Unicode is intended to address the need for a workable, reliable world text encoding. Unicode could be roughly described as "wide-body ASCII" that has been stretched to 16 bits to encompass the characters of all the world's living languages. In a properly engineered design, 16 bits per character are more than sufficient for this purpose.

Unicode gives higher priority to ensuring utility for the future than to preserving past antiquities. Unicode aims in the first instance at the characters published in modern text (e.g. in the union of all newspapers and magazines printed in the world in 1988), whose number is undoubtedly far below 214 = 16,384. Beyond those modern-use characters, all others may be defined to be obsolete or rare; these are better candidates for private-use registration than for congesting the public list of generally useful Unicodes.

The Microsoft TrueType specification version 1.0 from 1992 used the name 'Apple Unicode' instead of 'Unicode' for the Platform ID in the naming table.

The Consortium has the ambitious goal of eventually replacing existing character encoding schemes with Unicode and its standard Unicode Transformation Format (UTF) schemes, as many of the existing schemes are limited in size and scope and are incompatible with multilingual environments.

There is also a Medieval Unicode Font Initiative focused on special Latin medieval characters. Part of these proposals have been already included into Unicode.

The Unicode codespace is divided into seventeen planes, numbered 0 to 16:

Each code point has a single General Category property. The major categories are denoted: Letter, Mark, Number, Punctuation, Symbol, Separator and Other. Within these categories, there are subdivisions. In most cases other properties must be used to sufficiently specify the characteristics of a code point. The possible General Categories are:

Excluding surrogates and noncharacters leaves 1,111,998 code points available for use.

Graphic characters are characters defined by Unicode to have particular semantics, and either have a visible glyph shape or represent a visible space. As of Unicode 14.0 there are 144,532 graphic characters.

This process is different from a formal encoding of an ideograph. There is no canonical description of unencoded ideographs; there is no semantic assigned to described ideographs; there is no equivalence defined for described ideographs. Conceptually, ideographic descriptions are more akin to the English phrase "an 'e' with an acute accent on it" than to the character sequence <U+0065, U+0301>.

Instructions are also embedded in fonts to tell the operating system how to properly output different character sequences. A simple solution to the placement of combining marks or diacritics is assigning the marks a width of zero and placing the glyph itself to the left or right of the left sidebearing (depending on the direction of the script they are intended to be used with). A mark handled this way will appear over whatever character precedes it, but will not adjust its position relative to the width or height of the base glyph; it may be visually awkward and it may overlap some glyphs. Real stacking is impossible, but can be approximated in limited cases (for example, Thai top-combining vowels and tone marks can just be at different heights to start with). Generally this approach is only effective in monospaced fonts, but may be used as a fallback rendering method when more complex methods fail.

Several mechanisms have been specified for storing a series of code points as a series of bytes.

Because keyboard layouts cannot have simple key combinations for all characters, several operating systems provide alternative input methods that allow access to the entire repertoire.

Although the repertoire of fewer than 21,000 Han characters in the earliest version of Unicode was largely limited to characters in common modern usage, Unicode now includes more than 92,000 Han characters, and work is continuing to add thousands more historic and dialectal characters used in China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

If the appropriate glyphs for characters in the same script differ only in the italic, Unicode has generally unified them, as can be seen in the comparison among a set of seven characters' italic glyphs as typically appearing in Russian, traditional Bulgarian, Macedonian and Serbian texts at right, meaning that the differences are displayed through smart font technology or manually changing fonts.