A dingbat when referenced to fonts is a symbol for decorative purposes only, i.e. an ornament. In the Windows environment, most people first encountered the use of dingbats with the Wingdings font, which at the time of this writing is 20 years old. Yes, that does mean it’s been around and in use since Windows 3.1.
Today you don’t have to use Wingdings anymore if you want to use dingbats since the introduction of Unicode fonts and universal character set – but only if you know how to get to them. Here’s an example of a dingbat. What you should see is a yin yang.
If you see nothing but a block, it’s either because you don’t have a Unicode version of the font installed, or your browser does not support displaying Unicode characters. The latter is most likely true. More on that in a moment.
The way to access these "secret" Unicode characters in Windows is to copy and paste them out of the Character Map program. Most of you have used Character Map at one point or another. The way to launch it is by going to Start/Run, typing charmap and clicking OK:
In Character Map, if I choose a "full" Unicode font like Dotum and scroll down a little bit, you’ll see that it has a whole bunch of dingbats in it:
These are easier to get to if you select Unicode subrange from the drop-down menu at the bottom of Character Map. This brings up a small pop-up window, and from there you can select Symbols & Dingbats to only see those:
You’ll notice with other standard Windows fonts such as Arial, Times New Roman, Georgia and so on that there aren’t nearly as many dingbats as Dotum or Batang has. This is simply the way they were programmed. You still can, however, copy and paste dingbats from Dotum, Batang or other like fonts into other places and they will still show up.
Browser scoring – What browser shows the most Unicode dingbats?
Best: Firefox. Shows all Unicode dingbats.
OK: Internet Explorer 8. Shows most Unicode dingbats.
Worst: Google Chrome. Shows Unicode dingbats if they have Wingdings equivalents.
If the dingbat you use has a Wingdings equivalent, they will show up on any Windows computer. More on that in a moment.
Practical and Impractical uses of Unicode dingbats
Being that "used font characters" are directly embedded by default in saved PDF files, using Unicode dingbats is fine here.
Word also has the ability to embed font characters in saved files, so it’s OK to use here as well – unless the person you’re sending it to has to actually edit the document, in which case the Unicode dingbats may break.
If you’re relatively sure that those you email all use the Windows OS, then it’s safe to use Unicode dingbats as long as it has a Wingdings equivalent.
Not recommended because of people that use different OSes. If you want to ensure maximum web site readability, don’t use Unicode dingbats on your web site or blog.
Where is a quick reference for Unicode dingbats?
This is a good starting point: http://www.alanwood.net/demos/wingdings.html
Blog authors will particular find that chart useful because it shows the Wingdings/Wingdings 2/Wingdings 3 version and the Unicode "Dec" equivalent. These are the ones that are far more likely to work compared to non-Wingdings-equivalent characters.
For example, if I wanted to show the checkmark Unicode dingbat, that’s 9745. In HTML code this is written as…
…which produces this:
Which symbols are (more or less) guaranteed to work everywhere?
See Geometric Shapes Unicode Block. This has the widest support regardless of browser or OS.