This section examines each of the various Mac OS releases (Panther 10.3 through Sierra 10.12) and provides the recommended minimum list of the fonts to be stored in the System folder for that particular release of the operating system in order for it and most third party applications to run properly. These lists also include the fonts most needed for the web, iLife and iWork. The fonts listed should always be active on your Macintosh for OS X and should not be removed.
Note that this first part of Section 1 covers only fonts required in the /System/Library/Fonts/ folder. There is also a root /Library/Fonts/ folder with its own set of required fonts, which will be addressed in the second half of Section 1.
From the font lists below, Keyboard.dfont, LastResort.dfont and LucidaGrande.dfont are used mainly for menus and other system font display purposes; therefore, they are the most important to the OS itself. In Mountain Lion and earlier, you must never remove Lucida Grande. Without that font, the system will not boot. If you remove it while the system is active, you will lose control of all menus (they will be blank), essentially locking you out of your Mac. Mavericks utilized a different method to protect access to the desktop (see the specific text alongside the minimal font list for Mavericks). In Yosemite, Lucida Grande is no longer the main system font, and HelveticaNeueDeskInterface.ttc is the font you cannot remove for any reason. El Capitan and Sierra change things again with the introduction of an all new set of system fonts; San Francisco. This set, HelveticaNeueDeskInterface.ttc and LucidaGrande.ttc must be present for the Finder menus to work.
All other fonts in the /System/Library/Fonts/ folder (that are not included in the lists below by release level) can be removed. You will need Administrative access to delete fonts from this folder. It is advised to save them for future use. Create a new folder on your hard drive and copy them there first. If there are any removed fonts you want to use for a project at a later date, they can always be activated with Font Book, Suitcase Fusion, FontAgent, MasterJuggler, FontExplorer X Pro, TypeDNA, or other font manager. Note that MasterJuggler is PowerPC only, and so is suitable for use only in Snow Leopard 10.6 or older versions of the Mac OS.
Beginning with Leopard, 10.5 and up through Mountain Lion 10.8, Apple made it difficult to remove critical fonts. If you attempt to remove protected fonts from the /System/Library/Fonts/ folder, the OS will tell you that you cannot remove the font(s) and immediately replaces them from copies in another location. There are many fonts you can still remove from the /System/Library/Fonts/ folder, but some will resurrect themselves. See section 5 on how to permanently remove Apple's supplied versions of Helvetica and Helvetica Neue in Leopard, 10.5 through El Capitan, 10.11 if this is important for you. Mavericks 10.9 and later eliminated this type of font protection, but you still need to remove the supplied fonts if they conflict with other types of fonts you are required to use. El Capitan 10.11 and Sierra 10.12 add System Integrity Protection to the OS, making it yet more difficult to remove unneeded fonts, but it can still be done.
Other than those fonts the OS absolutely requires to function, when it comes to the fonts you prefer to have on your system there is no right or wrong list. My idea of required fonts is based on years in prepress. So like most shops, the number of fonts throughout the system is kept to a minimum in the effort to make sure you will never have a conflict with the fonts a client sends with their project. Actually, the prepress and full service printers I've worked and freelanced for usually have a much shorter list than even those presented here. Sometimes the barest minimum of fonts they can get away with and still have the OS function. Such shops normally have no unnecessary software installed on their work stations; just what's needed to get production work done.
This bare minimum setup has some advantage, but you will then be missing many fonts commonly used on the web. What then happens is that your browser ends up substituting the missing fonts with whatever font is available. The result is that web pages will display so badly at times that it can be difficult (or even impossible) to navigate them. The bare minimum setup also lacks many fonts that Apple supplied applications require to operate. So for most users having only the bare minimum fonts on your system is not recommended.
You can find many different web sites telling you what the minimum font installation for each macOS and OS X release should be. Each site has its own reasons for including some fonts that I do not, and others don't include fonts I think should be active. My main decision making was to run every application the OS ships with and many major third party applications, seeing what wouldn't work if a particular font were missing. The end result is the list of fonts you find here. It's a compromise between the Spartan set most prepress shops use, and what a more fully functional OS needs along with proper display of web pages.
