SUNY Purchase ︎ (DES3440) Typographic Investigations

Unicode Spelunking 

(or, please send me purple demon emojis)


Create a set of characters related to an “underserved” portion (block) of the Unicode character set. 


This project takes the name of the class a little bit more literally. We’ll be collectively and individually, investigating different (non-Latin) areas of the Unicode character set, and think about why they are there, and then make based on these explorations.

As seen in the clip above, symbols have power. This project is, additionally meant to divorce some of our work from the immediacy of written language and look at how symbols proliferate and the current system which standardizes them. 

Unicode is the technological substrate through which (a nonzero amount of) contemporary typography flows. As a standard, it is meant to “support” a wide variety of characters and situations. It absorbs a lot of technological “baggage” for example, how ASCII encodes characters for Latin text in a rather ingenious way; allowing the systems to be relatively interchangable. 

There may be more granular technical issues related to specific languages, but generally, Unicode is a way of encoding a given character (in binary) such that the widest amount of computers can understand them. The standard is maintained by the Unicode Consortium who maintain and update the standard. You probably here about this most in popular culture when new emojis are added.

Unicode Charts︎

This is it! The whole shebang so to speak! Everything you need to just look around and get started. Use this in tandem with Wikipedia to get more context on a given character set. Besides looking at what the actual symbols are and what they mean. Look at the page related specifically to the Unicode characters as they include the proposals to include said set of symbols in Unicode.

Here’s a couple interesting ones:


  • A specimen featuring all the characters that you created (.pdf and printed)
  • At minimum 7 “applications” of the characters you create, ready for critique and documented digitally (.pdf) 
  • An .otf (via Glyphs) featuring your characters in the proper unicode “location”


  • The form of your applications ︎ You have a little bit more time to think through the application of your characters.
  • Please everyone don’t do emojis ︎ We’ll be looking at some symbolic systems that are pictorial and non-alphabetic, as well as the proliferation of emojis themselves. However I’d really like to avoid everyone simply doing emojis. Or more specifically emojis at the expense of having a better idea. That being said, if for example, you want to explore a specific concept like race as expressed through emojis; that is valid.
  • This is not simply adding diacritics or Cyrillic(s)︎Nothing wrong with other languages, but this not solely a formal exercise. For example you might relate older Chinese characters (closer to pictographs) to more contemporary. (If this is something you’re interested in doing there will be opportunity.

“No Shuriken Mode” Suggestions

  • Create Latin characters, numbers and punctuation whose form are dictated by the Unicode subset that you choose to investigate.
  • Create different weights of your character set to create a typeface.
  • Translate the characters into a physical form that has some relevance to your project. For example a vacuform letter sign.
  • Do multiple sections of unicode, or multiple related sections (for example, dominoes and chess in the “game symbols” section).
  • Consider a more dynamic application (video, website, program)
  • Consider a longer printed application (booklet, poster triptych)


  • Gain a deeper understanding of Unicode and how it relates to typefaces as a collection of code that people throughout the world use.
  • Create an .otf file in a situation that is not stressful (i.e. before the end of the semester)
  • Gain familiarity with Glyphs in a context that is separate from the more granular concerns of creating type.

Relevant Dates (This is 4 weeks)

  • 02/13/2020︎

    If you have analog drawings of your character set already, bring them to class as separate .pngs (and your drawing if you want). You can use these in tandem with the in-class exercise.
  • 02/20/2020︎

    In-class check-in on status of project and the concept from which you are working.
  • 03/05/2020︎Critique!

Further Reading/Viewing

  • A highly nerdy (you may need to understand binary numbers) but super interesting video describing Unicode encoding and how it worked with the existing ASCII standard but still managed to accomodate a greater set of characters

  • Another Tom Scott video (he’s great) discussing the proliferations of emojis

  • Myanmar, due to sanctions, was not able to collaborate with with the Unicode Consortium on standardizing how they represented characters. They primarily use Zawgyi which may not display correctly for other parts of the world

  • Yung Jake’s emoji portraits

  • Why are these 32 symbols found in caves all over Europe | Genevieve von Petzinger

  • We’ll probably talk more about this as we get into application examples, but thought the Nazca Lines were a relevant thing to relate to this project specifically: 

  • Klingon Scripts were rejected from inclusion in Unicode︎