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[Typography] Special Characters I

category: Design | course: Typography | difficulty:

The first computer keyboards were made primarily for programming, which is why proper typographic characters are hard to find or use if you don’t know about them. Additionally, good typographic practices concerning some punctuation and special characters aren’t taught in school, which is why the information in this chapter is applicable to all branches or activities involving writing.

What’s important to remember, though, is that special characters serve mostly as a necessary notation, and should never reduce legibility or functionality. Therefore, remove unnecessary punctuation whenever you can, and only use it to increase aesthetic value if it doesn’t compromise the clarity of the design.

Hyphens and Dashes


There are three flavours: hyphens, en dashes and em dashes. The hyphen is the shortest, while the others are the width of the letter n and the letter m, respectively.

  • The hyphen is used within a compound word, or when a word is broken up at the end of a sentence.
  • Close-set en dashes are used to indicate a range of numbers, while en dashes with space around them can be used to make a comment or indicate a subordinate clause in a sentence, essentially taking over the function of the comma.
  • Close-set em dashes can also be used as a replacement of the comma, while em dashes with space around them can introduce alternate speakers or quotes in a story.

Which character you choose to use for the minus in mathematical notation is up to you, although it’s generally recommended to use a wider dash for subtraction, than for negative numbers. If possible, find a font that has special symbols built-in for mathematical operations.

Type Error: Don’t use multiple hyphens after each other to simulate dashes.



Again, there are different types to be aware of: straight and curly quotes, and single and double quotes.

  • Use a single straight quote for foot and inch marks.
  • Use opening and closing curly quotes for all other cases. When used as an apostrophe, make sure the quote points downward.
  • With numerical plurals, omit the apostrophe

In general, quotes obstruct the flow of the text and should be used sparingly. It is for that reason that you should default to using only single quotes when quotations are short or inline. However, when used for direct quotation of someone’s speech or showing a writer doesn’t buy into the meaning of a word, use double quotes.

Parentheses, Brackets & Braces


Lots of fonts have these characters too thick, too thin, or too symmetrical. Try to use the best version of these characters you can find. Additionally, the spacing isn’t always satisfying – there should not be too much space between the letters and the parentheses, nor too little.

If the text within parentheses is italic (or otherwise styled), it’s generally best to keep them upright and normal. That is, unless this causes letters to collide with the parentheses.

As for their usage, parentheses are the most common, while brackets and braces are mostly for programming or scientific pieces.

Diacritics & Symbols


Diacritics, just as fake bolds, can be simulated by computers. As expected, it’s recommended to choose a font with naturally supported diacritics instead. Either way, don’t leave out diacritics, as lots of languages depend on them for their meaning. (For example, papa is father in Spanish, while papá is a potato.)

Typical other symbols that are poorly designed in (non-professional) fonts are parentheses, brackets, asterisk, pilcrow (paragraph mark), section sign, and the octothorp (hashtag). You can alter them yourself if you like, but it’s much easier to choose a typeface that naturally supports these properly.

Ending Sentences

Ending sentences with a regular dot will suffice most of the time. You can explore, however, rewriting a sentence to become a question, as this makes it shorter and more active.

I will now try to explain why you shouldn’t do A but B” can be rewritten to “Why should you do B instead of A?

Type Error: Never, ever, use multiple exclamation or question marks after each other. In fact, avoid using exclamation marks if you can.

Type Error: Never use two spaces after a period. It’s unnecessary and disrupts the flow of the text.

There’s another common problem, which is: should punctuation come before or after the dot? In general, it doesn’t really matter, as long as you’re consistent with your choice. Putting the punctuation in front of the ending dot seems more logical, but positioning it after the dot is often more visually pleasing.


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