Blog

Post-Modern Font Management in OS X

I’ll probably still miss Fontcase, but it turns out I never really needed it to begin with.

Despite its many quirks, I had grown to become a fan of Bohemian Coding’s Fontcase. While not as feature-rich as its bigger “Pro” cousins FontExplorer X or Suitcase Fusion, it did one thing better: it put the fonts front-and-center, behaving less like a file browser and more like a photo album. I suspect that I’m not the only person who prefers to view them this way, either.

Unfortunately, at the beginning of this month Bohemian Coding made the decision to discontinue Fontcase, and to replace it with Fonts.app. The proffered reasoning seemed, to me, to be somewhat of a cop-out; surely there was a technical solution to the sandboxing issue? Even if there wasn’t a solution, and even if they had to remove the app from the App Store solely on those grounds, it seemed there was more to the decision.

One of the main functions of Fontcase is font activation, and from the day we introduced the app we’ve had a large percentage of our customer base who just didn’t get the idea of font activation and why such a thing was ever needed.

I wasn’t quite sure how to interpret this. Perhaps, as they said, their customer base was largely unclear about the purpose of Fontcase. I suspect, however, that the customer base built from offering Fontcase on the App Store was likely not representative of the users who find an app like Fontcase useful in the first place: designers. As a result, their customer base was uneducated on how an app like Fontcase would serve them.

As a result, we’ve come to the realisation that Fontcase’s main features are just not needed or appropriate in this day and age, and the time has come to retire it.

Not needed! Font-management has been a core activity in the lives of designers for decades—how could this be “not needed”‽ Much of Bohemian Coding’s explanation felt like superfluous rationalization for why they had to pull the app from the App Store.

Although I and many other font-savvy individuals enjoyed the features that Fontcase brought to the table (primarily, activation and deactivation of fonts in our font menus)—and despite my initial indignant disbelief of the above quotations—I have begun to suspect that Bohemian Coding is actually on to something.

It appears that—despite what we are taught in our design educations—our Macs are indeed fully capable of handling large numbers of installed fonts, and always have been. Let’s take a look at OS X’s original documentation about OS-level font management (PDF):

No limits. There are no font limits in Mac OS X. Theoretically, it is possible to place an entire font library in a single folder and use it; because Mac OS X provides virtual memory, the subsystem simply uses more memory when necessary. (p.3)

To be quite honest, I have always suspected this. I have used and enjoyed Fontcase and other similar applications for years, all the while activating fonts as I need them—and rarely taking the time to deactivate them again. It turns out I’ve been quite the delinquent about font activation, and never has this caused me any trouble.

“Wait a minute!” you might be saying, “What about organizing my fonts?” Another feature that Fontcase offered is their ability to sort fonts into a comprehensible folder structure, or a “font library,” so that when you actually needed to track down some .otf file, you weren’t faced with a loose hodge-podge of unorganized files in your ~/Library/Fonts folder.

Another look at OS X’s documentation reveals that we’ve been allowed to organize our fonts into nice folders all along.

Mac OS X also supports hierarchical font folders so users can create multiple levels of font folders within font directories. Mac OS X makes all fonts installed in any of the font folder locations, or specific application locations, active. (p.5)

So, when we add new fonts to our collection, we can just put them into folders named after the family ourselves, and drop that right into our font library. We can even organize them into alphabetical order, if so compulsively-inclined.

With Mavericks, we could tag them, too… though, that admittedly might be a bit much. There’s no reason to use file-system level tagging for organizing our fonts—and that’s where Fonts.app comes in. It lets us browse our installed fonts in much the same way that Fontcase did, and we can organize them into logical categories based on things like mood, period, foundry, etc. for the purposes of making font selections. It offers only the things that (as we’ve now learned) OS X doesn’t already do.

So, perhaps font management really isn’t a necessary evil anymore. As I recall, Font Book was not originally included in OS X. If OS X could not handle all of our fonts—as many designers have unquestioningly believed for years—why would something like Font Book not have been included in OS X from the beginning?

Designers—free your fonts from their libraries! No more are our “iTunes for fonts” needed—there never was a need to begin with.