For Position Only: OS X Font Foibles

Some of you may recall the old George Carlin routine in which he rattles off the seven dirty words that aren’t allowed to be broadcast on network TV. It’s a good thing the censors weren’t in my office last week, because I was spewing these and other expletives daily as I tried to wrest control over my fonts in OS X. Cussing may not have abated the quadruplicates of Courier and Ariel that I encountered, the sometimes idiosyncratic inability to activate fonts in Extensis Suitcase, or the spontaneous crashes out of Font Doctor, but a girl’s gotta vent somehow.

Back to Basics

As related in my last column, in a simultaneous software and hardware upgrade, I purchased a new G4 iMac with Mac OS X 10.2 (aka Jaguar) preinstalled. Jaguar came included dozens of fonts occupying hundreds of megabytes in various locations on my hard drive — not to mention the font collection I brought over from my old system under OS 9 and the fonts that my various design applications installed. The volume of fonts on my system was frightening, and getting a grip on them hasn’t been easy. Before you embark on your own attempts at font management in Jaguar, let me give you some tips based on my own hair-pulling experience.

Avoid installing extraneous fonts. Until you get a handle on the fonts that come with OS X and its applications, avoid installing extraneous fonts. Adding personal font collections at the beginning of your attempts to manage fonts increases the potential for conflicts and duplicates. Only after you have minimized problems and duplicates with the OS’s and your applications’ fonts should you add your own collections. You may even find that you don’t need as many of those “favorite” fonts as you thought.

Get a font-management application. The Font Panel that is part of the OS is only available in a few applications, such as Mail; it’s not a full-fledged font-management tool. For Jaguar you have two professional font-management choices: Extensis Suitcase or DiamondSoft Font Reserve. I’ve been using Suitcase, which comes with a companion program called FontDoctor (from Morrison SoftDesign). While I found neither Suitcase nor FontDoctor to be a perfect program (among other things, both apps crashed occasionally, and it was a big headache to skip between programs to manage duplicates), you won’t get far without a bona fide font manager.

Locate your OS fonts. Jaguar comes with hundreds fonts and several Fonts folders. The good news is that you don’t need most of the fonts that come with Jaguar and can deactivate them. The bad news is that it’s not as easy as it should be to do this efficiently. Fonts come preinstalled in Jaguar in three locations:

  1. About two dozen fonts that are required by OS X can be found in your hard drive’s System/Library/Fonts folder. Lots of documentation tells you that these fonts “should not” be messed with, but the happy fact is that they cannot be modified, so you don’t have to worry about them too much.
  2. Jaguar comes with several dozen more fonts (about 150MB of them) located in your hard drive’s Library/Fonts folder. These fonts aren’t required by the OS, but Apple recommends that this is where you store fonts that are shared by applications. You can trash some of the more esoteric fonts in this folder, or simply deactivate them.
  3. Fonts that are required by Classic are stored in the hard drive’s System Folder/Fonts — just where they were found in OS 9 and earlier, thank goodness. However, not all of them are required for Classic to run, and you must move those non-essential fonts out of this folder to manage them (at least, with Suitcase). You can move and manage all but Arial, Charcoal, Chicago, Geneva, Monaco, New York, Symbol, and Zapf Dingbats.

Locate other fonts. In addition to these Fonts folders, Jaguar has Fonts folders in the Network/Library and in each user’s Library directory. Fonts in Network/Library/Fonts can be shared among all users of a network; fonts in a user’s Library/Fonts folder are for that user’s access only. The OS doesn’t ship with any fonts in either location, but you can use those folders for shared or private collections, respectively, when you create them.

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In addition, many OS X programs (such as Microsoft Office, InDesign, Acrobat, and AppleWorks, which came preinstalled with another gazillion fonts) have a Fonts folder buried in their application folder. Adobe apps also have a Fonts folder nested in Library/Application Support/Adobe.

Although your font manager should be able to search for and locate all the fonts on your system, it helps to know where fonts are likely to be stored in case you need to find them manually.

Keep it simple. When you do add fonts, put them in as few locations as possible, and use the folder structure that Apple has provided. Don’t reinvent the Fonts folder wheel unless it’s really advantageous. Especially in an active production environment, you’ll need to give plenty of thought and to your organizational tactics ahead of time, and don’t let users add fonts to their systems or the network willy-nilly.

Ghosts in the Attic Getting fonts under control in Jaguar takes patience (a prayer or two doesn’t hurt, either). Of course, I tend to jump into projects like font management headfirst and think of rational approaches and systematic methods to problem solving only after I’ve grown a few gray hairs. But since I’m a one-person shop, I’m the only one who suffers by my erratic methods. I’m sure you’re smarter than me in that regard.

After three days of futzing over my fonts, I’m still not alpha over them — I still have duplicates, and if I ran a diagnostic I’m sure FontDoctor would find about 600 fonts and at least 100 problems (down from 985/487). But I give up. The fonts I use most are available in my applications; the menus aren’t too cluttered, and I’ll just have to accept the fact that they display a few unusable Kanji typefaces. I feel like Jane Eyre, but instead of realizing there’s a madwoman in my attic, I know that there are typeface ghosts haunting my hard drive. As long as they don’t set my computer on fire, I’ll just learn to live with it.

Read more by Anita Dennis.