Icons, symbols, and Unicode PUA

Across Apple’s different operating systems, there’s now a gamut of icons, special symbols which it uses to refer to services, states and functions. When I write about macOS and iOS, both here and for publications such as MacFormat and Mac|Life, it’s a perpetual and growing problem knowing how best to refer to them.

Some, such as the Command ⌘ and Eject ⏏ symbols, are included widely in better Unicode fonts. Then there are other icons which are in common use, such as the combination of a square with an up arrow used for the Export function in much of iOS, apparently known formally as square.and.arrow.up, which I can’t find anywhere.

There is a solution now: Apple’s SF Symbols, which are detailed here and can be downloaded to install on your Mac.

Although these look the business, they take us into a morass which is almost worse than not having them at all. First, as they’re Apple’s proprietary designs, they are subject to copyright, and Apple’s terms are very explicit in what you can and can’t do with them. They’re licensed “for creating mock-ups of user interfaces to be used in software products running on Apple’s iOS, macOS or tvOS operating systems, as applicable. The foregoing right includes the right to show the Apple Font in screen shots, images, mock-ups or other depictions, digital and/or print, of such software products running solely on iOS, macOS or tvOS.”

The full terms and conditions are displayed in the licence which you can read in Font Book once you’ve installed the fonts. It’s not clear to me, for instance, whether those terms include their use in a running macOS app or a Help book intended to be used by third-party software running solely on macOS (or any other Apple operating system).

Even if you think that you’re using them within those terms, they’re not regular Unicode code points either, but live in Private Use Areas (PUAs), as Unicode hasn’t standardised them as regular code points, and surely can’t because of their proprietary nature. This is rather different from normal ‘dingbat’ fonts, and in the macOS Character Viewer they aren’t listed under Dingbats either.


The free SF Symbols app for macOS gives excellent access to them all, complete with their names and details of any tighter restrictions on the use of individual icons. You can then select the icon you want to use, and drag and drop (or copy and paste) it into any app which can access the parent font.


That’s Nisus Writer Pro, by the way, which makes clear which font they’re from. Change them to another font, even the extensive DejaVu family, for instance, and each is rendered as the symbol indicating that it’s an unknown code point for that font.


Try copying them across to the macOS Character Viewer, and you’ll see the problem with trying to use them more generally.


Individual icons do show up Font Book when you know where to look for them: select the font at the left, then switch to its Repertoire view (I would show the icon, but don’t think it would render here) and scroll down to the bottom. The odd thing here is that if you try dragging or copying them from within Font Book, the private use areas seems to become lost in the process, and you just end up with an unknown code point icon instead, because the display font here doesn’t support them.

If you think you’ve got problems using them in a document or design, then it only gets worse when you want someone else to read that. It’s not clear which version of macOS is required, or whether a Mac user would need to install the SF Symbols package to see them. On iOS, it’s even tougher: they’ve got to be running iOS 13 or later. Perhaps they’ll have to wait a while, then.

After all this, I’m still not sure whether my potential use in Help documentation for third-party Mac apps is permitted, nor whether any user will be able to see them at all in the first place. This is particularly difficult for iCloud and other restricted-use icons. In the meantime, I suppose I’ll just have to continue to use bitmap graphics taken from screenshots.