Unicode 6.0: the iconic turn

Andreas Stötzner's picture

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Since October 12 the new version 6.0 of the international Unicode Standard is officially released. Among numerous additions one particular novelty might be of a more general interest: the encoding of a great number of public pictographic signs which are heavily used worldwide.
There has been one single block only so far (2600) providing a motley selection of miscellaneous ideograms and pictograms from various subjects, not to mention the notorious “Zapf Dingbats” block (of which only a dozen of characters is actually of some little practical value). However, the more specialized sections of technical, geometrical, mathematical and arrow characters are already well represented by 1415 positions, in various blocks ranging from 2190 to 2B5x.

Last but not least, “a late-breaking addition is the newly created official symbol for the Indian rupee”, as Unicode officials said.

The 2600 block “Miscellaneous Symbols” got enhanced recently in version 5.2 (by 59 characters) and now got completed finally to a total number of 256. But a number more than two-and-a-half times as large, 662 characters, has now been added in five new blocks of the Supplementary Plane 1. By this the number of encoded public symbols has become about three-and-a-half times as large as it was before. Left aside the 2700-block, there are now over 900 encoded public symbols. For the very first time in the history of international character encoding a critical amount of public signs has standard encoding, forming a reliable reference for font-based application. This does affect wayfinding-travel-tourism as well as business and communication-related matters in particular.

Briefly, the additions are:
1F300 (earth/planets, plants, food/beverages, leisure/sports, buildings; 188 characters),
1F400 (animals, people/figurative, hearts, money/business, communication; 250 characters),
1F500 (user interface, items/tools, clockfaces; 91 characters),
1F600 (smileys; 63 characters),
1F680 (transport/vehicles/travel, hygiene; 70 characters).

Some of the widely used symbols now covered by the Unicode standard

The incorporation of these character sets into the standard was preceded by a long and laborious developing process.
However generally known and most widely used those signs are, they lack something essential in terms of encoding: there is no codified order similar to “A to Z” or the like. The absence of such an order proved to be obstructive to encoding for a very long time, for Unicode/ISO-10646 is maintained according to the “not to lead but to follow” rule. That means, the bodies in charge do not intend to impress their own will onto the the rest of the world but rather aim to reflect the real-world usage by means of the standards content. Yet, under this presumption especially, the selection of characters in question rendered itself as a much debated matter.

The initiative for admitting public symbols on a more large scale into the Universal Character Set was notably conducted by Apple and Google, about three years ago. At that time, in Japan the usage of so-called “emoji” (= emoticons) in messaging on mobile devices became increasingly popular. Japanese mobile phone manufacturers did implement such character sets for quite some time – and users liked it. Therefore, and by an increasing data interchange between mobile and stationary equipment the “emoji” glyphs found their way into legacy message data. The lack of a standard encoding of these charcters was recognized as a stability issue. However, the existing proprietary standards DoCoMo, KDDI and Softbank matched each other to a considerable degree already, but the limitations of a PUA-based encoding scheme were obvious. – A regular encoding was to become the answer.

The syndication of the three standard’s mentioned was the first step in order to establish some kind of basis for a matter which just lacked an “ABC”-like status of codification. It was followed by discussions about possible additions to certain character sets (e.g. TRAIN, BUS, –> SUSPENSION RAILWAY), naming and sorting of characters and character sets. Even more principal matters were to ventilate. For instance, a set of colour-variations of one glyph (e.g. HEART) had to get acommodated into the system of a “black-and-white-only”-standard. Wether vehicle glyphs should get depicted either frontally or sideways has been finally settled by the decision to encode both views in case of the principal transport vehicles – for mere practical reasons.

Another issue has been, of course, the choice of reference glyphs for the standard’s code charts. One should take their details not for more serious than they are. The Japanese inspiration has been mentioned already. The Manga-style ductus of many of the glyphs shown (e.g. in the smileys and figurative sections) bears witness to that – presumably forever. But, the whole bunch of characters in question were to be seen as one world-wide usage symbol set altogether, as it had to be discussed many times. May the celebrated Otl Aicher once have dreamed of radical culture-cleansing of the pictogram style, a style “absolutely neutral” and equally perceived by all men on earth – the visual outcome of the new UCS-6.0 codecharts is a striking proof of the impossibility of such a “totalitarian” neutralism.
The codecharts as they are now visualize the difficulty of building a global graphic language out of diverse local traditions. Or, to put it more simple, the visual diversity now manifest e.g. in the 1F300 codechart does highlight the magnitude of the design task when it comes to implementation of those glyphs into fonts.

The past decade saw much labouring on the harmonization of several scripts into one font. A target put on the agenda by the existence of Unicode. If some little prediction is allowed: the decade upon us will see an explosion of signage fonting and much competition among designers for the best harmonization of letters and pictographs. The use of public signage, steadily increasing for 20 years now, will even more increase than ever, facilitated by Unicode. It will be exciting.

It’s actually all about a new world script. We have the privilege to witness its development and to contribute to the shaping of its evolution. An evolution still in its childhood, for a many Hundreds of signs and glyphs still to become established. The standard encoding, a new technical backing to their application, will have a notable impact on the visual culture of our environment.
Maybe, “Unicode” was never living up so close to the very nature of its name than today.

My new font Symbojet is still in the MyFonts pipeline, but will be available in a few days. Here is a preview on Symbojet at Signographie.de.

Igor Freiberger's picture

Andreas, thanks for sharing these information. Nice to see a type designer finnaly using combining symbols. Except for MS Unicode fonts –like Arial– I did not see any font using this until now. The project I'm doing includes this fine resource –and I also added some variations beyond Unicode– as I believe this is a very useful feature.

How did you build Symboljet regarding the usual A-Z, 0-? glyphs? The font ignores them?

cerulean's picture

Still no Russian ruble? What happened there?

Igor Freiberger's picture

As long as I know, Ruble sign was not proposed until now.

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