Font Fatigue: Pruning Excess Fonts in Mac OS X

In my first “Font Fatigue” column, I identified six font locations in Mac OS X. In reality, there can be more. Consider this: Each user has his or her own fonts folder. This is as it should be in a multi-user system such as Mac OS X, but it does add to the number of folders to worry about. What it means, in a production environment where more than one user may work on a job on the same computer, is that you should think twice about putting job-specific fonts in your own personal Fonts folder (that’s the one under /Users/<your username>/Library/Fonts). If you’re the only one using the computer, or everyone uses the same account on the Mac, then it doesn’t matter. For an explanation in plain English of OS X folder path names, read the sidebar “A Word About Folder Terminology.”

There’s yet one more little gotcha to note. Adobe has decided that, although it already creates a /Library/Application Support/Adobe/Fonts folder and a ~/Library/Application Support/Adobe/Fonts folder, Acrobat 6 needs yet another font location: /Library/Application Support/Adobe/PDFL/5.0/Fonts. This location is only used by Acrobat. So if you’re a heavy Acrobat user, keep this in mind.

Pruning Your Fonts

For years under previous operating systems, people who used lots of fonts were taught that they should only have a certain subset active at any given time. Typically, this was the set of fonts that was needed for the job on which they were currently working. This was done for two reasons.

First, it was to avoid font conflicts. You might have two or three (or more) versions of common fonts such as Helvetica. Each one of these might be subtly different in some of its letterforms or spacing or kerning tables. If a document was designed with Helvetica version “A,” but then later opened using Helvetica version “B,” it could easily cause text to re-flow, and mess up that carefully crafted page layout.

Second, if you owned a thousand fonts (a small number by today’s graphic design standards), you just couldn’t keep all of them open at once. The system wouldn’t allow it. And even if you could (which you can in Mac OS X), you wouldn’t want to. Imagine scrolling through a thousand names in a font menu. That way lies madness.

So, standard practice in graphic design, prepress, and print environments has been to remove all but the fonts that were absolutely necessary from the Fonts folder (inside the System Folder). Most people then used a font manager (such as Suitcase, Font Reserve, or Adobe Type Manager Deluxe) to activate only the fonts they needed for a particular job. (A small number of die-hard souls did this manually, by moving fonts in and out of the Fonts folder, but this wasn’t very common.) But all in all, this practice worked very well.

In Mac OS X, this gets a little trickier. Font managers still exist, but first, we have to strip fonts out of the system that might get in our way. And that’s where life gets interesting.

The Strange Case of the dFont Dopplegangers

I’m sure that someone somewhere inside Apple thought that they were being helpful when they hard-wired a bunch of common fonts deep into the system. But instead, that decision wound up causing pro users in design and prepress a bit of trouble. I’m talking about the fact that, in the /System/Library/Fonts folder, there are dFont (basically TrueType) fonts with the following common names: Times, Helvetica, Courier, Symbol. There are many more high-quality fonts installed with Mac OS X; the exact list will vary, depending upon options you chose during installation. These are just the ones most likely to cause trouble in a pro publishing workflow.

The problem with these fonts is that their names conflict with commonly used PostScript fonts. And, in the case of identically named fonts, application behavior varies. Some applications (such as QuarkXPress and Adobe Photoshop) will follow the system rules: Use fonts in the Classic folder first, then the Users folder, then the /Library folder, then /System/Library. We’ll ignore the /Network/Library/Fonts folder for the moment, because hardly anyone in production is using it (yet). Other applications (such as Adobe InDesign) seem to prefer the system-wide /Library/Fonts folder over the user’s own ~/Library/Fonts folder when duplicate font names are found.

In other words, your mileage may vary. This inconsistency is annoying, but it wouldn’t matter as much if we didn’t have to worry about these built-in fonts. But the Bottom Line is:

Don’t put fonts with the same names in multiple folders.

This seems a pretty easy rule of thumb to follow. But wait — there are those pesky dFonts in the /System/Library folder. What to do with them? Two possibilities come to mind:

  1. Leave them where they are. When you need to use your own copy of Helvetica (or Times, etc.), just put it into your home library folder: ~/Library/Fonts. Most applications will find it there and use it. Or maybe not.
  2. Remove them. Why? Read the sidebar ““The Font Twilight Zone” sidebar. This is what I recommend. It can be done, but it’s a bit tricky, and can have unintended consequences if you’re not careful. I’ll talk more about this below.

