Ask a Font Creator: Managing Your Font Collection
Posted on 27th March 2017
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen someone post to Facebook in a panic: “What font is this? I used to have it, but my computer crashed and I lost all of my fonts!”
Many (if not most) of us have had the same experience. You’ve been saving everything to your computer, but then your computer suddenly decides to take an extended nap. Maybe a forever nap. And you’ve lost everything you had. So let’s talk about a few things you can do right now, and going forward, to make sure that even a crashing computer can’t hurt your font collection. (And of course, these tips can be used for all files, not just fonts. But we’re all about the fonts here.)
I'm also going to go over some ways you can access your fonts to make it easier to see what fonts you have, and see what features those fonts contain.
First off, let’s talk about what happens when you download fonts.
Odds are, you’ll download a ZIP file. It’ll contain the font (possibly in multiple formats), as well as any backup documents that the designer has included. That might include a license, a PDF guide, some images, or maybe some general notes in a “readme.txt” file.
When you open up that ZIP file, you’re looking for either an OTF font file or a TTF font file. I wrote a post a while back (with kittens) about the difference between the two. Bottom line: if you don’t have software that will ONLY work with a TTF file, install the OTF. It’s the newer format that works with some special features in some programs.
You might ask here: should I just install them both?
I’d advise not to. You’d technically have two fonts installed with the same name, which would cause some software to choke and crash.
Now, after you install a font, what should you do with it? Can you delete the ZIP file it came in? Where does it go when you install it?
Yeesh, you ask a lot of questions!
Here’s what I do. I take a copy of the OTF file (or TTF, if that’s all I can get) and put it in a backup folder.
The purpose of this collection is to have one place with one copy of every font I’ve installed. That way, if I ever need to re-install all of my fonts, like if I got a new computer, I could just select everything in this folder, click on “install,” and boom! Everything’s back where it belongs.
So how about those ZIP files? Should you just delete those, since the font is installed and you have a backup? I say no, don't delete them. Just like with the font file, I’d throw the ZIP file in another backup folder, because I want to keep some of the non-font stuff that came bundled up with it. If I choose to use a font for a client project, I want to have that license, or readme file, or some other record of where I got it and how it was paid for.
And if a ZIP file doesn’t contain a license, or any information about how I got it?
I’ll add the name of the shop where I got the font to the end of the file name! Easy peasy. Font Bundles has kindly already done this for me, as you can see here. But for everything else, I like to edit that ZIP file name so I’ll always know where I got it. So even if a shop doesn’t include a copy of its license in the download, you know where to go to find [a] your receipt/proof of purchase, and [b] a copy of the license you purchased the font under. Yes, it’s a little bit of work when I get a new font, but it can save me tons of stress and searching later.
(Side note about licensing here. Some people make two different folders: one with all of the fonts that they have a commercial license for, and one for all of the fonts they’ve downloaded that are marked as “personal use only.” If that works for you, do it! I’ve avoided the entire problem by deleting anything in my collection that I don’t have a commercial license for, and I never download anything that’s only licensed for personal use. It means my font collection is much smaller, but it also means that I know I can use everything in my collection for a client project, without having to worry about whether I have the right license or not.)
Of course, there will be the occasional download (usually freebies) that don’t even come in a ZIP folder.
You may have a download that’s just the OTF or TTF file, and nothing else. In a situation like that, I’ll make a folder for it, and name that folder with the information I need: mainly the font name, and where I got it from.
Often, I’ll also create a text file with the address of the page where I got that free font, and I’ll copy-paste any details on that page that refer to how the font can be used into my text file. Because sometimes a font creator will just write “free for personal and commercial use” on their Behance page, give a link to the OTF file, and call it good. You can’t see it, but I’m sadly shaking my head at those creators.
(Oh, and BTW – the two fonts named Fetamont in the list up above were ones I created using the Metaflop font customizer that we talked about a while back. Which I should still put into a folder with some details about where they came from, for the upcoming time when the forgetfulness of old age finally overtakes me.)
SO! Now we have a backup folder with just the OTF files, and a second backup folder with the ZIP files. Is that enough? Not quite. Because according to Schofield’s Second Law of Computing, “Data doesn’t really exist unless you have at least two copies of it.” Those backup folders are all well and good, but if they’re stored on the same computer, they’re just as lost when you crash.
