The default system font in OS X is the type face used for displaying practically all system features, including menu items, system preference labels, titles for documents, the date and time, and other instances where system panels and programs display text. While in the Classic Mac OS (version 9 and earlier) Apple included options for changing the default system font, this has not been an option in OS X. However, if you want, you can, with a little tweaking, change the default font to any TrueType font of your choice.
First and foremost, when customizing the system font it helps to understand the hierarchy of the font folders in OS X. There are three such folders, all called “Fonts,” which are in the following locations:
username > Library > Fonts
Macintosh HD > Library > Fonts
Macintosh HD > System > Library > Fonts
These folders above are listed in order of precedence, so while there is a font called Geneva in the system font folder, any duplicate for Geneva that you place in the Macintosh HD > Library folder will be loaded and used instead of the one in the Macintosh HD > System > Library folder. The same goes for such a font replacement in the username > Library folder, which will even take precedence over the one in Macintosh HD > Library.
As a result of this, the key to changing the system font in OS X is to find out exactly how to make and implement a replacement for the default font in your system. In OS X before Yosemite, Apple’s default system font was Lucida Grande, and in Yosemite Apple has changed this to Helvetica Neue; however, if you simply copy a font, change it name to “Lucida Grande” or “Helvetica Neue,” and then paste it in the Fonts directory within the root library folder, you will not see a change take effect.
This is because the TrueType fonts used in OS X are basically small databases of glyphs, along with a number of information fields that hold a bunch of metadata, and while the file name can be changed for a font, the internal name that the system uses to identify the font has not been altered.
This metadata, just like that for regular documents, holds details like the font’s copyright information, font weight, designers, and other identifying details. One of these is the font’s postscript name, which is among several internal names for the font file, and the one which Apple uses to identify the file as the default system font.
To change the postscript name of a font, you will need to use a special utility that can edit font files. A couple of these are TTFEdit, and FontForge, both of which are open source and free projects, but both of which will either require Java, XQuarts, or both to first be installed on your Mac.
For this demonstration, I have outlined how to do this with TTFEdit:
- Download TTFEdit from its SourceForge page
- Ensure you have the latest Java runtime installed from Oracle (For security reasons, once installed use the Security tab in the Java system preferences to disable Java content in your browser).
- Locate the font you want to use as your default system font, and copy it to your Desktop.
- Open TTFEdit, and then use the File menu in the program to open the font file on the Desktop.
- Along the left-hand side of the program’s window, choose the “name” tab, which will display the name table for the font.
- Locate the field named “PostScript name of the font.” If there are multiples of these, then use the one with “(Macintosh, Roman, English)” at the end of the name, and not any mention of Windows or other platforms.
In this postscript name field change this field to be exactly one of the following (be sure you place the period before the name):
For OS X prior to 10.10 Yosemite:
For OS X Yosemite:
While “Regular” will be the default font, there are times when OS X will use bold text, or italic text, so if you have these variants for the font, then similarly change this name but use “Bold,” “Light,” or “Italic” instead of “Regular” in the postscript name. Also note that these names are case-sensitive, so while “.HelveticaNeueDeskInterface-regular” will not work, “.HelveticaNeueDeskInterface-Regular” will.
With these edits in place, choose “Save As” from the File menu, and then save the font in the Macintosh HD > Library > Fonts folder, giving it a unique name by appending a word like “System” to it. You now should be able to log out and then log back in to your user account, and the system should pick up this new font as the one to use. If it does not, then try rebooting your Mac into Safe Mode (hold the Shift down when you hear the boot chimes), followed by restarting when you get to the Login Window. This will have cleared your system’s font cache, allowing the new font to be loaded properly.
You can also manually clear the font cache in OS X by running the following command in the Terminal under an administrative account (supply your password when prompted):
sudo atsutil databases -remove
Be aware that while this will change the system font, any font besides either Lucida Grande in OS X 10.9 and earlier, and Helvetica Neue in OS X 10.10, will not have been tested for use as a system font. Therefore, any changes might result in some words not appearing correctly, and at worst may show garbled text. For the most part these should be rare occurrences and should only be aesthetic, so you will not lose any functionality; however, if they occur then you might have difficulty understanding the purpose of a specific menu item, button, or other label.
To revert your changes and go back to Apple’s default font, simply move your modified fonts out of the Macintosh HD > Library > Fonts folder, and then restart or log out and back in to your user account. This approach will also have the font available in Apple’s included Font Book utility, so you can also use this program to select and disable the font accordingly.
Of course this doesn’t address the question of whether it’s a good idea to change the system font. Apple chose the system fonts primarily for legibility, not aesthetics. If you change the system font and experience no loss in usability, then I suppose there’s no harm done.
I’ll be saving a copy of this article so that I can undo such a change, should that ever become necessary.