Special Notes About Section 1 - Presented in no particular order as each OS release changes the rules a bit. Hopefully each is organized into its own paragraph, but no promises.
Readers who have followed this article for some time will note that Times and Symbol have been added to the required font lists. They were excluded before since this article was originally intended as a guide for prepress, when the article was also much shorter in length. So the lists have been modified to represent what the majority of macOS and OS X users should have in their /System/Library/Fonts/ folder, rather than the leaning towards the needs of prepress. So Courier has been added back into the minimum font lists for the System folder. As with Times and Symbol, remove Courier if it interferes with your need to use a PostScript version.
Users should be aware that not all font managers, and possibly other utilities, will list font names exactly as you see them here. For example, Suitcase Fusion's interface lists Keyboard and Helvetica Neue Desk UI as having a period preceding their names, even though they are not listed as having a period as part of the name by the OS. Not even if you do a file listing in Terminal. Font Book also hides some fonts in its listings from the user in Snow Leopard and later, such as LastResort and Keyboard. But you shouldn't be removing those fonts anyway.
Apple has tied their conflicting versions of Helvetica so closely to the OS, and in so many places, it is no longer easy to manage them so you can use a Type 1 PostScript version. If you haven't already, purchase Adobe's or Linotype's new OpenType PostScript Helvetica fonts if you prefer, or require PostScript fonts for your output. They do not conflict with Apple's Helvetica fonts, so you don't have to fight with the OS supplied fonts as to which ones are active. Use Type 1 PostScript when you have to accurately reproduce a standing older project (see section 5 if this applies to you).
One thing to be aware of when you disable Apple's Helvetica.dfont and HelveticaNeue.dfont, is that you are disabling quite a few fonts. This is because a .dfont is a suitcase which can contain any number of individual fonts. The following list is based on Mavericks.
Helvetica: Regular, Bold, Bold Oblique, Light, Light Oblique, Oblique
Helvetica Neue: Regular, Bold, Bold Italic, Italic, Light, Light Italic, Medium, Medium Italic, Thin, Thin Italic, Bold Condensed, UltraLight, UltraLight Italic, Condensed Black, Condensed Bold
With El Capitan, Apple has (almost) released Helvetica and Helvetica Neue back to the user. Really! Bad news. Adobe, Microsoft and possibly other third party vendors have not. See the minimum font list for El Capitan for more information.
Apple's Grapher program is not something normally used in prepress, which relies on the fonts Times and Symbol. As clients frequently use other versions of Times and Symbol, the Apple supplied versions can be excluded from the lists below if you need them out of the way. See section 2 for more on Grapher.
A note on the MM fonts in the /System/Library/Fonts/ folder. Since Lion, the Mac OS has continued to install these Multiple Master fonts. Also since Lion, a Terminal command named fontrestore has existed, which attempts move all third party fonts out of the System, main Library, and the active user account Fonts folders. Run with the -n option, it pretends to go through the steps without actually doing anything; though it still does create the folder Fonts (Removed) in the main /Library/, the /System/Library/ and the active user account folders. When the Terminal command is run, it produces this "error" message:
These fonts are not part of the default system install. They would have been removed to 'Fonts (Removed)':
/System/Library/Fonts/Helvetica LT MM
/System/Library/Fonts/Times LT MM
The message is wrong since a default install of Lion through Sierra will install these files (actually, El Capitan and Sierra will only install two of them). Font Book runs the Unix command fontrestore under the option Restore Standard Fonts. When run, it does indeed remove all of the MM fonts. Proof enough for me they're dead. For this reason, they are no longer included in the list of required fonts in Lion or later. The initial purpose for these fonts was to duplicate the Adobe Reader's built in MM fonts for use in Preview. These MM fonts no longer exist in the Adobe Reader, and it appears Apple has followed suit, but hasn't cleaned up the OS installers.