You should keep a copy of each of those folders in some other not-that-same-computer location. Maybe it’s a thumb drive. Maybe it’s a portable hard drive. Maybe it’s a cloud backup location like Dropbox or Google Drive or iCloud. Maybe it’s more than one of those! As long as it isn’t somewhere else on that same computer, you’re covered.
Now, there’s one more place where your fonts are stored. When you install fonts to your computer (at least on a PC), the computer makes a copy of that OTF or TTF file and tucks it away in a specific folder. On most PCs, it’ll be C:/Windows/Fonts.
You’ll see some fonts stacked up here – those are all members of the same family. And some of the fonts in this folder will be grayed out – look at most of that second row. Those are fonts that are tied into the operating system, and you can’t uninstall or delete them.
Which may make you wonder: does that mean you can delete the rest? If you don’t want Comic Sans or Arial or some other font that came pre-installed, can you just delete it?
Well, I mean, you can delete some of them. You have the ability to do so. But I don’t ever recommend it. A font may not appear to be useful, but computers are sneaky. You could delete a font, then suddenly one menu in one program is all blank, because it was using that one font.
(If you do choose to delete some of them, which again I don’t recommend, be sure to copy them to a backup folder first. And make a copy of that folder in a not-that-computer place. Because if it turns out you need one of those fonts for something, you don’t want to have to go out and buy a replacement copy.)
Side note: Have you ever noticed that some fonts preview with letters from that font (normally Abg), while a few have the symbols Σ√≠?
Does that mean those fonts are broken, or glitched, or full of viruses? Not necessarily, no. Here are three of my own fonts, which I know are virus-free because I made them. And they all work normally in whatever program I want to use them in. But the first two were created with a different piece of font software from the last one. It’s my understanding that there’s a setting in there that tells those fonts that they should have a certain set of specialty symbols, but that font doesn’t have them. And since those first two fonts were made years ago, and I don’t have that software anymore, I’m not sure how to go in and fix them. So bottom line, if you see this, it isn’t an immediate cause for worry.
OK! So now you should have your fonts organized and backed up. Which is nice and all, but now that you have them all, how can you see what you have? How do you look at all of the alternates for a font? How do you keep them organized?
Again, you’re asking a lot of questions today. Maybe you should cut back on the coffee or something.
Let’s talk about built-in font organizers. Every PC has one called Character Map, and many/most (not sure if it’s all) Macs have one called Font Book.
On the PC, just search for “charmap” in your start menu, and you can launch the Character Map:
It lets you pull up any installed font and look at all of its characters. If you double-click on a letter, it will appear down in that “Characters to copy” field at the bottom, which you can then copy and paste into other programs. (Remember we talked about OTF fonts? Those can have extras in them, like swashes or alternates, that some programs don’t naturally know how to use. But if you can find them in the Character Map, you can usually paste them into those other programs.)
Font Book for the Mac is pretty similar:
Image mooched from Apple's website
I believe you can even make up your own categories of fonts in Font Book, so you can keep track of all of your script fonts, or your weird fonts, or your distressed grungy fonts.
I can’t really give much guidance here about Font Book, sadly. I’m one of those anti-Mac people you’ve heard about. But there are tons of articles about it on the web, including Apple’s support page for Font Book.
There are also other font management programs out there that you can use to look at your fonts and the characters they contain. Here’s one I use, called NexusFont (free for PC):
You can set your own preview sentence (I do one that’s half-lowercase, half-uppercase so I can get the feel for both at once), and you can make as many collections as you like, and put fonts into multiple collections. So I might have one font that I classify as narrow, geometric, sans-serif, futuristic, and grungy.
NexusFont also comes with its own version of the Character Map:
Which also allows you to copy and paste a letter out into another program.
There are tons of other font management programs out there, but that’s a whole other post’s worth of discussion. Just know that there are a bunch of decent options, both free and paid, that you can download to your computer to organize your fonts.
There’s one more way to look at your fonts that I’d like to touch on – one that doesn’t require you to download anything.
There are a number of sites out there where you can type in a word, and then the site will look at all of the fonts you have installed, and show you that word in every font you have. (Installed is the key word here – if the fonts are just sitting in a folder, these sites won’t see them.)
Here are the two best sites that I know of:
These sites all work in mostly the same way; the primary difference is the layout and the interface. So try them all out, and see which one you like the best. They’re a great help if you have something you made previously, so you know you own the font, but you didn’t make a note of what font you used.
Now go, my question-asking friend! Make a backup of everything, because you just never know. :)
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