen (-), en (–), and em (—)
  • underscore (_)
  • currency symbols ($ ¢ € £)
  • and other numerical punctuation, the percentage sign (%) degree (°) and number sign/octothorp (#)
  • ordinal indicators are not commonly used in most languages, but (ªº) are expected in Latin-based languages like Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese
  • basic math symbols like plus (+) and equals (=) are necessary, while optional bits are the minus (−) division sign (÷) plus-minus (±) not equal to (≠) and multiplication sign (✕) — which is not the same as the letter ‘x’ as it should vertically align with numerals
  • asterisk (*) bullet (•) and middle dot (·) a smaller, less conspicuous bullet
  • at sign (@)
  • ampersand (&)
  • parentheses (()) brackets ([]) slashes (\/) and pipe (|)
  • registered (®) copyright (©) and trademark (™) signs

What punctuation could be considered optional?

  • curly brackets {} are not required for most uses, but they are indispensable for most programmers and can often come in handy when an alternative bracket is needed
  • the section sign (§) pilcrow (¶) and daggers (†‡) are rarely used in modern typography, but can serve as decorative paragraph separators or footnote indicators
  • single and double primes (ʹʺ) are used for units — like minutes and seconds, or feet and inches — and should have their own specific design, but most users end up employing the more accessible straight quotes
  • currencies like the Japanese yen (¥) and Indian rupee (₨ or ₹) are less common in the West where the dollar, euro, and British pound reign, but they are important in their respective regions
  • directional and decorative symbols like arrows (→) manicules (☞) checkmarks (✓) and stars (★) are not necessary for written text, but can certainly make a font more useful
  • most users don’t expect a full set of numerator and denominator figures for making arbitrary fractions but these thirds (⅓⅔) and fourths (¼½¾) are often included

Are we there yet?

So what is a complete font? If FontStructing is simply a relaxing hobby, then the answer to that question is entirely up to you, the designer. But if you intend your font to live a life outside of the FontStructor, it is ultimately up to the user. And their definition of “complete” is based on a combination of their particular needs and expectations derived from other professional fonts. No matter how inventive or appealing the design of your alphabet may be, if your font is missing what your user needs, they will likely move on to a more well-equipped option.

We hope this introduction familiarizes you with the characters and symbols that are commonly neglected, so your hard work won’t be.

Stephen is a writer and typographer living in Oakland and Berlin. After six years at FontShop San Francisco as a creative director, he now publishes Fonts In UseTypographica, andThe Mid-Century Modernist, and consults with various organizations on type selection.



  1. Rob Meek (meek)

    A really interesting and useful post Stephen. Thank you!

    Rob Meek (meek) — February 11, 2013 #

  2. Abneurone Fluid Types

    Style ? Innovation ? Uniqueness ? It is what generally forget and deny completely the “complete font” makers, making an ever poor copy of helvetica or other star boring fonts or (in fontstruct) eversame pixel fonts. Not all styles can be adapted to special characters, especially when you try to be -really- innovative and not more or less copy a formula which has already overused to the core from decades.
    When i can, i try to make my sets usable in french, my language, but i won’t make a bad glyph not adapted to esthetic of the font simply to complete it. Some of the fonts i consider to be the most impressive and extraordinary fonts of all time have actually very reduced sets, and i found ways to use them in my books or digital art series without any difficulty. After all, we need only complete sets for textfonts, which are mostly extremely boring and over and over almost the same group of 3 or 4 initial old formulas. The really interesting typographic works don’t need such completeness. If they are, it’s a bonus, and i’ll be graceful to the creator for such hard effort, but if they are not, the genuine uniqueness and beautiful approach of the font is all i need. It’s up to me when i layout my pages to be inventive enough to use them anyway.

    Abneurone Fluid Types — February 11, 2013 #

  3. p2pnut

    Thank you for a useful and interesting guide – plus some useful links on diacritics.

    For the full fonts, which I sell, I always complete the Basic and More Latin sets plus the ‘OE’ and ‘oe’ ligatures; the ‘U’ and ‘u’ with a circle over found in the Extended Latin A. These together with the repeated ‘Y with dieresis’ in Extended Latin A and ‘Capital Sharp S’, found in the Even More Latin, bring the total number of glyphs to 214.

    This seems to be acceptable as I have now sold fonts in twelve countries across the world.

    p2pnut — February 11, 2013 #

  4. laynecom

    @ Steven Coles:
    Thanks for using Modular Blackout in your example. Must think of Vietnamese support now ;-)

    laynecom — February 11, 2013 #

  5. Yautja

    “Extended Latin A covers languages like … Finnish” not correct – Finnish only uses Ä/Ö, which are in More Latin. :)

    Interesting post, I usually just make Basic & More Latin myself.