It should also be noted that this command does not restore all fonts installed by macOS or OS X you may have removed from the System or root Library folders. What is does restore are System and root Library fonts you may have removed that also exist in the hidden Recovery partition. This is a very incomplete set. So while some will come back, most won't. The command also removes fonts which are not part of the macOS or OS X original installation. As such, it "restores" the /System/Library/Fonts/ folder, the /Library/Fonts/ folder to a state which only includes the fonts provided with macOS or OS X. The active user account Fonts folder gets emptied out.
Starting with Lion, 10.7.x, Apple made the decision to hide the Library folder in the user accounts. Most tech writers presume this was to make it more difficult to locate and delete files a person shouldn't be digging through (without knowing what they're for). In order to see the Library folder of your account, Apple's method involves (1) being at the desktop, (2) hold down the Option key and (3) choose Go > Library from the menu. For advanced users, this gets really old since it's surprising how often you do go into your Library folder for various reasons. To make it permanently visible, open Terminal and enter the following command:
chflags nohidden ~/Library
This will make the Library folder visible for the account you are logged into at the time, so the command will need to be repeated for each user account as you log into each one. This change will also be reset if you reinstall the OS or apply any updates. You will then need to repeat the process.
In Mavericks and later, Apple has made showing your home Library folder much easier. Open your user account by double clicking the icon of the house within the Users folder. It must be the active folder in the Finder in order for this to work. The fastest way to get to this folder is to be on the desktop (so Finder is shown as the active app next to the Apple logo at the upper left) and press Command+Shift+U. Then choose View > Show View Options, or press Command+J. There will be a check at the bottom labeled Show Library Folder. If the correct user account folder is not open and selected, you will not see this check box.
Required fonts in the /System/Library/Fonts/ folder.
The following lists, arranged by the release level of Apple's desktop OS, are the minimum recommended fonts. They represent the minimum number of fonts that allow all macOS or OS X supplied apps, and most third party apps to work. The latter being limited to what I can test. Always save copies of all installed macOS or OS X fonts before proceeding.
If there are apps you use that will not launch after reducing your fonts to these lists, enable the copied fonts one at a time with your font manager (or just temporarily move or copy them into the Fonts folder of your user account) and test the app again. Keep adding until the app launches successfully. Permanently add that font back to the system. As an example, some of the Adobe CS6 and CC 2015 apps will not launch if Helvetica is missing. Such testing is sometimes more involved than that. For instance, the Microsoft Office 2016 apps will not reliably launch unless HelveticaNeue.dfont is specifically in the /System/Library/Fonts/ folder. There is an easy way around this issue for prepress and other professionals who rely on the use of Type 1 PostScript versions of Helvetica Neue. See section 5 for details.
Any time you manually remove fonts, you should clear the font cache files from the system. Remove all fonts first, then see section 17 for instructions. The method using Terminal at the bottom of that section is the easiest. If you use Font Book, you should reset its database (section 6).
macOS , 10.12 Sierra
Overall, it appears Apple spent a fair amount of time in Sierra cleaning up font issues and minimizing the use of fonts by both the system and their supplied apps. A nice improvement over El Capitan.
Use the same general instructions for El Capitan to remove fonts from the /System/Library/Fonts/ folder in Sierra. One big change is that once you disable System Integrity Protection, you don't have to boot to a different drive to remove fonts from the System folder. Not only that, you don't even need to restart your Mac! Put them in the trash and empty it. Re-enable SIP when you've finished removing the fonts.
Once you've reduced the fonts on your system in Sierra to match the lists here, Font Book continues to show many Asian fonts you've removed in the All Fonts heading as grayed out entries. These are subset fonts that used to be within the Font Book application itself in a folder named Stub Fonts. They're now deep in the system at /System/Library/Frameworks/ApplicationServices.framework/Versions/A/Frameworks/ATS.framework/Versions/A/Support/FontSubsets .
