Font Management Made Simple(r)

Font Management Made Simple(r)

At some point, virtually everyone has experienced at least one maddening font-based misfortune. Sometimes a completely wrong font is substituted for the one you intended, seemingly randomly. Or a font that used to work fine is now coming up corrupted. Or you use the wrong version of a font, and now your document has silently become pages longer. (And of course, these problems seem to only pop up when you’re working on a huge project with a tight deadline.) We’ll explain some of the mysteries of font management, and give you steps to follow to get your fonts in order and stop the madness.


The Problem with Fonts


Font management might not seem so tricky on the face of it. “Fonts are just files,” you might be thinking. “How can they cause such tragedy?” Well, just like any other type of file, a font can end up corrupted. And there’s no obvious way to tell if one’s gone bad—that is, until a document won’t open or an app suddenly crashes.


Plus, while fonts are files, they’re more like applications, in that they talk to your OS. So each activated font is like another application open on your Mac. And we all know what can happen when a big stack of apps all run at once—system slowdown. Apple recommends limiting the number of active fonts to about 300. (If you have more fonts than that, don’t worry—we’ll explain how to corral them with a font manager so you can activate them in batches.)


Another common issue with fonts is versioning. You might forget if the version of Helvetica used by a particular document is one on your hard drive, one you got from the person who created the document, or a system font version that came with Mac OS X. If design is your business, you probably know how quickly the different versions can accumulate.


Font Types


Part of the reason font management can be such a pain is that you can have the same font in lots of versions or in lots of formats. Quite a few formats share the stage in the Font Variety Show. In no particular order:


PostScript Type 1. The “king of design fonts,” PostScript fonts helped fuel the desktop publishing revolution back in the day. A PostScript font consists of two files: A Suitcase file (which is the part you see on the screen) and an Outline file (sent to the printer). Both pieces must be present and accounted for—i.e., in the same folder—or technically you don’t have a font.


TrueType. TrueType fonts come in two flavors, Mac and Windows. Each contains the same basic information, but between platforms, they get tweaked just enough to be different. TrueType fonts’ major advantage is that a single file contains all the information of the two files in a PostScript font. A wonderful thing about TrueType fonts is that anyone can design one—and a terrible thing about TrueType fonts is that anyone can design one. There are great ones out there, and some pretty awful ones too.

OpenType is the latest format from Adobe, also a single file. The advantage of OpenType is that the same font can be used across platforms, so it doesn’t matter if you send your document and fonts to someone using Windows—they’ll see it just the same as you do.


DFont. This is short for “Data Fork TrueType Font” and might look familiar if you’ve poked around in your OS at all. This is the format of all fonts installed by Mac OS X, and so far only Apple uses this format. Before OpenType, all the font data was stored in the resource fork of the file, but OpenType keeps all the information in the data fork, making it easier for the OS to read.


Take Control


Don’t be intimidated about corralling your large collection of personal fonts—you can get it done over your lunch hour and still have time to eat your sandwich. You just need the right tools for the job and these basic steps. For more, check out the Font Management Best Practices Guide at


1. Collect.


This jumbled mess is every font we could find, all dumped into one folder.


First you should get your fonts in one place. We dumped all of ours into a folder called MyFonts in our Documents folder. But be careful! As you poke around your hard drive looking for fonts, don’t touch anything in the /System/Library/Fonts or /username/Library/Fonts folders. And don’t remove fonts installed by specific programs, such as Adobe or Microsoft apps—steer clear of any folders named after software to be safe. If the OS or a specific app can’t find a font it needs, it may not launch at all. Stick to your personal collection of fonts only.


2. Sort and purge.


Morrison SoftDesign’s FontDoctor can sniff out corrupted fonts faster than you can say “sans serif.”


You could sort through all those fonts by hand, looking for duplicates, getting info and making notes, and deleting as necessary. Or you can get a utility to do all the heavy lifting for you. FontDoctor ($69.99, will scan your fonts, diagnose corruption, fix some of them, and move anything it can’t fix into a different folder for you to deal with later. If you really want to be sure you have a good collection, run your fonts through FontDoctor a second time—a small problem can sometimes be masked by a larger one.




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If you already have Onyx installed (and there's no reason not to, it's free and very useful -, you can use that to clean out font caches.

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