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By Dan Moren

A tale of two @-signs: How to get alternate versions of font characters

In the wake of my article about typing diacritical marks the other week, reader Andrew wrote in with a very niche question:

…lots of typefaces/fonts come with extended character sets and alternative glyphs that – as far as I can see – can’t be accessed via a keyboard combination like the diacritics you mention in the article.

A case in point is a typeface called Cabin I downloaded from Google Fonts. For some reason the designers decided to make the ‘@‘ symbol a white-on-black character, instead of black-on-white. There is an alternative, traditional black-on-white glyph in the extended characters, but I can’t work out how to produce it, let alone set it to be the default.

I can’t say I’ve ever run into this particular problem, but it was an intriguing one, so I did some research and came across a couple articles pointing towards a solution to just this problem: Alternative Stylistic Sets.

Amazingly, this is a macOS feature that I’d never encountered in all my years of using the operating system, but in short it’s a way for typefaces to offer alternate version of some glyphs—for example, Andrew’s @-sign issue.

But how to type those symbols? You can’t simply drag and drop glyphs onto a keyboard layout—cool as that would be—and there’s no Option-key shortcut that lets you pluck them out of thin air. But there must be some way to produce them, else why include them in the font in the first place?

macOS font palette
The font palette’s More menu contains a lot of additional options, including a Typography section.

The answer lies in macOS’s font palette. In an app that uses the standard font palette (generally accessed via Command-t), you’ll see the usual columns for picking font face, size, style, and so on. But if you venture into that three-dotted “More” menu in the top left, you’ll also find an entry for “Typography.”

Select that and you’ll get a whole separate palette containing several sections, including Ligatures, Vertical Spacing, Case-Sensitive Layout, and more. The options and contents depend on what’s included in the font itself, but the palette offers you a wide variety of ways to customize a specific typeface.

Typography Palette

The key here is the entry for those aforementioned Alternative Stylistic Sets. Again, the options in this section will vary depending on the font, but in the case of Google’s Cabin typeface, there’s a drop down menu that lets you click a checkbox for Stylistic Set 1—which, as far as I can tell, is actually the same exact set of glyphs except typing shift-2 now produces the typical black-on-white @-sign that Andrew was looking for.

This feature is also available in some other apps that don’t use Apple’s built-in font palette, though you might have to dig around to find it. In Microsoft Word, for example, it’s in Format > Font and then click on the Advanced tab and choose the option from the Stylistic Set dropdown menu.

One downside: as far as I can tell, these settings are per-app rather than global, so there isn’t necessarily a way to set the alternate glyph as the default throughout the OS.

This is just scratching the surface of what macOS’s typography features have to offer, but hopefully it’ll provide an answer to those who just need to tweak a font slightly.

[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Twitter at @dmoren or reach him by email at dan@sixcolors.com. His latest novel, The Nova Incident, comes out in July and is available to pre-order now, so do it!]

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