Like the old Stub Fonts, and as the name of the folder implies, they're only subsets of the actual fonts in the /System/Library/Fonts/ and /Library/Fonts/ folders. Why bother with them at all? They may be there because of users like me who need to reduce the number of fonts on their system as much as possible. They may also be the reason Messages now works in Sierra without having a bunch of extra fonts open no other apps need, as it does in El Capitan.
Unlike in El Capitan, Apple Braille and ArialHB are no longer needed for the Keyboard Viewer to properly display. The check marks in Cocoa menus also display without the need for ArialHB. From what I can tell, ArialHB is no longer a required font in Sierra. I tested Xcode 7.3.1 (the current version at the time of writing) under Sierra. And again, unlike El Capitan, all UI elements displayed normally; with or without Apple Braille.
Since I haven't yet found a need for them in Sierra, I've set the list to minimize fonts as much as possible by eliminating Apple Braille and ArialHB. You can always put copies of them back if you discover a need for either.
The case of the five fonts that will not work properly in El Capitan (Athelas.ttc, Charter.ttc, Marion.ttc, Seravek.ttc and SuperClarendon.ttc) has returned. It was fixed in beta and in the initial release of Sierra, but as of 10.12.2, is back. The fix is the same as in El Capitan (see below).
Terminal uses a new San Francisco font set as the default, which is within the application package itself. If you click through the presets in Terminal's preferences, they vary between SF Mono Regular, Courier and Monaco as the default font. If you remove Courier and/or Monaco from the system, Terminal automatically fills in the default with SF Mono Regular. So if you want to trim the number of installed fonts even further, you can remove Monaco. I've left it as a required font mostly because it's been with the Mac OS since practically day one, but I haven't found any other part of the OS that uses it.
The minimum fonts recommended for Sierra in the /System/Library/Fonts/ folder are:
Apple Color Emoji.ttc
Fonts updated in 10.12.2
Apple Color Emoji.ttf
Fonts updated in 10.12.4
Apple Color Emoji.ttf
Fonts updated in 10.12.5
Apple Color Emoji.ttf
Symbol.ttf is included as an updated font, but is no different from the 10.12.4 update version. The size and version number is identical. If there were any changes, Apple must have considered them too minor to even bother changing the version number.
OS X, 10.11 El Capitan
El Capitan's main font set is now San Fransisco. This is used for the top menu bar and other elements. HelveticaNeueDeskInterface.ttc is used for the menu items that drop down from the top menu choices, as is Lucida Grande for some of the special characters. All are critical to at least fully see what you're doing from the desktop. So if the San Francisco fonts are active, but HelveticaNeueDeskInterface.ttc and LucidaGrande.ttc are missing, El Capitan will show the main menu bar text and all drop down menus will be blank.
I was hoping Apple would combine all of the San Fransisco fonts into an OpenType .ttc package just for the sake of tidying up the /System/Library/Fonts/ folder after the beta period was over, but they didn't. Being PostScript OpenType fonts, they also can't be bundled together in a suitcase as TrueType OpenType fonts can. That makes the minimum font list appear really long, but isn't as many fonts as it looks like.
There are some odd ones in here because of the way Apple changed which fonts the Keyboard Viewer looks for. It no longer uses AppleSDGothicNeo. For whatever reason, it now uses Apple Braille, ArialHB (Hebrew), Lucida Grande and PingFang. If ArialHB is missing, the Keyboard Viewer will display as a completely unreadable mess. If you remove Apple Braille, it will display with one small anomaly, but will still be entirely usable.
A reader has informed me that ArialHB is used to render the check marks in Cocoa menus, such as font menu in TextEdit. Apple Braille is used in some other UI elements, such as the Xcode toolbar display. So for at least this version of OS X, these are now fixed fonts for various, and oddly used purposes. An observant reader noted that Avenir is required for Maps. Without it, the maps won't zoom or otherwise move.
