Updated: Feb 21, 2022
Release Date: 1990
Designers: Charles Bigelow & Kris Holmes
Owned By: Bigelow & Holmes, Microsoft Typography
Claim to Fame: Wingdings allowed personal computer users an easy way to communicate with symbols as represented through letters on the computer keyboard.
This typeface was designed in the early 1990’s in a pre-mass Internet era. It was a forerunner to emojis and its purpose was similar: to augment written text with imagery and communicate via symbols, not unlike the very first written communication thousands of years ago in the form of pictograms and ideograms. Today’s episode is all about Wingdings. (Let the bells ring!)
The most logical place to start is by taking a look at the ancient history of communication. Researchers have found cave paintings that date back as far as 20,000 BC, however true written communication happened many years later around 3,500 BC by the Sumerians. The Sumerians (the people of southern Mesopotamia - now modern Iraq - whose civilization flourished between 4100 - 1750 BCE) created drawings of everyday objects called pictograms. These pictograms represented actual objects and although they are considered a primitive form of written communication by today’s standards, they were revolutionary at the time. In approximately 3,100 BC, Egyptian hieroglyphics showed symbols representing thoughts and ideas. These more complex drawings are called ideograms. With these new images and ability for individuals to interpret ideograms, more abstract concepts could be communicated.
Let’s fast forward to the Wingdings typeface. In the early days of personal computing, it was really tricky (next to impossible) to just copy and paste images from the Internet so this font provided a way to access a whole collection of scalable (read: good quality, not pixelated) symbols that were small in file size (read: wouldn’t clog hard drives!). High quality + small file size = 1990’s winner!
As detailed in an article by Vox entitled Why the Wingdings font exists, Wingdings was designed by husband and wife duo Charles Bigelow and Kris Holmes of design studio Bigelow & Holmes. An awesome fun fact is that these two designers were proteges of legendary type design Hermann Zapf (of the ITC Zapf Chancery and Zapf Dingbats fame - also a collection of symbols). The couple also designed the popular face Lucida and Wingdings was designed to work within the same proportions as Lucida so the two faces could work together.
In 1990, Microsoft bought the rights to Lucida and Wingdings (originally actually three typefaces called Lucida Icons, Lucida arrows and Lucida stars) and made it part of their beta test of Microsoft Windows that year. The typeface got its name by combining two important characteristics: “Wing” = Windows, “dings” = dingbats. Dingbats is an old printer’s term: “In typography, a dingbat (sometimes more formally known as a printer's ornament or printer's character) is an ornament, character, or spacer used in typesetting”. It was too time consuming and costly to create little ornaments, images or flourishes for each publication so printers had a collection of ‘dingbats’ that could be inserted in text, just like Wingdings.
When the typeface was introduced into Windows, conspiracy theories began to surface that it contained hidden messages. The Vox article detailed a troubling theory: “Most famously, Wingdings supposedly contained anti-Semitic messages against New York City (when users typed "NYC," the Wingdings for a skull, a star of David, and a thumbs-up appeared).” Yikes!
The designers hadn’t considered that people would actually use it to type words and string it together as some sort of code much like pictograms or hieroglyphics.
But where did the designers come up with the various symbols?
The symbols spanned many eras; some were as old as Medieval times, like the pointing hand or from daily office life in the 1990’s, like the floppy disk. Typographic symbols such as the Wingdings typeface bridge the gap between ancient and historical pictograms, as well as the printer’s dingbats and the modern emoji; all are typographic symbols used to convey meaning and express ideas beyond the written text.
Thank you Mr. Bigelow and Ms. Holmes, for your important contributions to an incomplete history of type. From the middle ages to the Middle East, from Futura to Freight, thanks for joining us on a journey across the type universe and going where no designer has gone before… next up: we meet again, COMIC SANS.
Music: Podington Bear - Squirrel Commotion
Church Bells Sound Effect: InspectorJ (via Freesound.org)
Talk Paper Scissors Theme Music: Retro Quirky Upbeat Funk by Lewis Sound Production via Audio Jungle