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Tricky Characters

November 20, 2002

Non–standard character entry. It’s quite the problem, isn’t it?

You want to use smart quotes “” instead of double primes “” in your work. Time to fire up Windows’ Character Map and hunt for the proper quote. Or alternatively you could build a cheat sheet of the ALT-0147/0148 keyboard combinations. The Mac OS allows a slightly easier method with Option-[ and Option-], and provides further keyboard shortcuts for many of the varied typographical items.

But inconveniences of computer-based typographical frills aside, we’re just scratching the surface. The Unicode standard allows for over 65,000 possible characters, which covers most of the major world languages. Try accessing these characters in standard applications like Word or Photoshop though.

why would you want to?

There are times when an English-speaking designer is asked to work with type of a different language. It’s impratical and expensive for the designer to install a Chinese license of their operating system and a Chinese version of their authoring software to create a series of Big5 GIFs for a single web site, and they shouldn’t have to.

In his excellent book, The Elements of Typographic Style, Robert Bringhurst suggests an approach for typographical decoration that could theoretically work for some foreign characters as well. He recommends re-mapping your keyboard for various ALT+n and Option/CTRL+n key combinations to insert special characters into your work. While a great idea in theory, it breaks down in two important ways: software to easily re-map a keyboard any way you wish doesn’t seem to exist, and if it did, most of the possible Option/CTRL and ALT key-combinations are already assigned as shortcuts in the authoring software.

what i want to see

Since most major software manufacturers approach international language support as an afterthought, an add-on application that has considerably more power than Windows’ Character Map is needed. I want a program that allows me to map my keyboard to input any character with any key-stroke I choose. I need it to offer alternate mappings for different languages, that can be switched as easily as selecting my choice from a drop down. It also needs to offer an on-screen keyboard since I’m not going to spend the time needed to memorize all possible characters.

This program will only be as good as the software it inputs to, though. Microsoft seems to be on the right track, as most of their programs are quite good at displaying foreign characters if the proper language packs are installed. But the other major software manufacturers, especially graphic design software, need to approach this less as a value-added feature and more as built-in functionality.

A lot of things have to change to make this happen, and I don’t see many steps in this direction. Unfortunately, hacks and work-arounds like screenshots and bitmapped characters are going to have to remain the standard for the foreseeable future.

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