How to Use OpenType Extended Characters in Illustrator

Designers choosing fonts on digital tablet in office
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Illustrator ships with a variety of OpenType Fonts that often have a myriad of extended characters (also known as glyphs) that can add real flair to your layouts. There are also many OpenType fonts for sale online, but how do you access them? The Open Type and Glyphs Panels make it easy with this tutorial.

Illustrator CS5 was the software used for this tutorial.

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How to Tell If a Font Is an OpenType Font

How to Tell if a Font is an OpenType Font

Sara Froehlich

Go to File > New to start a new document. Choose the Text tool. Go to the menu and choose Type > Fonts.

The open type and glyphs panels only work on OpenType fonts so you need to make sure you are choosing an OpenType font rather than a TrueType font. The font menu shows a blue TrueType icon by fonts which are TrueType (it looks like two T's), and it shows a green and black OpenType icon by all of the OpenType fonts that looks like an O. This makes it very easy to see which fonts on your system will work with the Glyphs Panel.

Illustrator comes with a lot of OpenType fonts, and you can buy more from sites like Fonts which have the word Pro after them have extended characters, so try to choose one of those. Even among pro fonts, some have more extra characters than others.

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Working with the Text

Guadalupe Pro Gota Font

Sara Froehlich

Type a phrase to practice on. If you haven't chosen any glyphs, the font will look normal. Shown is a font called Guadalupe Pro Gota, an open type Pro font available from Fonts vary widely in the shape of the characters offered and the style of the lettering. The Guadalupe Pro Gota font is not exactly plain vanilla Helvetica as it comes out of the box so to speak, but you can add even more interest to the letters with the extended character set.

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Dressing up Your Text with Extended Characters

Text with Extended Characters

Sara Froehlich

After adding extended characters to the phrase you can see a big difference. Some fonts have multiple extended characters for the same type character so you can choose the mood of the type to match the layout. Characters available vary widely from font to font.

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The OpenType Panel: Figure Menu

OpenType Panel: Figure Menu

Sara Froehlich

Go to Window > Type > OpenType to access the OpenType Panel. The Figure drop-down menu lets you choose the way the numeral characters are rendered. (Default is tabular lining.)

  • Oldstyle figures are Arabic numerals that vary in height and position. 3, 4, 5, 7, and 9 descend below the baseline, and the others sit on the baseline. 6 and 8 are taller than the other numerals.
  • Lining figures are the same size and height as the uppercase characters in the font and sit on the baseline. The lining styles are the best choice when creating tables or other layouts where you want the characters to be perfectly aligned.
  • Tabular figures are mono-width; each numeral is the same width as every other.
  • Proportional figures are different widths. For example, the character 1 is narrower than the 0 (or any other character) and the numerals fit together more like letters.
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The OpenType Panel: Position Menu

OpenType Panel: Position Menu

Sara Froehlich

The Position drop-down menu sets the position of the numerals in the line.

  • Default position means the numbers line up in whatever style you have chosen in the figure menu. This is the default, and what you will use most often.
  • Superscript/Superior position means the superscript numeral is above the highest numeral, as seen here in the numeric rendition of one hundred to the fourth power.
  • Subscript/inferior position means the numbers are smaller and drop below the baseline as seen here in the chemical formula for water.
  • Numerator and Denominator are used when writing fractions.

Next is the fun part: the characters.

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Extended Characters on the OpenType Panel

Extended Characters on the OpenType Panel

Sara Froehlich

At the bottom of the OpenType panel are the icons you use to change the characters of selected letters. Choosing the Move tool and clicking a text line or text box will allow you to change all of the characters at once, but you will probably want to use discretion on some of these as too many swashes and flourishes can make the text hard to read. It depends on where the text is which of these options you want to use.

Note that if the button is grayed out, like the standard ligature button shown here, it means there are no selected characters that can have this option applied.

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Applying Extended Characters

Applying Extended Characters
Extended Character Types. Text and images © Sara Froehlich

So what do these buttons actually mean?

  • Standard Ligatures are letters that are combined into a single character like the fi in find or the th in them.
  • Discretionary ligatures are more decorative than standard ligatures.
  • Swash adds an extended flourish to a character, such as a long flourish on a serif.
  • Stylistic alternatives are alternate characters of the same letter.
  • Titling alternates are alternate versions of capital letters, usually used only on titles or headlines, and sometimes as the first word in a chapter or section.
  • Ordinals are the superscript characters like you would see in addresses the numeric equivalent of words like first or second.
  • Fractions allow you to write fractions more elegantly using numerator and denominator positions.

You can apply the extended characters to all of the text or apply it only to selected letter or letters. More than one extended character type can be added to the same characters.