So close, but no cookie. Helvetica is now fully back in control of the user. Because you can remove Helvetica.dfont from the /System/Library/Fonts/ folder in this version of OS X, you can use your Type 1 PostScript versions without interference from the OS. Because some Adobe apps, and possibly other third party titles won't launch if Helvetica is missing, I've left it as a required font. See section 5 for more detailed information on the Adobe apps and Helvetica. Apple has almost handed back control of Helvetica Neue. Notes is the only remaining OS X supplied program that requires HelveticaNeue.dfont to launch. However, some third party apps make it literally impossible to remove HelveticaNeue.dfont without causing them to crash.
PingFang replaces Lucida Grande where the OS needs to display Asian Kanji characters on an English system. If it's missing, such characters will display as a question mark in a box. With this minimum font list, you will at times briefly see a string of question marks in a box in Safari's URL/search bar when changing web sites. But these are always fixed back to readable text in less than a second.
Speaking of question marks in a box, be careful which fonts you remove from the /System/Library/Fonts/ folder. If you remove the wrong one, when you perform a Boot Manager startup (restart and hold the Option key), the name of the drive with El Capitan on it will display as a string of boxed question marks. I didn't take the time to figure out exactly which removed font causes this, but I believe it's HelveticaNeueDeskInterface.ttc. Simply putting the necessary font back doesn't fix the problem. The only way to fix it is to first make sure you have all fonts listed here for El Capitan in the /System/Library/Fonts/ folder. Then make a full backup of the drive, erase the partition El Capitan was on, and restore the backup.
There are a total of five fonts that do not work properly in El Capitan. They are:
A fellow by the name of Mike Detwiler is the person who informed me Super Clarendon doesn't work. We got to emailing at length about the subject. After much testing between us over two or three days, we discovered the problem is not the fonts themselves. Rather, System Integrity Protection is (mostly) to blame. Many thanks to Mike for helping to figure out what was going on.
As installed by OS X, these fonts don't appear in TextEdit at all, only partially in Mail, and so on in the Apple supplied apps. At the same time, they would function normally in the Adobe CC apps, Office 2016, Quark XPress 2015 and other third party apps.
If you simply rename the fonts on the desktop, they suddenly work in all apps! Okay, why is that? The file name of a font quite literally means nothing as to whether it will activate or not. So why did it work for these? The answer has to do files installed deep in the System folder. The OS installs font name matched .ATSD and .fontinfo files in the /System/Library/Frameworks/ApplicationServices.framework/Versions/A/Frameworks/ ATS.framework/Versions/A/Resources/FontInfo folder for every font OS X installs. Such as this for Marion.ttc:
They've been there as part of the Mac OS for a long time, but until now, never really had any logical reason to exist. At least not to me. Since this issue didn’t exist before El Capitan, they now appear to be tied to System Integrity Protection. We believe this is what’s happening.
1) The .ATSD and .fontinfo files haven’t been correctly updated by Apple for these five fonts. As such, it considers those fonts as having been altered. Being altered, SIP assumes possible malware injection and refuses to use them.
2) When you rename those fonts, SIP no longer has a file name that matches the protection scheme and considers them third party fonts.
3) The only part of this that is still somewhat off base is that these five fonts still don't work even if you have SIP disabled, and renaming them still fixes the problem.
4) When you replace these first four fonts with the Yosemite versions, then the expected data must match the .ATSD and .fontinfo files, as they then work without renaming the fonts. Super Clarendon remains unrepentant no matter what version of OS X you copy it from.
You can prove the issue is tied to these framework files by moving the .ATSD and .fontinfo files for those five fonts to a new folder on the drive. Now enable the normally named El Capitan fonts in any font manager. With no reference to them in the framework file, the OS considers them third party fonts (or something) and they work.
There are three ways to get around this. The first two require first temporarily disabling System Integrity Protection (see just below how to do this).
1) Rename the fonts. Like Marion.ttc to MarionE.ttc. It literally doesn't matter what you change the file name to.
