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Text, image, dingbats and decorative elements

Created by: Pablo Cosgaya, Natalia Pano

Apart from capitals and lower case, numbers, punctuation marks and commercial signs, there are other non alphabetic typographic signs: miscellanies. By miscellany we refer not only to dingbats and decorative elements, but also to any graphic element related to the composition.

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As regards typography, a text is a set of letters grouped in words; one horizontally placed after the other from left to right forming lines grouped one above the other. This grey stain has its own color, as a result of the family and type size in which it is composed, the chosen variable and the letter-space and leading.

We use the term miscellany to designate those other elements that may be part of a composition or a of certain piece, coexisting with the text and images and which, as regards composition, play an essential role in the organization of information. That is to say, there is no direct referent for the term miscellany (it is not something physical or material), but it will actually be its function what defines when an element may be considered miscellany or not.


The term miscellaneous (adjective) is used to categorize those things composed of different elements or different genres. It is a synonymous of mixed, varied. Miscellany is then a broad, comprehensive, sometimes ambiguous term. This is why we can exemplify this concept with different kinds of elements.

Examples of miscellany are rules, with several uses: underlining, separation of blocks of text, column division, table composition, etc. Just as characters of a typeface have a typographic color (weight) and a certain stroke, rules also have different thickness and strokes (continuous, dotted). It is important to make this aspect compatible with the font family being used.


We can add other groups of signs to the miscellany group, such as vignettes, ornaments and borders, which are formally and significantly related to certain artistic periods. Though the most frequent function of miscellany is to emphasize parts of the text without dominating it all, its use is supplemented by merely decorative applications.

Another example is those fonts especially designed to be used as miscellany or complements of other families: it is the case of Fella Parts, by Emigré, with many such alternatives in its catalogue. There are also other groups of characters that represent various symbols (zodiac, business, travelling, sports, etc.), such as the Communications group of the Agfatype catalogue. But these characters are sometimes so figurative that, again, only their use will determine if they are miscellaneous in nature.

Imagen / miscelánea
Miscelánea de la fuente Almendra, de Ana Sanfelippo

Miscellanies have their antecedents in the initials and borders with which medieval scribes illuminated their manuscripts. Producing a manuscript was expensive and time demanding, values and lifestyle in those times were very different from nowadays. It is a coincidence that those initials and frames were so elaborated. Anyhow, illustration and ornamentation were not mere decorations. There was a concern for the educational value of illustrations and the ability of ornaments to create mystic and spiritual touches.

Historically, alphabetic and non alphabetic typographic elements were formally similar, as a result of using the same means of reproduction (xylography, stone carving, etc.).

Technological development and the forthcoming of more modern procedures (wood and lead types, first; hot-type composition and photocomposition later; desktop publishing nowadays) enriched the scene and brought about new situations. In the XIXth century, for example, miscellanies were complex, as they were used in highly elaborated pages, with a lot of Victorian style decoration; the 20th century avant-gardes (Futurism, Constructivism, De Stijl, Dadá, Bauhaus) used them for more functional purposes. They incorporated geometric criteria, simply and powerfully enhancing concepts like dynamism, direction, speed and chaos.

As the amount of printed material grew larger, their form began to change. Visual impact began to play an essential role, reading was not done line by line but at a glance, and only that which caught one’s attention was read in detail.

Text, image and miscellany often coexist, in different pieces, somehow relating with one another. Depending on the harmony or the contrast one wants to generate, these relations can be based on: formal (color, representation form, etc), significant (in reference to styles and certain historic movements) or strictly typographic, (typeface family weight, type size and type of stroke) features.

In some occasions, the function of each element (alphabetic and non alphabetic) begins to mingle, giving place to different possibilities, among which we can describe the most important ones:

1. Miscellany as image: Increasing their size, miscellany, ornaments and vignettes stress their command in the composition (see example). The disruptions caused by increasing the size may become significant.

Miscelánea como imagen
Alumnos: Daniel Ross y Altair Mon

2. Images as miscellany: With today’s technology we can reduce an image’s size, reproduce it with a simplified structure and adjust it to typographic criteria, to make it work as miscellany. The signs thus obtained, sometimes compiled and commercialized as typographic fonts, propose non traditional situations, in which opposite relations may come up.

3. Letters as images: A single letter, a word or a group of words may become an image, moving away from their primary function.

Miscelánea como letra
Alumno: Joaquín Lluis

In the 20th century, the avant-gardes played with these possibilities, destroying regularity and the inertia of traditional composition. An example of these possibilities is calligrams (poems where the text smear adopts a certain form, trying to represent the content of the poem) and futurist compositions with their “words in freedom”.

4. Letters as miscellany: A letter can loose its main textual function or complement it with an ornamental function.

Thus, miscellany becomes an interesting decorative accessory. The readability of this type of compositions will depend on the designer’s intentions. We can include capitular initials in this group (see examples: capital letters in Minion Swash Expert Italic).

In these cases it is very useful to become familiar with the criteria for the selection and combination of typeface families described in the article: Family classification, selection, and combination.

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