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Along with the typographic freedom Mac users have always enjoyed, there have often been strange font conflicts, inexplicable font substitutions, and even system crashes related to corrupt fonts. Mac OS X has fixed many of these problems, providing stability and exciting new font formats and capabilities. At first glance, fonts and font management in OS X may appear complicated—but we can help you understand them.

A Font by Any Other Name

OS X now supports PostScript and OpenType fonts, in addition to traditional screen and TrueType fonts, and it has introduced a new format known as dfont (data-fork TrueType font). You’re probably quite familiar with Adobe’s PostScript standard, but here’s the scoop on the others.

OpenType was announced in 1997 by Adobe and Microsoft, but until the release of OS X, Mac users needed Adobe Type Manager to use OpenType fonts. OpenType is essentially a wrapper around the TrueType and PostScript formats. An OpenType font is a single file, and it works across platforms (unlike TrueType and PostScript fonts, which must have separate PC and Mac versions).

OpenType’s big advantage over PostScript and TrueType is its support for extended character sets. OpenType, along with OS X, supports Unicode—a method of encoding characters that allows for more than 65,000 different symbols (type designers call them “glyphs”) in a font; PostScript and early TrueType allow only 256.

This is important for a couple of reasons. First, 256 letters simply aren’t enough for many languages. Second, some designers need extra characters, such as swash characters and ligatures; there simply isn’t enough room in a 256-character font for them. Many foundries don’t yet sell OpenType fonts (Adobe and Bitstream are exceptions), but expect to see more soon.

The dfont format is nearly identical to TrueType, but it’s OS X friendly. All the information in a dfont file is stored in a way that’s compatible with current and future Unix file systems, such as the Unified File System (UFS) that can be installed optionally with OS X. Because dfonts are used within the system itself, don’t expect to see them from vendors other than Apple.

Font Locations in Mac OS X

In OS X, fonts are stored in six different locations, and as the system looks for a font, it goes through them in a particular order. So which folder should you store your fonts in? It depends.

For applications running in the Classic environment, the system will search only the Fonts folder in the Classic System Folder. If you run applications in Classic and in OS X, you should place all your fonts in the Classic Fonts folder so they’ll be accessible to all applications. But if you run only OS X-native applications, you should put all fonts in your personal Fonts folder ( username : Library: Fonts). If you’re running only OS X applications and you want to have a common set of fonts for all users, a user with administrator rights should install fonts in the Library: Fonts folder.

Multiple Master PostScript fonts are a special case—OS X doesn’t directly support them. But Adobe applications that use them— such as InDesign, Photoshop, and Illustrator—will still work if you put the fonts in the application’s Fonts folder ( username : Library: Application Support: Adobe: Fonts, for example). Multiple Master fonts will also work in Classic, as long as you have Adobe’s ATM Deluxe or ATM Light (version 4.6.2 or later) in your Classic System Folder.

Home sweet homes

In OS 9, storing your fonts was a relatively simple task. But in OS X, which is designed for multiple users, there are six different locations for fonts; where they should be stored depends on how they are going to be used. The system looks for them in this order:
Location Description
The application’s Fonts folder (Users: username: Library: Application Support: Adobe: Fonts, for example) Some applications, such as Adobe InDesign 2.0, have private font folders. In such a case, this folder takes precedence over other font folders, but only for the specific application. Multiple Master fonts will currently work only in this location for OS X applications.
Users: username: Library: Fonts If you have a single-user Mac and don’t run applications in Classic, this is where you should put all your fonts. Don’t put them here if you run applications in Classic; put them in the Classic Fonts folder so those applications will find them.
Library: Fonts Only an administrative user can add or delete files in this folder. On a multiuser Mac, the system administrator should place fonts common to all users here. Don’t worry about this folder on a single-user Mac.
Network: Library: Fonts Again, this folder is nothing to worry about if you’re running your own Mac. It’s actually a network location on an OS X server running NetInfo; a “universal” set of fonts can be kept here.
System: Library: Fonts All fonts used by OS X itself are here. No user-supplied fonts should be put in this folder.
Classic System Folder: Fonts If you’re running applications in both Classic and OS X and you don’t use a font manager, this is where you should put all your fonts. This is the only folder that Classic can get fonts from, and OS X applications can also use them.

Are Your Fonts Conflicted?

If you’re using your Mac to supply files for professional printing, you’ll probably want to use a font manager (as described in the next section). If you don’t plan on using a font manager, pay close attention to this section.

When an OS X-native application asks the system to find a font, the system takes the first match it finds. So if you have, for example, Helvetica in more than one place, you could be asking for trouble. (Since the Classic subsystem looks only in the Fonts folder inside the Classic System Folder, applications running in Classic have it a bit easier.)

