Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Problem with Font Management

By now you've probably heard about Linotype's FontExplorer X. If you're a Mac user you've probably even tried it out. Searching Google will net you plenty of reviews and opinions and you might even designers bemoaning the lack lustre state of font management software.

While I agree that there could be a lot of improvement in the software that allows you to browse the fonts you have and manage groups of fonts, I don't think this is the area that needs the most attention. The biggest problem with font management is activation. If I've used a typeface in a document, I shouldn't have to reactivate that font every time I need to edit the document. It should be done automatically by the system.

Until Mac OS X 10.3 (Panther) was released fonts on all operating systems were still activated in the same archaic fashion as they were when WYSIWYG desktop publishing first emerged: by moving them in and out of a special fonts folder. Even third party font management software activated fonts by placing alias' or shortcuts into the system fonts folder. This is still true of today's operating systems, although thankfully, they have since made the revolutionary step forward of not requiring you to reboot your computer before they become available to applications.

When Apple released Panther they included an application called Font Book that has been heavily derided by many in the design industry because it's slow and the interface is rather clunky. What Font Book does bring to the table though, is the ability to deactivate fonts without removing them from the fonts folder. This feature is actually built into the operating system and Font Book is just a GUI that allows you to access it. However, you're still required to install fonts into a fonts folder to make them available to Font Book and other applications.

While this system level font activation is a step forward, it doesn't go far enough. If I open a document that uses a font not currently active, the system should automatically activate it for me, and then deactivate it when it is no longer needed. This shouldn't be difficult. Currently when an application opens a document, it checks the system to see if the fonts used are available. What happens next depends on the software. Applications like Microsoft Word will automatically find a substitute font, usually without letting you know that this has happened. Professional design applications will usually inform you that the font isn't available and allow you to select a substitute, or activate the font.

Some font management software even offers plugs-ins for some design applications that will automatically activate fonts for you, but the applications they support are very limited. This shouldn't be a third party opportunity, it needs be handled transparently in the background by the operating system.

Font management has always been neglected by operating system manufacturers because it isn't sexy. You might assume that the core customers all being creative professionals would provide the impetus for Apple to address issues like this, but they have all but ignored the issue. Microsoft isn't doing any better. The third party font management software available for Windows is woefully out of date and sifting through all the information available about Vista turns up absolutely nothing regarding changes or innovations to font management on that system.

3 Comments:

Blogger empirikal said...

Excellent post human -

While agree with you about activation there is an additional feature that should tie in seamlessly. The ability to properly SUBSTITUTE fonts. I mean I can't tell you how many Helveticas I have on my machine. Helvetica Neue, Helvetica, Helvetica LTD Neue, Hevlvetica Whatever. Then on-top of that Linotype might offer their version of Helvetica and Adobe offers theirs... if the system can't activate a particular font - it should atleast offer some suggestions. "Could not activate Helvetica Neue. Would you like to try Helvetica LTD Neue?" I mean I really get irritated when a document uses "Helvetica 45 Light" and on my system its "45 Light Helvetica" Same font - but different.

I suggested this to Linotype while they are test running FontXplorer - While I don't expect it to be included I'm sure there are others out there who feel the same as me.

10/26/2005 09:41:00 PM  
Anonymous Taligent said...

"However, you're still required to install fonts into a fonts folder to make them available to Font Book and other applications."

No true. Since Tiger it has been possble to open fonts from where ever you want.

"Professional design applications will usually inform you that the font isn't available and allow you to select a substitute, or activate the font."

No pro-program lets you activate any fonts. Its third-party plug-in which does that.


"If I open a document that uses a font not currently active, the system should automatically activate it for me, and then deactivate it when it is no longer needed."

Yes for auto-activation, definetly no to de-activation. I use sevar programs, you know.

10/28/2005 11:14:00 AM  
Blogger human said...

Yes for auto-activation, definetly no to de-activation. I use sevar programs, you know.

In this case, where several applications or multiple documents are using a typeface, the OS wouldn't deactivate the typeface until there were no open documents using the typeface.

7/16/2006 04:33:00 AM  

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