2) Leave the file names as they are and remove their matching .ATSD and .fontinfo files from the framework folder.
3) A few more steps, but this still takes less time than disabling SIP to perform 1 or 2, and then re-enabling SIP.
1. Highlight each of the five fonts and press Command+D to duplicate them. For example, this will produce an "Athelas copy.ttc" file.
2. Highlight each original font and choose Get Info from the menu bar, or press Command+I. Change the permissions of each to add yourself (the admin account user) with Read/Write privileges.
3. Move the original, normally named fonts to the trash and restart. Empty the trash.
These same fonts also didn't work in the Sierra beta until just recently. The beta 3 update has fixed the issue, so you can expect the fix to carry through to the final release. Whether or not we'll see another point update for El Capitan to fix it in this version of OS X remains to be seen. But at least you have these three methods to use if not.
There is an activation/deactivation issue in El Capitan that exists in at least 10.11.4 through 10.11.6. This affects all font managers, including Apple's Font Book. What happens is you activate some fonts and use them in a document. Deactivate them and any text you were working on in TextEdit, MS Word and other apps will do what you would expect; the text reverts to an available font. Enable the fonts again, then disable them. Almost without fail the second time, the fonts you just disabled will continue to show in your app. You can even click on a line and continue typing in that font as if it's still available. Extensis also tested this when the fonts appear to remain, and the system shows that yes, the fonts have been deactivated. What seems to be happening is that El Capitan is continuing to work from a persistent cache. If you close the document and reopen it, then it will show the fonts as missing again. The only method that works 100% of the time to avoid this visual confusion is to manually place fonts in the Fonts folder of your user account, and take them out when you're done using them.
Okay, the main El Capitan question. How do you remove fonts from the System folder? The new System Integrity Protection won't let you remove anything via the desktop as an admin user, or even in Terminal using sudo. There are only two ways around this. The first is the preferred method.
1) Boot to any other partition or drive you have OS X on. Even another volume with El Capitan on it. Once there, any other drive is just a drive full of files. You can now remove fonts from the /System/Library/Fonts/ folder of the non startup drive. You do need to provide your admin password to complete the action. You must delete the fonts from the El Capitan drive you are modifying while you are booted to another volume. If you don't and boot back into the El Capitan drive you were changing, it will insist the system fonts you removed are still in use, even if they're in the trash. Once all unnecessary fonts have been deleted, restart again to your main drive.
If you have no other physical drive to boot to, you should. All drives die, including SSD drives. Having your valuable data in only one place is a sure way to eventually lose it. In the case of a drive that dies, you then also have another bootable drive to use immediately. Purchase an external drive and then partition it as GUID and format it as Mac OS Extended (Journaled). You can then use Disk Utility, or third party apps such as SuperDuper! or Carbon Copy Cloner to clone your main drive to your external drive. Then you can startup to that drive and follow these directions.
2) If you would still rather continue on with method two, here's how. Restart and hold down the Command+R keys to boot into Recovery Mode. You can also start up to a flash drive you have created a bootable full installer of El Capitan on. Launch Terminal from the Utilities menu. Enter the command:
Close Terminal and restart normally. You can now remove fonts from the /System/Library/Fonts/ folder while booted to El Capitan. The OS will behave the same as in Yosemite and earlier. Put the fonts you want to remove in the trash and enter your admin password when prompted.
It is not a good idea to leave System Integrity Protection disabled. The whole idea of it is to protect certain system folders from malware that already exists (mostly in the form of adware at this time), and is beginning to become more prominent in OS X. With SIP enabled, such software will not be able to install to critical system folders. If they do, the software will not be allowed to run and known malware will be automatically deleted by the OS. SIP also protects apps installed by OS X from injection of unwanted code.
