Wrangling Your Fonts

Managing fonts on the Mac is like wrangling kittens. Sure, they’re cute (and fuzzy, if they’re anti-aliased), but fonts are sometimes hard to find, and they occasionally don’t behave as you’d like. They wander in and out of your computer depending on the job, and it’s often hard to tell one apart from another. If your fonts have you flummoxed, or you just want to control the adorable little beasties, several options are available for herding and caring for them.

Part of the confusion when dealing with fonts under Mac OS X is that the operating system stores fonts in several locations: System fonts, fonts for all users, single-user fonts and fonts that belong to applications.

Activating and Deactivating Fonts
Under Mac OS 9, fonts were fairly easy to manage and activate: Toss your font files into the Fonts folder within the System Folder and they’d show up in your applications. You can still move fonts into the Fonts folders in Mac OS X if you prefer to have directory-level control (some people do; you can set up your own folders and hierarchies in the Fonts folders above and they’ll still be recognized). However, it’s not easy to tell if you’re duplicating a font that may exist in one of the other Fonts folders. Plus, it can be a lot of work. Perhaps as penance for making things more complicated, Apple introduced the application Font Book in Mac OS X 10.3. It conveniently lists the fonts that belong to the User, Computer and Classic Mac OS locations. Clicking a font name brings up a preview of your choice: alphabet listing, a grid of all characters or sample text that you can edit.

Adding a new font is as easy as dragging its file to Font Book’s Font column, which automatically copies the font to the User Fonts folder and activates it. You can also drag it to a location in the Collection column, such as Computer if you want to make the typeface available to all users on your Mac. To deactivate a font, choose its name in the Font column and click the checkbox button at the bottom of the window.

Font management has traditionally been one of the spooky black cats of computer usage, so it’s no surprise that several utilities are available that offer Font Book’s features and more. These include Font-Agent Pro; Linotype FontExplorer X; Koingo Software‘s Font Pilot and Extensis Suitcase Fusion, which acquired former rival Font Reserve in 2003.

Organizing Fonts
As you work on a variety of projects, you probably need to activate many different fonts, which easily becomes unwieldy. So font-management applications let you create font collections or sets. It’s helpful to group all the fonts from one project together, but doing so also lets you disable those fonts with one click when the project is inactive or completed. When the client comes back in six months with a rewrite, you won’t have to hunt through your files—just reactivate that client’s collection. A font-management application can perform another essential task: sorting out duplicates.

Disciplining Your Fonts
Sadly, not all fonts behave nicely when you put them together. Corruption can occur to otherwise affectionate fonts, making them act out in all sorts of ligature-clawing ways. Text can become garbled, fonts may not show up in menus and so on. If you suspect that a font has gone bad, remove it from your active collection and see if that resolves the problem. If it doesn’t, or if you can’t identify the culprit, the issue may lie not in any individual font, but in how Mac OS X actively uses fonts.

If the cache has become corrupted, the Mac may be using bad data to draw typefaces rather than grabbing that information from the source font file. Fortunately, it’s simple to delete the system font caches. Locate the folder /Library/Caches/com.apple.ATS, drag it to the Trash and restart your machine. If that doesn’t work, start disabling your fonts to find the problem by a process of elimination: Quit your applications, turn off half of your active fonts and relaunch the affected applications to see if the problem rears its head. Continue dividing the fonts by halves until you’ve isolated the offending critter.

Jeff Carlson is a freelance writer and designer; he has authored several books about technology for designers, edited several ?Take Control? e-books and is managing editor of TidBITS. Carlson will speak about font management at the 2007 HOW Design Conference.