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Font Management in Mac OS X

by Peter Fraterdeus
07/24/2001

In 1984, the original Macintosh brought the world a visually integrated computer, and initiated what I've been calling the "Font Decade," where CEOs and homemakers alike learned the difference between Times and Helvetica.

During this time, the acronym WYSIWYG (whizzi-wig) was coined, and "What You See is What You Get" became the battle cry of the print and publishing and graphic design industries. Prior to the Macintosh (which gained the benefits of Xerox research, and added plenty of original design to that), typographers and designers were stuck with marking up type to send (by messenger or post) to a composition house, which produced a galley or repro-proof based on the instructions provided by the designers. The galley was then sent back by messenger to the designer for proofing and correction. Ultimately this process yielded the printed piece for distribution.

Given this time-consuming process, it's no small wonder that the publishing industry jumped head first into the Mac revolution! (We'll leave aside, for now, the various intrigues around the licensing of type designs and that Adobe was thought of as an impudent upstart whose "fonts" were never going to be worthy of being called "Type!")

By 1987, the Mac II came out, and nobody was calling the Macintosh a "toy" anymore. Adobe licensed some of the best type libraries in the world, and engaged in the work of making them available for designers and publishers in the new democratic digital format. Of course, this meant that they were in Adobe's PostScript page description language, and soon after, engineers at Apple developed the TrueType format, based on a different mathematical model, and licensed the technology to Microsoft.

The benefit to both companies was that the rendering engine for TrueType was in the OS, rather than residing on an Adobe licensed CPU in the printer. For quite a few years, the Font Wars waged, until today, we have two firmly established formats, both of which are destined to be absorbed into OpenType, the result of a truce which is non-sectarian as far as the outline format and incorporates plenty of future-oriented options.

Helpful font utilities

Over the years, there have been a number of important utilities developed to help Mac users deal with the proliferation of fonts on their systems. Packages such as Suitcase and Adobe Type Manager provide an interface to manage sets and collections of fonts (ATM also provides a rendering engine for Postscript fonts). Designers depend on these tools to hide the majority of their libraries, which may have hundreds of families and thousands of fonts, while they work on a particular project which will rarely require more than a couple of families, perhaps a dozen or two fonts, to choose from.

The situation today finds designers with a serious quandary. To take advantage of the many benefits of OS X, they must relinquish all of the font-management tools which have matured under the Classic Mac OS.

Although ATM will enable fonts if it's installed when Classic starts up, this is not an acceptable solution. We'll need to see Carbon or, better, Cocoa releases of font-management tools before OS X will be viable for the publishing industry as a whole. Note that the just-released ATM Light 4.6.2 has been tested for compatibility with Mac OS X Classic, unlike previous versions. In addition, both Suitcase and Font Reserve have promised to release OS X-friendly versions of their font management apps this year.

To alias or not to alias?

Of course, the lack of tools is only temporary. Mac OS X has excellent support for advanced typographic features, including OpenType and Unicode, as well as Apple's Advanced Typography (AAT), and promises to be a publishing powerhouse when the toolbox is filled out.

The anti-aliasing is somewhat controversial, but Quartz' built-in renderer guarantees that you will not be faced with either font format breaking into ugly chunks as you scale it up. If you prefer to not have your screen fonts anti-aliased, you can turn off the feature from the Terminal command-line as follows:

sudo defaults write CoreGraphics CGFontDisableAntialiasing YES

Make sure your password is handy because you'll be asked for it.

Where do fonts live in OSX?

According to Apple's Typography Group, fonts can live in a number of places.

~/Library/Fonts/
/Library/Fonts/
/System/Library/Fonts/
/Network/Library/Fonts/
{ClassicStartupVolume}:System Folder:Fonts:

Let's look more closely at this list.

~/Library/Fonts/
The tilde ("~") represents your home folder. That is, /Home/{your_user_name}/. (I will continue to use the term "folder," rather than "directory," when that's more consistent with Mac usage. I think it's also a more appropriate descriptive image for what the "folder" does! Of course, on the command line, "directory" is the word; I suppose one could argue that in the Finder, we see folders, but at the BSD level, we list directories.)

Fonts stored in ~/Library/Fonts/ will be available to you only when you are logged in using this User Name. Applications that you install in your ~/Applications foldermay put their custom fonts here.

/Library/Fonts/
Fonts stored here will be available to all users of this computer. However, to add fonts to the /Library/Fonts/ folder, you may need to authorize yourself!

/System/Library/Fonts/
This is where system fonts are stored, and users should never need to install anything here.

/Network/Library/Fonts/
If you are connected to a NetInfo server, the network administrator may install fonts which will show up in this network folder.

Note that fonts installed in any of the above locations will not be available in the Classic Environment.

{ClassicStartupVolume}:System Folder:Fonts:
This is an interesting feature! Any fonts you have installed in your Classic System Fonts folder will be available to any user on your machine. This is true whether or not Classic is running! Unfortunately, most of my fonts are managed by Adobe Type Manager, which, while it works fine under Classic, does not make the fonts available to OS X applications. In addition, ATM would be required to properly render any PostScript outline fonts under Classic.

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