In my opinion, in a pro design/prepress/print environment, the only fonts that should be found in the /System/Library/Fonts folder are:

  • Keyboard.dfont
  • LastResort.dfont (a special font used to show missing characters in other fonts)
  • LucidaGrande.dfont (the font used by most of the system for menus, dialogs, etc.)

I also keep Monaco.dfont in this folder, due to a problem with the way the Terminal utility works if it isn’t there (see the sidebar “Terminal Madness”).

And even if you don’t regularly use Classic, you should clean out Classic’s Fonts folder as well. The system will look here for fonts, and if you have a rogue Helvetica or some other common font here, it could be used instead of the one you intended. The only font that absolutely positively must be kept in Classic’s /System Folder/Fonts is Charcoal.

Strictly speaking, you don’t even need Charcoal, as Classic will fall back on fonts embedded in the Mac OS 9 System file to do things like draw menus and dialog boxes. It won’t look very pretty, though. I also keep Geneva and Monaco in Classic’s Fonts folder as well, because so many applications use those. You may need other fonts in Classic for certain applications — Graphing Calculator, for example, requires the Symbol font, and I have seen some people recommend keeping New York around as well. But no matter which fonts you decide to keep here, make sure that none of them conflict with fonts you’ll be using in production.

Of course, if you don’t have a Classic System Folder, then you don’t need to worry about this part.

Cleansing Your Font Palette

It would be easy if we could just have some cheese and fruit here, but we can’t. You have to do a small bit of minor surgery to get some of the fonts out.

First, your own personal fonts folder (~/Library/Fonts): Just take out any fonts that might be in here (there won’t be any in this folder unless you’ve put them there). Move them somewhere else, say to a folder named “Fonts Unused” or any other name you like.

Next, the /Library/Fonts folder. You must have Administrator privileges to take the fonts out of this folder. If you’re not an Administrator of the Mac in question, log out and log back in with a user name that is an Administrator.Then take all the fonts out, and move them somewhere else. I use a folder named /Library/Fonts Unused.

Next, the Classic System Folder. Take the fonts (except Charcoal, Geneva, and Monaco) out of this folder and put them somewhere else. I put them in another folder inside the System Folder named “Fonts Unused.” If you have more than one System Folder (unusual, but I’ve seen people who do this), make sure you’re dealing with the one that
Classic is run from. You can check this by opening the Classic System Preferences pane; the current Classic folder will be highlighted.

Finally, clean out the /System/Library/Fonts folder. This is slightly more difficult, because even an Administrator can’t remove the fonts from this folder due to its permission settings. Try to drag a font from this folder into the trash. You’ll see this dialog box shown in Figure 1. If you have enabled the root user on your Mac, log in as root and then you’ll be able to drag the fonts out of this folder.


If you don’t know what “log in as root” means, don’t worry about it. Do it this way instead. Select the /System/Library/Fonts folder, choose Get Info from the File menu (or type Command-I) to show the Info window for the folder shown in Figure 2. In the Info window, click on the “Ownership” triangle to expand that section. If the Owner popup is dimmed (not selectable), click on the lock icon. It should then unlock (you may be prompted to supply an Administrator name and password to do this, or you might be prompted after you change the owner popup). Then select your own name from the Owner popup, thus making yourself the owner of this folder.

Figure 2

Once you’re the owner of the folder, close its Info window. Now you can drag fonts out of the /System/Library/Fonts folder into another folder (I create one named /System/Library/Fonts Unused). Remember to leave in Keyboard, LastResort, and LucidaGrande).

Now Get Info on /System/Library/Fonts again, and change the owner back to “system” so that no one but you and I know that you’ve been messing around there.Presto, you’re done!

Well, almost.

One very important thing I haven’t mentioned yet. You must have some version of Helvetica active in one of the Fonts folders. Otherwise, some applications and system utilities won’t work correctly, or (in the case of TextEdit) will even crash at startup. I know, it seems crazy, but there it is. So what I do is take a PostScript version of Helvetica (you don’t need the screen font, just the printer font) and put it in my personal fonts folder (/Users/cweger/Library/Fonts). As long as some version of Helvetica can be found somewhere in the normal font paths, you’re OK.

