Font activation plays a vital role in the performance of your Mac or Windows computer and its applications. Tuning your habits to avoid performance problems is easy if you understand the basics of proper font installation, activation and management.

Here are some font installation and activation basics that can help you develop some best practices that preserve your performance and productivity.

Image of a creative computer user in a modern office activating fonts for her current project

The Fonts Table and System Fonts

The Mac and Windows operating systems maintain a Fonts Table, a temporary file that lists the name of currently active fonts and a URL that points to the location of its associated font file.

When your computer starts up, it loads the Fonts Table with the font files that it finds in standard locations:

  • The System Fonts Folder and the User Fonts Folder in macOS
  • The Fonts Control Panel in Windows

When applications launch, they read the Fonts Table to determine which fonts to display in menus and dialogs.

Apps Must Monitor the Fonts Table

As font managers and services like FontAgent® and Apple Font Book activate and deactivate fonts they make changes to the Fonts Table that occur immediately. But for executing applications to see the changes, the applications must either:

  • Monitor the Fonts Table for changes and reload it when they detect a change, or
  • Reload the Fonts Table each time they respond to a font-related user request

If the code in a software application does not automatically reload the Fonts Table—as is the case with some software from Microsoft, Adobe and other major vendors—you must exit the app and restart it to see newly activated and deactivated fonts. Popular apps that you must restart include selected Adobe Creative Cloud and Microsoft Office applications.

Blue and orange iconic image of magnifier and human eye

Install Your Own Fonts the Right Way

Many users install fonts on their computers without second thought. Apple, Microsoft and countless support websites provide simple instructions for installing fonts. If you follow those instructions, your machine activates all those fonts every time it boots—a behavior that is dangerous and wasteful.

Practice 1: Limit the contents of system font folders to just the fonts provided by Apple and Microsoft.

Installing large font collections on your machine can be disastrous to the performance of you and your computer. There are many reasons why you shouldn’t activate more than a few hundred fonts at one time.

Blue and orange iconic image of a crane installing fonts

Some of the reasons include:

  • The Mac and Windows operating systems already activate a few hundred system fonts automatically when you boot your computer.
  • The Font menus in your apps become unwieldy when you activate more than 500 fonts.
  • High font counts consume RAM and can cause delays as apps page in and out of active memory.
  • Some applications, including MS Office apps, simply stop loading fonts after a certain point.
  • The more fonts you activate, the longer your applications require to launch.

Practice 2: Don’t follow the lead of installing all your fonts into System folders. It’s a formula for failure.

Practice 3: Minimize the number of activated fonts on your system to preserve the performance of you and your computer.

Manual Font Activation

By far, the easiest way to control which fonts are activated is by using a quality font manager like FontAgent. It allows you to install gargantuan font collections on your system and preview them without activating all the fonts and slowing your system. As you activate and deactivate fonts, FontAgent modifies the contents of the Fonts Table so applications can load the currently active fonts as they launch and run.

The plethora of low-end font managers that modify System font folders as you activate and deactivate fonts are playing with fire. Using those crude tools leads to the bloating of System folders with fonts that don’t belong, resulting in the application and human performance problems described above.

Practice 4: Use a quality font manager like FontAgent to install and manage your font collection.

Blue and orange iconic image of fonts being manually activated for use in applications

Auto-Activation Plugins

Adobe InDesign, Illustrator, and Photoshop, as well as QuarkXPress have open architectures that allow third parties to add software plugins that extend their functionality.

FontAgent provides intelligent plugins for these applications that enable the apps to automatically activate fonts required by documents as you open them. If FontAgent’s plug-ins detect more than one closely matching font in your collection, it uses its MagicMatch™ AI technology to alert you. You can then select the correct version of the font for your document. Most font products and services just activate any font that’s close, a practice that can result in costly layout, printing and branding disasters.

Practice 5: If you use auto-activation, make sure your font manager has AI capabilities that ensure you are activating the right fonts every time.

Font Subscription Services

Font subscription services such as Adobe Font and Monotype Fonts seem like candy stores to designers, but their software architecture has problematic behavioral quirks:

  • When you activate and deactivate fonts, those changes can take up to ten minutes to take effect.
  • You can only activate only a limited number of fonts at a time.
  • The fonts in the services often come with licenses for design, but not commercial use.

If you’re using subscription fonts, you should still use a quality font manager like FontAgent. It is compatible with font subscription services and enables you to view, compare and organize your fonts.

Orange and blue iconic image of a font license and legal gavel

On a separate note unrelated to font activation, make sure you check your subscription agreements carefully, and that you can use your subscription fonts in your commercial projects without legal exposure. Some services are designed to hook you on using a font in your projects and then charge high license fees when you go to deploy them commercially. Caveat emptor.

Practice 6: Be very careful using subscription font services without fully understanding their effects on your productivity and legal protection.

Activate Just the Fonts You Need

Despite all FontAgent’s preview, comparison, slide show and organization powers, the single greatest benefit it delivers gives you the ability to activate just the fonts you need at any one time. By using FontAgent, you can:

  • Streamline your System font folders so they are clean and efficient
  • Install your own fonts in an organized, managed font library
  • Use sets, manual activation, and auto-activation to activate fonts for your current projects
  • Keep Font menus in all your applications clear and manageable

By using a quality font manager and by following these simple rules, you can preserve the performance of your computer and its applications. Your personal productivity and performance depend on it.