    Yautja — February 11, 2013 #

  6. winty5

    I try to make a lot of characters on most of my fonts, at LEAST More Latin and usually some of Ext. Latin A. My 5Mikropix can probably be safely considered complete.

    winty5 — February 11, 2013 #

  7. ETHproductions

    Thank you for this interesting and useful guide on more characters. Those links on diacritics are very useful as well.

    I’ll have to update some of my fonts… :)

    ETHproductions — February 11, 2013 #

  8. Umbreon126

    *waves* Hello! (LOL)BTW, I cringe a bit when seeing naked characters here without diacritics (using Copy to Accents but not finishing the job) :P

    Umbreon126 — February 11, 2013 #

  9. Umbreon126

    Also, if you want people to FontStruct stuff like Rupees, stars, and square roots, you should make them more accessible under normal settings instead of rifling through Unicode block names like “OCR Recognition”, “Box Drawing”, “Oriya”, “Tai Viet”, and the 5 or so “Mathematical Operators” sets (why so many, Unicode?! LOL), no? ;)

    Umbreon126 — February 11, 2013 #

  10. elmoyenique

    Hello all you, friends, and “Thank you very much” to Mr. Coles for this entry and the controversy. I’m from Spain, and when I sail the web I found normally a great number of fonts without some characters needed to write correctly in spanish from Spain (Ñ, ñ, ¿, ¡, €…). I suppose it happens the same thing with the other languages (french, english, german, russian…). I include continuously some “other language” glyphs in my fonts (like the german ß, the ^ and ` french accents, the OE and oe french glyphs…). And the symbols for the moneys (euro, dollar, pound, yen…). I must improve my works, of course. Much of us are learners here at FS and all help is welcomed. BTW, “It’s not easy being green” (Kermit sang).

    elmoyenique — February 12, 2013 #

  11. demonics

    Wow — I never usually finish more than UC, lc, and basic punctuation. (I get bored of the font after the basic characters!) You see, I find FontStruct to be more of a way to experiment with art and design, rather than creating a usable font for someone. However, this was a somewhat inspiring article, so maybe I will take completion into consideration.

    Just thought I’d share my side of it.

    demonics — February 12, 2013 #

  12. fontcollector

    @Stephen Coles: I had to chuckle when I saw that a glyph from my IconoMono font had been used to represent the missing characters in your article. This is a rather primitive FontStruction from 2008/2009, although one of its symbols resurfaced recently on the FontStruct poster. But what amused me is the irony of employing one of 52 dingbats to illustrate a point concerning the completeness (or lack thereof) of a font. Thanks!
    –Dan Schechner

    – fontcollector — February 12, 2013 #

  13. Aeolien

    Thanks for that article Stephen, it showed me where I should improve my work and thinking. I’ll give it a try as soon as I have an idea for a worthy text-y font.
    Until recently I have used Fontstruct to build art-design fonts for projects rather than to create full European workable fonts for text.
    As I use French and German daily I try to make the relevant glyphs and I have started adding Danish and Swedish diacritics for friends. I’ll scrutinise my existing fonts, maybe I can change some glyphs to make them accommodate diacritics for other languages.
    My knowledge is limited as far as other European languages are concerned. All the other languages listed in Fontstruct are unkonwn to me and I feel unqualified to build glyphs for them.

    Aeolien — February 12, 2013 #


    I actually wonder as to why you titled this article, “FontStruct
    | News”. In any event . I really enjoyed it!Thanks for the post-Hildegarde — February 12, 2013 #

  15. funk_king

    interesting post and responses from the community. i would agree with many things aft stated. when i was active here i did not subscribe to the believe of a mandatory set of characters and much of the advice, suggestions and critiques i received mentioned this. alas, most of the time i just wanted to get the idea ‘down on paper’ as quickly as possible. Once uc or lc was done, it was rare that I went much further. however, i do think it is probably good practice to do this and can help develop a strong discipline within designers. i dare say this is what really distinguishes a type designer from a typographer. having that talent and drive to fully realize a typographic vision.

    but i do think that being a type designer is a different job. and while fs may be limited in ways that fonts can be created; it more than makes up for it with its ability to rapidly and easily develop fonts that can be commercially viable. i do think fonts created in fs are unique and that many designers have achieved great things here that could not and cannot be done perhaps as well with other tools. i think a greater consideration regarding the commercial potential of work created here would be a lack of kerning that is even more critical for text fonts vs. display fonts.