Other than possible aesthetic oddities, such as the case with Zapfino as I illustrated above where the font’s flourishes extend and cover up other window components, there is no problem with changing the system font. One might argue that legibility is simply part of the system’s aesthetics, and this choice is up to you. For instance, even though different, Chalkduster is actually rather pleasant to use as a system font. Sure it is arguably slightly less legible, but that does not make it illegible by any means. I’d say the benefits of customization are the overall bonus.
“Apple chose the system fonts primarily for legibility, not aesthetics.”
In Yosemite, I would suggest the reverse is true.
Well done comprehensive article that explains the mechanism and a general way to change system fonts. Appreciate the research done by this article, and thanks. I will have to try Chalkduster, by the way.
Alternatively, if all you want is Lucida Grande, then see https://github.com/schreiberstein/lucidagrandeyosemite and simply run the automator app. Works well
Sorry Topher, but legibility is a well studied issue and fonts like Chalkduster, while they may be entertaining, do not pass muster. Sure you can read it – especially on items where you already know what the text says – and it may therefore be adequate – or even pleasant – in many cases as a system font. But if you have to read something you’re not familiar with, Chalkduster will slow you down. If you’re OK with that, fine. But let’s not pretend it’s comparable to more boring but readable fonts. This is particularly the case on today’s high resolution computer screens where everything, including text, is getting smaller. The smaller the text size the more of a hindrance a non-standard font will become.
One may argue that the choice of a system font is an aesthetic decision and that people have a right to use whatever font they wish on their own computers. In which case Apple’s decision to take that choice out of users’ hands is certainly a nuisance. Given the amount of trouble involved in changing the system font, however, it’s not likely to be done casually. Which, in my opinion, is a good thing.
My only position on this matter is that the changes to the system will be only visual, be it with the type face being displayed as desired, or even if some text gets cut off (as illustrated with Zapfino). Whether or not to implement these changes is a decision for the end user.
Legibility of font faces might apply to populations as a whole, but personal preference will outweigh this every time. If you, for whatever reason, read one font face better than others, then you will perform better with that type face, even if others claim study after study that shows an alternative should suit you better.
What with the issues I’ve read regarding the new font for Yosemite, can I assume these directions will work in Yosemite as well?
I haven’t yet upgraded, but remain concerned about the new font. I would like to change it if I find it less than to my liking.
Yes they will. The instructions here apply to both Yosemite and OS X prior to Yosemite. You will need to use the different postscript naming scheme specified for Yosemite.
Would love to see OpenDyslexic Font available, but at the moment I’m not inspired to do this.
OpenDyslexic helps many of us with dyslexia to read easier. However, not wanting to mess with this at this point, I’ll wait for someone to make this change easier for non-techies.
Niether CORRUPTION nor PROFANITY were included in your fonts considerations for legibility acceptability but ought to have been, , when niether condition nor circumstance is a sane choice. “Times New Roman” being BOTH a proFANE =AND= a cor-RUPT font because of not containing a lower-case, English Language “g” symbol, , remains a matter that increasingly enlarges insane acceptance and respect for that thus mutilated font that substitutes the “gigi”, , the Greek symbol for one billion, in place of all English Alfabet, lower-case “g” symbols and thus, in such case as a speech having all “gigi” abbreviation symbols replaced with its original “gigi” form, the relative speaker in such place as Madison Square Gardens, , would display either considerable difficulty to proceed OR simply NOT proceed, , , on the basis of the speech material having been lost, , and after three years of repeated requests, the APPLE corporation yet ignores my humble requests to have that de-FAULT font replaced. Is that its public definition for customer respect?
When language corruption is accepted, that language begins to disappear and with it, , its people, its nationality AND its nation; granted, Canada may be notably behind in that dilemma but, , NOT that far behind the U.S., when more than ten years ago, more than half of all Canadians were government confirmed illiterate, and to such extent that even CDN government leaders now are not capable of identifying verbs, nouns, pronouns, prepositions, phrases, clauses or participles, -OR- the vital interpretational purpose of a comma or a semi-colon, or even a period or the basic parts that a sentence consists of, , to in fact correctly qualify as such, , thus permitting various unintended interpretations, while simultaneously negating and totally avoiding the originally intended interpretation, and this presently being so common now in Roman Calendar Year 2014, that in many cases, records intended for historical purpose, shall not be correctly interpretable as in most instances was intended FOR the specific purpose of RE-taining and MAIN-taining reams of historical time capsules data for the reflective benefit of our children’s children . . .
A thought. Am I missing something? You don’t mention font file extensions. TTFedit seems only to work with .ttf files but the only file for the font I want (Lucida Grande to get rid of the horrid Helvetica Neue) is a .ttc???
For the Lucida just try this:
Has Apple put a stop to this with a Yosemite update? I tried it just now, and cleared the font cache, but nothing seems to have changed.