Font Management in MacOS

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

Upgrading to the latest Mac operating system certainly has its perks, but one drawback as a professional graphic designer is opening up my favorite Adobe app 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 hundreds of unwanted fonts you would never dare to use even on a bad design day. This can be a real headache, scrolling for days to locate a favorite 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 macOS upgrade 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 deactivated or disposed of.

Over the years, I've consistently turned to Kurt Lang's extremely thorough and always up-to-date font management guide for macOS and OS X (High Sierra [10.13] all the way back to Panther [10.3]). A thorough scan through his detailed 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 (i.e. you just copy all your fonts into your user fonts folder), get a good font manager 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 I've collected through the years. (However, I can only recommend Suitcase Fusion v7 and before – their latest release, v8, has a new interface design with some serious UI flaws that has sadly taken a big step backwards in terms of usability.) Whether you use Suitcase 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 a few main places fonts live on your Mac (the first two contain a mix of system critical fonts and ones that can be safely disposed of, while the last two can be emptied with no adverse effects):
    1. Macintosh HD > System > Library > Fonts
    2. Macintosh HD > Library > Fonts
    3. Macintosh HD > Users > [username] > Library > Fonts
    4. Macintosh HD > Users > [username] > Library > Application Support > Adobe > 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…

You'll need to temporarily disable a built-in security feature called System Integrity Protection that protects system critical files (like system fonts, for example) from being moved, modified, or deleted by malware. Once you've moved the unnecessary font files from the system folders, be sure to reenable SIP again! 

Make an identical copy of each of the first two 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 "High Sierra System Fonts" and "High Sierra 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 (Apple's current de facto system font family)
  • Any Helvetica or Helvetica Neue font (Apple's system font in OS X Yosemite)
  • Lucida Grande (Apple's legacy system font in OS X Mavericks and previous)
  • LastResort.ttf (as the name implies, this is the font that will display when no other required fonts are available)

Follow Kurt's instructions on which fonts to keep and which to delete from the "System > Library > Fonts" and "Library > Fonts" 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 (e.g. Didot, Palatino, etc.), unless you already have an appropriate Postscript or OpenType replacement for them, which I recommend
  • Myriad Pro family, as this used to be a required font for Adobe Creative Suite (CS) applications and may still be regarded as the default for Creative Cloud (CC) apps
  • Fonts used by other applications like iWork and 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 your design programs, less font conflicts, and possibly a faster machine all around.

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