    i think for me, my choice in publishing limited sets may have worked in my favor. i have been able to get most of the fonts that were being redistributed without my permission taken down. my fonts were being used around the web on these different sites that had come here and downloaded them. i guess what they did was legal and it seems that if you ask them to take your work down they will. but some took some take and i still have to check. and there are still some out there. but at least i can build out the set, add kerning, etc when i sell them. and although i agree that making complete and robust sets is the ideal, i would not agree to give it away for free. but i would say to those with that creative passion to show and share, it’s all good.

    i look in awe at these humongous sets of glyphs available here and those being sold commercially. to have the time, patience and ability to craft these behemoths is amazing to me. I do, however, also wonder sometimes when i see these open type fonts that contain seemingly endless although beautiful variations of characters, if sometimes designers can do too much?

    i believe another factor that has placed price pressure on the font market is the apps market. when you can buy apps for a few bucks people start making value comparisons and well, this is not the place for that discussion :) continued happy fontstructing to all.

    funk_king — February 12, 2013 #

  16. Abneurone Fluid Types

    @Funk King: Thanx so much for your input! You were the FIRST long ago to make me feel less alone against this harsh misunderstanding community regarding my high art approach definitely different of a “typographer” one which tries to be the most impersonal he can to be as universal as possible and as so does not escape from a very small scope of compromises making so many professional fonts desperately boring and similar while all my efforts tend to create a genuine personal and coherent esthetic even it makes me blasphemy sometimes a bit against the ridiculously restrained Holy commandments of the Holy Bible of Typographers which were stated just because long ago some formulas had popular and commercial success and anyone who tries to escape from this eversame formulas elevated to the state of Holy talismans is considered for the best as some evil sorcerer and for the worse as a moron making crap and presenting it as unique types. Bah! even if sometimes it was obviously a difficult journey at many levels i’m still proud to have had the patience against all hard winds and burning wounds to have developed my very personal esthetic sorcery during these 3 years of hard work to reach the TESTAMENT last cycle which is now not so far for complete and definitive releasing.

    Abneurone Fluid Types — February 13, 2013 #

  17. architaraz

    What an interesting thread :) I am with AFT and FK on this one, for I would’ve said the same thing if only I could express my thoughts like them :)

    Most of my works have more latin and cyrillics set, but I don’t always make them public, smth tells me that I shouldn’t just give them for free :)

    It’s been a while I’ve been thinking of uploading some works to, but I don’t think they’ll except them unless kerning is resolved. And if there’s a kerning pair for AV, then you also have to make it for all A’s with accents… Aw, and it’s just a beginning… I wonder if I’ll ever sell…

    And look at dafont fonts. Most of them are not even remotely complete, without numbers, or even LC, but they’re doing great, people are using and downloading.


    architaraz — February 13, 2013 #

  18. demonics

    You know, I heard a good quote (I forgot where):

    “The difference between a free font and a paid font is six weeks [of work].”

    That could be our problem with making complete fonts — most of us don’t do this for a living, so it’s not so necessary to get it all the way done. As funk_king said, “Most of the time I just wanted to ‘get the ideas down,’ ” and that’s how I feel about it, and I’m sure others do as well. Not that it’s bad to do thousands of characters! but I and others most likely don’t have the motivation, time, or both.

    demonics — February 14, 2013 #

  19. cablecomputer

    Thanks for the really useful article!

    Usually I only complete the More Latin set, never thought about Extended Latin except the two important characters in European like “Æ” and “Œ”.

    cablecomputer — February 14, 2013 #

  20. Abneurone Fluid Types

    “The difference between a free font and a paid font is six weeks [of work].” Frankly i don’t think this quote is so good. In the “free” world we have the ability to defy the usual known and generally simple shapes of letters in use everywhere to develop much more complex, intricate forms trying to give new sensations and not only more or less copy the usual schemes. This can take much more time and efforts to design even one glyph then (some of my “reduced but decent” sets took almost 3 years with many difficult redesigning phases to find their final form, even if finally they did not have hundreds glyphs in their set). You must experiment a lot and pass through many dead ends when you try to develop a genuine new and personal esthetic, having no referee out of some inner Holy Grail you’re trying to reach, or at least to be enough close to, but which remains blurry and mysterious for a long time untill you get enough maturity in the construction of this new coherent esthetic world.

