Adobe Illustrator has always been my tool of choice for production of data visualizations, icons, and other graphic elements. Data visualizations need to be customized according to given parameters, and most existing pictogram fonts simply don’t allow the manipulation that drawing in Adobe Illustrator does. More often than not this means building custom charts and icons from scratch, exporting, importing, editing, re-exporting, re-importing… repeat ad nauseam.

Fortunately some typefaces are emerging that make constructing these elements directly within layout applications such as Adobe InDesign much easier. These “Smart Fonts” use Opentype features to allow seamless layering of graphic elements and on-the-fly glyph replacement, the results of which were previously only possible using Adobe Illustrator.

Below are examples of three of these typefaces.

FF Dingbats 2.0

FF Dingbats 2.0 is an evolution of FontFont’s early 1990s pictographic type family. Version 2.0 brings alternate glyphs sets for each pictogram (outlines, fills, and additional details), allowing multi-layering and full color customization. By choosing a specific Opentype feature, the spacing of each glyph is adjusted so they stack perfectly on top of one another. You can read more about FF Dingbats 2.0 here.


Designed by Travis Kochel, Chartwell is a type family designed specifically for producing data visualizations. It works by detecting numeric character combinations and substituting them with custom-designed ligatures. Each substituted ligature is influenced by previously entered values, allowing for seamless pie charts, line charts, and bar graphs. You can find out more about how Chartwell works here.

Wayfinding Sans Symbols

As an addition to his signage design typeface, Wayfinding Sans, type designer Ralf Herrmann has developed a pictographic counterpart. Although it may seem like an ordinary pictographic typeface at first glance, the demonstration video below reveals some ingenious Opentype features. Need a shopping basket icon? No problem. Thanks to Opentype, simply type #shoppingbasket and there it is.

Wayfinding Sans Symbols (Preview) from Ralf Herrmann on Vimeo.

The best part? Although currently in beta testing, the typeface will be released as a free download at You can find out more about Wayfinding Sans Symbols here.

I’m really excited to see what else Opentype can do for type design. I expect to see lots more “Smart Fonts” appearing in the future.