You could also just keep the dFont version of Helvetica in /System/Library/Fonts, as long as you’re sure that you won’t ever be using a different version of Helvetica in a page layout somewhere down the line.

It used to be that you also needed to keep Helvetica Neue active as well, because applications such as iCal depended upon it, but somewhere along the line (I think it was around 10.2.3) that was fixed. To reiterate: Keep Helvetica alive (sounds like a political slogan). If you’re using a font manager, open it using that font manager. Otherwise, keep a version active in one of the Fonts folders at all times.

Speaking of font managers, I was going to write about how to use the two leading font managers, Suitcase and Font Reserve, in this section. But as you probably know, things are a bit up in the air right now. Extensis (makers of Suitcase) purchased DiamondSoft (makers of Font Reserve) back in July. Common sense suggests that the products will be somehow consolidated, so I decided to wait until next time to talk about these.

Panting for Panther

Many things get better with the font technology implemented in Panther. I can’t tell you what, because then I’d have to use that memory zapper the folks in the movie “Men in Black” used. However, I can say that pro users (and that includes most people reading this, I’ll wager) will still probably want to use a font manager.

Key Caps and Friends

Although Key Caps is still there (buried in the /Application/Utilities folder), there’s a newer, cooler alternative. It’s called Character Palette. For those who didn’t read my previous article, here’s how to bring this to life: Open the “International” System Preference. Click the “Input Menu” tab. You’ll see a list of every possible input method installed in your system. Click the checkbox for “Character Palette” and you should see a little flag appear in the menu bar.

You can then quit System Preferences, and from then on the flag and its menu will be in your menu bar. Once you have this flag, click on it and from the menu that appears select “Show Character Palette.” The Character Palette floating window appears (see Figure 3). From here, you can see all the characters in a font. You can click on a character, then click on the “Insert” button, and it will insert that character at the insertion point of whatever application window is active. It doesn’t set the font in that application, though, so you may need to manually set the inserted character’s font to match the one shown in the Character Palette window.

Figure 3

There are other neat things you can do with the Character Palette, but they’ll have to wait until next time because this article is already much too long. Until then, Happy Fonting!


Posted on: August 19, 2003

6 Comments on Font Fatigue: Pruning Excess Fonts in Mac OS X

  1. I had bookmarked your article a while ago and finally over the holidays had time to clean up my fonts as you recommended. To my dismay the next time I opened Illustrator (and Photoshop, but to a lesser degree) the labels on all my palettes had disappeared! Seems they really really like to have Geneva in the System/Library/Fonts folder. PS. when are we going to find out about the ‘other neat things’ we can do with the character palette?!? 🙂

  2. The series of articles by Chuck Weger on fonts in OS X are excellent to quickly gain the knowledge needed to manage fonts in OS X. The information was a lifesaver!

  3. Hello. Thanks for the article, but I didn’t see a solution to the font problem I have in OS 10.3.7. There is a conflict between my Adobe Garamond and Adobe Garamond Expert. It’s probably because they both end-up with the same name (Adobe Garamond) in Font Book, even though they were named Adobe Garamond and Adobe Garamond Expert before I installed them. They’re both PostScript 1 fonts. I noticed the conflict when I activated Show Keyboard Viewer. What happens is, the Keyboard Viewere flashes on, then disappears–until I deactivate one or the other of those fonts. Would appreciate your help. Thanks, Morty Sklar

  4. A superb article of great interest to this typographer who has just switched to Tiger from 9 and wondered where the fonts go! Font Book looks great, as if it should do everything Suitcase and ATM ever did, but no mention of it. Is it new to Tiger? I would like to try this advice on cleaning up the fonts folders but I am concerned it’s out of date, every odd font appears to be ‘necessary’ to the Mac! I look forward to more articles by this author.

  5. Year after year I come back to this article to get rid of all the junk-fonts that interfere with my work. I am so glad this is still here.

  6. If a document was designed with Helvetica version “A,” but then later opened using Helvetica version “B,” it could easily cause text to re-flow, and mess up that amc auto page layout.

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