In the old days of OS 9, graphics and publishing professionals used to leave only essential fonts in the System Folder—Geneva, Chicago, Charcoal, and Monaco. It was OK to leave these four in place because professional publishing documents almost never used them, so there was very little chance of a font conflict.

OS X, on the other hand, stores publishing stalwarts Helvetica, Times, Courier, Symbol, and Zapf Dingbats in dfont format at the lowest OS X font level. They can’t be removed—even by an administrator. But what if you want to use your own PostScript versions of some or all of these fonts?

If you put the fonts only in the Classic Fonts folder, applications running in Classic will use them correctly, but OS X-native applications won’t see them—they’ll be overridden by the dfont versions in the System: Library: Fonts folder. The solution is to put these fonts in two places: the Classic Fonts folder and the Fonts folder in your Library folder ( username : Library: Fonts).

If you work in a prepress or print shop, this solution isn’t the best. If you receive a file that uses a specially kerned version of Helvetica, for example, and that Helvetica was not supplied with the job, the file will still preflight correctly—the preflight tool will find Helvetica active in the system and won’t know it’s using the wrong version of the font. With manual font management, there’s currently no way around this.

Better Font Management

If you’re in design, prepress, or print production, you probably select fonts on a per-job or per-client basis. Or perhaps a specific group of fonts is supplied with each job, and you must use those fonts (and only those fonts) in that job. Although you could have all the fonts on your Mac active simultaneously, you would spend all your time scrolling through endless font menus. Worse than that, you’d risk confusion and possibly incorrect output with identically named fonts from different foundries. You could control your fonts with AppleScripts or Unix Shell scripts, but there’s an easier way.

The solution to this problem is font management: controlling fonts so that only a select few are active at any one time, and enabling the use of fonts in any user-defined location. OS 9 crashes if you have too many fonts open—although OS X doesn’t, scrolling through a long font menu is still a headache. At press time, there were two commercial font managers available for OS X: Extensis’s Suitcase 10.1 (   ; Reviews, April 2002) and DiamondSoft’s Font Reserve 3.0 (   ; Reviews, June 2002). Alsoft’s Master Juggler hasn’t been ported to OS X—the company has said nothing about its plans for this utility—and Adobe has announced that it won’t release an OS X-native version of ATM Deluxe.

Both Suitcase and Font Reserve do an excellent job of managing and activating fonts in OS X—and both have demo versions available, so you can try them out before deciding on one. Once you install and learn to use one of these font managers, you’re done; they mask most of the complexity of font manipulation. They’ll even handle the previously mentioned preflight problem: you can set up Suitcase to override system fonts, while Font Reserve actually lets you remove troublesome fonts from the System: Library: Fonts folder and manage them yourself. If you do remove these fonts, make sure you immediately activate them with the font manager; certain OS X applications (TextEdit, for one) will crash if they can’t find Helvetica.

Note that OS X’s Font Panel—which is available in most Cocoa applications (open TextEdit and press 1-T for a look)—is not a true font manager. It does help organize fonts, but it doesn’t activate and deactivate them.

Font managers can also be useful in a network environment. If you have a fairly robust network and a central location where you store fonts, you can point your font manager or your Mac to a font server volume and open fonts from there.

Useful Font Utilities

Apple includes Key Caps in OS X (Utilities: Applications), and the utility works pretty much as it did in OS 9. Unfortunately, Key Caps doesn’t understand Unicode, so many of the characters in Unicode-savvy fonts such as Zapfino or Lucida Grande (both included with OS X) are inaccessible.

Key Caps now displays font menus merged by style. All styles for a font are shown in a submenu, so instead of seeing B Times Bold listed in the menu, you’ll see only Times; its accompanying styles are in its submenu. In OS 9, this feature was provided by various third-party utilities, most commonly Adobe Type Reunion. At press time, there was no equivalent utility that performed this function in OS X—each application is left to its own devices to show font menus, either merged or “flat” (for example, the PostScript Times boldface font would be displayed in the font menu as “B Times Bold”).

Don’t Fear the Fonts

The font technology in OS X is more sophisticated than ever, but it doesn’t have to be confusing. Many interesting developments—mostly related to Unicode and something called Apple Advanced Typography (AAT)—are on the horizon. (AAT, which came out of the defunct QuickDraw GX, works with a part of the OS called Apple Type Services for Unicode Imaging [ATSUI]. It allows for typographical effects such as fractions, complex ligatures, and connecting letters together in cursive fonts.) For now, stick with the two main font locations (Classic’s Fonts folder and username : Library: Fonts), and you’ll be just fine. And if your job involves using a wide variety of fonts, consider investing time and money in a font manager.

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