Take Control of Fonts in Mac OS X

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Trim the Excess Font Fat

General users don’t need to strip their systems of extraneous fonts—to a general user the fonts won’t be extraneous. Pros and font fanatics, however, need to keep unnecessary fonts to a minimum, both to avoid problems and because the sheer number of fonts can become overwhelming to manage. This section describes why you need certain fonts (or not), and gives you the opportunity to lighten your font load if you didn’t do the thorough cleanup described earlier.

The source of misinformation

I’ve encountered a lot of misunderstanding among even reasonably knowledgeable users as to what can be safely removed or disabled, despite the fact that the list of necessary fonts is short and straightforward. One reason for the confusion is that the Mac OS X font capabilities and needs are continually evolving; the other is that, lacking reasonable documentation, users have turned to Apple’s Tech Docs and misread some of their information.

One document “recommends” that certain foreign language fonts stay in /System/Library/Fonts; it goes on to list “required Japanese fonts,” and so on. A more careful reading reveals that they’re needed for international versions of the operating system and you should keep them because “you never know who might use your system or how it might be used in the future.” Are you worried about that?

The more insidious problem comes from the lists of Mac OS X fonts with headings such as Essential System Software; Installed: Always (cannot be disabled) for /System/Library/Fonts. The heading actually refers to the installer process, wherein the fonts are included as part of the essential system software that’s always installed, and it’s a part of the installer package that can’t be disabled. None of the terms applies to the fonts in the list!

The System Fonts folder

Below, I list 12 font files that you should leave in /System/Library/Fonts. The six core fonts should never, never be removed (although one can be replaced by a different version), on pain of dire consequences. Not plagues-of-Egypt dire, but close, if you’re on a tight deadline. At best, you’ll have menus and dialogs with garbled text; at worst, your Mac might not start up at all and require a system reinstall. As for the other three fonts, one’s “essentialness” is somewhat anecdotal, and the Preview application uses two. Don’t disable the fonts in the table , either, since that often causes the same problems as removing them.

Some of the fonts listed don’t even appear in menus or in Font Book; others are difficult to remove through Font Book, which prevents you from accidentally removing them. But when you’re serious about streamlining your font list, you may be working directly with folders in the Finder, so the Font Book safeguards won’t apply. Watch your step!

In addition to the absolute necessities, you should keep these fonts because they are common on the Web and in cross-platform documents:

  • Courier
  • Times
  • Symbol
  • Zapf Dingbats
  • Do not remove or disable these system fonts

    Core Fonts: Do Not Remove Under Any Circumstances

    Keyboard.dfont (*), LastResort.dfont (*) Keyboard holds many characters necessary for menus and dialogs (such as the symbols for Shift and Option). The cleverly named LastResort is a fallback font for when a needed Unicode character isn’t included in any of your available fonts.
    Monaco.dfont, Geneva.dfont Removing either of these fonts through Font Book triggers the “This is a system font… are you sure…” dialog, but you’re allowed to remove it—ostensibly, because while it disappears from the Font list, it remains in the Fonts folder. ^
    LucidaGrande.dfont This should be named LucidaMuchoGrande, because it contains so many different scripts—alphabets for different languages. It’s used if a character isn’t in the current font. If you try to remove it with Font Book, you’re ignored; Lucida Grande remains in the Font list.

    * These fonts don’t appear in Font Book or in font menus. ^ Although these fonts remain in the Fonts folder after being removed from Font Book’s list, the operating system can no longer access them.

    Core Font: Do not remove unless immediately replaced with another version

    Helvetica.dfont Font Book treats this the same as Geneva and Monaco: try to remove it and it disappears from the Font list but not the Fonts folder. ^ You can remove this Helvetica as long as another version of Helvetica is available to your system.

    ^ Although these fonts remain in the Fonts folder after being removed from Font Book’s list, the operating system can no longer access them.

    Core Fonts? Maybe, Maybe Not—But Leave Alone

    AquaKanaRegular.otf, AquaKanaBold.otf (*) AquaKana is not on Apple’s list of “do not remove” fonts. However, anecdotal evidence indicates that this font is needed even if you’re not using any foreign language system. It doesn’t appear in font menus; why would it be hidden unless you’re supposed to leave it alone?

    * Font doesn’t appear in Font Book or in font menus.

    Fonts For Preview

    Helvetica LT MM/, HelveLTMM (*), Times LT MM/, TimesLTMM* The operating system doesn’t need these, but Preview does; new in Tiger, Preview uses them to render approximations of missing fonts in PDF files. You needn’t worry about their conflicting with other versions of Helvetica or Times, since they’re not included in the font-use hierarchy.

    * These fonts don’t appear in Font Book or in font menus.

    Hell-vetica and other publishing favorites

    Tiger supplies dfont versions of five stalwart standbys of the publishing business: Helvetica, Times, Courier, Symbol, and Zapf Dingbats. If you’re a professional, you’ll want to remove the dfont versions in /System/Library/Fonts to minimize the chance of their being substituted for your PostScript Type 1 (or, eventually, OpenType) versions. Put your replacements in /Library/Fonts or ~/Library/Fonts to minimize the changes you make to /System/Library/Fonts.

    This is the Font Book Info view with and without Helvetica available.

    Of these fonts, only Helvetica is essential to your operating system, but any old version will do, as long as it’s in one of the system’s Fonts folders. (The Classic folder doesn’t count, nor does an application Fonts folder.) When you’re replacing the system Helvetica, you have to replace it right away—think Indiana Jones swapping the bag of sand for the golden idol. In fact, put the new version in before you take the system version out; so many things go wrong when Helvetica is gone that it’s difficult or impossible to get anything done.

    The ubiquitous Helvetica stands out from this lineup in another way: it causes more problems than any other font in computer history. Helvetica’s troubled history is due to its very popularity, which resulted in dozens of versions being produced ( cheaper! better! ), which caused hundreds of font substitution problems ( reflow! reprint! ), which led to thousands of headaches ( oy! ow! ). But, come on, stop relying on Helvetica (yes, I’m talking to you font professionals): it’s 50 years old, it’s tired .

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