Tutorial: Your Step-by-Step Guide to Using Glyphs and Alternate Characters

Your Step-by-Step Guide to Using Glyphs and Alternate Characters

Whether a design is effective -- from greeting cards and social post to complex posters and documents -- is all about the text. Typography, both the typefaces you use and how they are placed, is a critical element in every design where it is used. Great graphic designers understand that a section of text can communicate more than the words themselves -- typography can also convey theme, emotion and even urgency. As a result, selecting the right typeface and font treatments is your key to creating attractive and persuasive designs.

The Added Bonus of OpenType Fonts

Many typefaces have several font styles to choose from as part of a particular "font family," most often bold and italics variations. These different fonts only represent only minor changes from the original font, and the majority of fonts only have one version of each letter or character. However, some fonts come with bonus characters known as glyphs that can replace individual letters or symbols for a more custom look.

Fonts with these glyphs are referred to as OpenType Fonts. You may have already seen some of these fonts in action in the form of an elaborate flourish on the first letter of a wedding invitation. Cursive and handwritten-style typefaces are often OpenType fonts, as their more organic look lends itself to the swashes and ligatures of these alternate characters.

The Benefits of Glyphs and Alternate Characters

The glyphs or additional characters of these fonts have several benefits for you as a designer. Most obviously, they can give you greater opportunity to personally shape the typographic design. Alternate characters are a way to make the words and letters fit better together -- and fit better in the space. They have been carefully designed to work as simply as the standard characters. This makes the design process easier, while your resulting design looks more custom and thoughtful.

Using letter variations and swashes can transform your designs from standard to unique. Unfortunately, not all design or text programs are capable of taking advantage of OpenType fonts -- and finding the right controls to use these glyphs can be tricky. The following steps will help you release the full capabilities of your typefaces in different programs.

Using Alternates in Photoshop

Depending on the design of your typeface, there are several options for character alternates in Adobe Photoshop. While the effects may only change some characters, you can apply them to single letters for a more specific change or the entire text for a quicker custom look.

1. Create your Photoshop document in with the size and settings that you need.

2. Type your text, whether it's a word or phrase. You may want to type each word separately for even more design flexibility.

3. From "Window" on the main Photoshop menu, select the "Character" panel to open it.

4. The last row of figures in the Character panel will show the alternate options that are available for the font you're using -- these will be the bright symbols in the row.

  • The first alternate feature is ligatures, the curves that tie letters together in cursive fonts. By selecting the entire word and clicking on the "Standard Ligatures" option (the "fi" symbol), the finished result is ligatures that blend more smoothly between letters -- and in this case, provide a more defined end to the word. Photoshop Ligatures
  • Swashes are extra flourishes on specific letters, represented by the capital "A" in the Character menu. In the example image, using the Swash feature on the word adds an extra flourish to the "T" at the beginning of the word. 
    Photoshop Swash
  • Another option for alternate characters is stylistic alternates. Depending on the font, these alternatives may be funky or elegant versions of letters within your word. 
    Photoshop Stylistic Alternates

5. In some cases, using alternates for every letter can overwhelm the design, so you may instead want to select specific characters to use alternate versions.

  • Use your cursor to select the specific letter that you want to change.
  • Hover over the letter with your mouse. 
    Photoshop Select Character
  • A menu will come up showing all the options for that letter.
  • Click on one of the options for that letter to see how it will look in your word and design. 
    Photoshop Select Alternate

Using Alternates in Adobe Illustrator

With Illustrator being the industry standard for vector design, work with fonts and letters in this program is common. Using alternate characters or glyphs in Adobe Illustrator is similar to using these features in Photoshop.

1. Create your Illustrator document in with the size and settings that you need.

2. Type your text, whether it's a word or phrase. You may want to type each word separately for even more design flexibility.

3. From "Type" on the main Illustrator menu, select the "Glyphs" panel to open it. 
Illustrator Glyphs Panel

4. The Glyphs panel will show you the available alternative characters for the character that you've selected, meaning it works only one character at a time.

  • Use your cursor to select the specific letter that you want to change.
  • All of the glyphs for that character will appear in the Glyphs panel.
  • Click on one of the options for that letter to see how it will look in your word and design. 
    Illustrator Select from Glyphs Panel

5. You can also view alternatives for a character by selecting that character with your cursor and hovering over it, just as in PhotoShop. 
Illustrator Select from Character

Glyphs or alternate characters open up a wide range of options for you as a designer. By knowing the variety of ways these features can be used, you'll be equipped to take your typographic design skills to the next level.