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Font Management in OS X El Capitan

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Note: This article has been updated from the original post entitled, "Font Management in OS X Yosemite".

Upgrading to the latest Mac operating system certainly has its perks, but one drawback is opening up Illustrator or InDesign only to discover an out-of-control font list. What may have once been a carefully curated short list of go-to fonts has now ballooned to monolithic proportions with fonts you wouldn't dare even use on a flyer for a lost pet. This can be a real headache, scrolling for seeming miles to locate a font that used to be within sight.

If, like me, with every new upgrade you mourn the loss of your curated list, chances are you already have some experience with managing fonts to optimize your workflow. However, with each new operating system comes the addition of several new fonts that may or may not be system-critical. Case in point is the unveiling of Apple's new system font San Francisco with the release of El Capitan, so it's never been more important to have a trustworthy guide to definitively determine which fonts should stay and which can be safely disposed of.

Kurt Lang of JKL Studios has put together a very thorough and always up-to-date font management guide for OS X El Capitan (10.11) and previous Mac operating systems. A quick scan through his instructions and I was able to restore my font lists to their proper, usable lengths without causing a system crash.

A couple of quick hints as you get started:

  • If you've never managed your fonts before (ie you just copy all your fonts into your user fonts folder), get a good font manager program and use it. I've been using Extensis Suitcase Fusion for years and really like how easily I can organize and control the thousands of fonts on my computer. Whether you use that or Font Book or another option, just find what works best for you and use it consistently.
  • It's helpful to know that there are three main places fonts live on your Mac:
    1. Macintosh HD > System > Library > Fonts
    2. Macintosh HD > Library > Fonts
    3. Macintosh HD > Users > [username] > Library > Fonts
  • And there are three main players that put fonts in those locations automatically:
    1. Apple
    2. Adobe
    3. Microsoft

IMPORTANT: Before you delete any font files…

Make an identical copy of each of those folders listed above and place them where you can easily get to them later (either on your Desktop or in a "Moved Fonts" folder you create in Documents). I labeled my duplicate folders "El Capitan System Fonts" and "El Capitan Library Fonts". If something would happen to go wrong, you should be able to copy whichever missing font is causing the issue back into its original folder.

Secondly, ensure you DO NOT delete the following system critical fonts, or your Mac may not boot or display OS menus properly (there are more that you'll need to keep onboard, but these are the absolute most critical):

  • Any San Francisco font
  • HelveticaNeueDeskInterface.ttf
  • LucidaGrande.ttf

Follow Kurt's instructions on which fonts to keep and which to delete from the two system/library font folders. However, you may want to keep a few more than he recommends. For instance, you may want to keep…

  • Any fonts you would see yourself using in your design work (eg Didot, Palatino, etc.), unless you have already have appropriate Postscript or OpenType replacements for them
  • Myriad Pro family, as this is Adobe's default font
  • Fonts used by other applications like iLife, iWork, Microsoft Office (see sections in the font management guide detailing each of these)

Once you've cleaned up your font folders according to the minimum specifications and to your liking, you should notice a vastly improved workflow when searching for fonts in-application, less font conflicts, and possibly a faster machine all around. Now if only Adobe would give us a fix for Photoshop's character menu that lists each and every individual font rather than grouping them by family as in every version prior to CC 2014, then life would be grand. But one problem at a time, I suppose.

Did you find this to be helpful? What are some of your font management best practices? Let me know in the comments section below.