    Abneurone Fluid Types — February 15, 2013 #

  21. Rob Meek (meek)

    Some very interesting responses. The article was intended as informational rather than proscriptive. It sets out to represent a font user’s rather than a font designer’s perspective. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with publishing a 26-character sketch, or just numerals, or something even sparser. But as someone who often uses FontStructions I do find myself frequently forced to drop my initial choices after downloading and installing. For myself, usually writing in English, it is missing punctuation that often prevents me from using a FontStruction. Apart from that I often need German and French characters.

    Rob Meek (meek) — February 19, 2013 #

  22. will.i.ૐ

    @stewf: Thank you for sharing with us your expert perspective. I appreciate how you organized this blog entry. It is so easy to grasp your commentary and good humor from the sample image and intro paragraphs (of course, you yourself stopped short of filling out certain character sets with WPA Gothic). Aren’t we just a sensitive bunch?I think it feels really powerful to create our own typography, and as amateurs of various backgrounds it may be a little hard to check our egos after feeling that excitement and power (wow, I could really make a mark doing this!) in order to learn the steps that do not come so easily. I’d like to repeat what you said in closing:

    So what is a complete font? If FontStructing is simply a relaxing hobby, then the answer to that question is entirely up to you, the designer. But if you intend your font to live a life outside of the FontStructor, it is ultimately up to the user.

    Any true craftsperson must investigate, understand, and then work to fulfill the actual use of their wares in the hands of their users. By pointing us in that direction, this makes your expert perspective all the more practical and beneficial. We can graduate – if we want, if we choose – from self-conscious artists to fledgling typographers.

    will.i.ૐ — February 19, 2013 #

  23. unci

    In FontStruct you have a problem that you won’t have with other font editors: Some letters may be an even number of cells wide, others an odd number, and if you want to center your accents of both, you need two different kinds of accents that look the same but are shifted by half a cell. In the case of Å and å this can mean to shift your whole letter by half a cell (and mess up inter-character spacing) to fit nicely under the ring made of those neat quarter circles. Or is there a workaround to place a brick in the middle between two cells?

    unci — February 21, 2013 #

  24. will.i.ૐ

    @unci: Thanks for bringing up this technical design issue regarding diacritics. I felt called to speak to it, but wanted to keep my previous post focussed on thanking Stephen Coles and reflecting on our community’s response.In a number of cases, 2×2 filters help obviate the accent placement problem you raise – but they’re not enough. Though they allow for the half-brick incrementation you are after, there are many more cases involving minimal grids where character widths are neither odd nor even. What to do if your A is 3.5 bricks wide, or 4.167, and cannot be centered to a cell margin?A general solution to this problem might incorporate the following aspects: a) all diacritics are constructed once independently of the characters they will go on to modify; b) all base latin glyphs are automatically copied to their related diacritic slot; c) diacritics are automatically appended to the base character using the isolated accent form; d) accent marks are then manually aligned or centered using a specialized vertical rule that the user can reposition at fractional increments; e) a specialized horizontal rule with fractional placement allows for fine-tuning vertical placement.*Not only would this process allow for consistently aligned diacritics (while at the same time keeping the accent design consistent throughout the typeface – a trade off that presently must be made in some cases), the extended range of latin characters could be created far more efficiently than currently possible. While not necessary to address the issue you point out, adding in step e* solves a related problem – accents that end up either too high or too low above their base character. Identifying and working with minimal matrices for a given design is clearly a valuable endeavor as well as a worthy challenge on many levels. Unfortunately, designs in that push the FontStructor to its limits in this way will often end up with very unsatisfying options for accented characters. The obvious – and more elegant – current solution, then, is to add diacritics to a typeface using an external app such as FontLab or FontForge.

    will.i.ૐ — February 22, 2013 #

  25. FoFire

    I would be most grateful if someone would tell me where I can find the Ω symbol. Extended Lated A? B? I’ve done a thorough search.
    furthermore is there a way to find the unicode for a certain symbol.
    So if I want to edit “(Option) + (X)”.. is there a way to find that symbol without searching through all of the latin? The font Im trying to make is all symbols with Option and Shift as modifiers.

    FoFire — February 25, 2013 #

  26. Zefyrinus

    Thanks for educating people! ;D (I always get so frustrated when a font doesn’t include Å, Ä, Ö, or even worse – numbers or punctuation.)

    @Abneurone Fluid Types: If you can’t adapt the unique style of your font to special characters, then it’s your design skills that are lacking IMHO. When it comes to fonts that are only used for decorative purposes, if you are gonna write actual words with them, then they’re not sufficient for most languages without diacritics.

    @Yautja: I guess he’s referring to Š, Ž. But those are not standard in the Finnish alphabet, so you’re right.

    Zefyrinus — March 6, 2013 #