Do not re-enable System Integrity Protection yet. You can't empty the trash since you moved active system fonts to the trash during that same login session, and you can't delete them from the trash with SIP enabled. So restart and then empty the trash while the system fonts you removed are now considered inactive. Once you have pared down your fonts in the /System/Library/Fonts/ folder and deleted them, startup into Recovery Mode again. Only this time in Terminal, enter:
Then once again restart normally.
Sierra is due for its official release in just a couple of weeks as I write this, but an issue regarding Messages just came to light. A user found that some Emojis would work in Messages, but many others would display as simple bars. Turns out, like the Keyboard Viewer, Messages is very strangely tied to system fonts that have no logical reason to be used for this app in order for it to work properly. All of the following fonts are required for Messages. If any one of them is missing, Emoji use in Messages breaks again. If you don't use Messages, or never use Emojis in that app (and don't care if you see the ones sent by others), you can skip them. All are in the /System/Library/Fonts/ folder.
Hiragino Sans GB W3.ttc
Hiragino Sans GB W6.ttc
The minimum fonts recommended for El Capitan in the /System/Library/Fonts/ folder are:
Apple Color Emoji.ttf
HelveticaNeue.dfont (for Notes)
Fonts updated in 10.11.1
Apple Color Emoji.ttf
Fonts updated in 10.11.2
I would normally list all font revisions by name, but there are so many in 10.11.2, I'm going to summarize. In the System folder, Apple Color Emoji.ttf, PingFang.ttf, 24 of the 33 SNFSText… fonts, and 5 of the 12 Hiragino Sans fonts have been updated. In the root Library folder, YuMincho.ttf and ヒラギノ丸ゴ ProN W4.ttc have been updated.
Fonts updated in 10.11.4
Almost all of the same fonts updated in 10.11.2 are included in the 10.11.4 update. However, only Apple Color Emoji.ttf is actually any different. All others are 100% identical to those in the 10.11.2 update, except for the creation date.
OS X, 10.10 Yosemite
Lucida Grande has lost its King of the Hill status. We now know where Apple was headed with the font HelveticaNeueDeskUI.ttc which first appeared in Lion, but had no apparent purpose. The new system font in Yosemite is HelveticaNeueDeskInterface.ttc.
HelveticaNeueDeskInterface.ttc is critical to Yosemite. If you remove it, there is only a partial fall back to another font in the System folder. As long as Helvetica.dfont or HelveticaNeue.dfont are still available, you will at least get an active desktop with text you can read. However, all menu items will drop down a blank menu. If you're in this predicament, you can press the power button to cause a menu to appear which will allow you to restart.
If you remove all three Helvetica fonts, you will completely lose control of your Mac. The OS will start flashing between the desktop and a blank screen. Any text that does appear will use the LastResort font and will be unreadable. You can't click on anything, or get out of it other than a forced shut down by holding the power button.
If you make either mistake, you must either be able to boot to another partition and copy at least HelveticaNeueDeskInterface.ttc back into the /System/Library/Fonts/ folder from a backup, or reinstall the OS.
It's possible in the future that a font dedicated to the desktop is good news for those who must deal with the conflict issues of Type 1 PostScript versions of Helvetica and Helvetica Neue with Apple's supplied versions. But for now, many of Yosemite's apps still require Lucida Grande, and/or Apple's Helvetica or Helvetica Neue fonts to launch.
The minimum fonts recommended for Yosemite in the /System/Library/Fonts/ folder are:
Apple Color Emoji.ttf
Fonts updated in 10.10.3
Apple Color Emoji.ttf
OS X, 10.9 Mavericks
Apple has shifted fonts around again in Mavericks. The Avenir, Palatino and Optima fonts, which were in the /Library/Fonts/ folder in Mountain Lion are now in the /System/Library/Fonts/ folder. The system Thonburi .ttf fonts have been combined into a single .ttc font.
Apple Gothic no longer appeared to be a required font, but a change in 10.9.2 has brought it back. The Messages app now fails if this font is missing. The default font for Notes is now Helvetica, so MarkerFelt is also no longer needed. You can easily change the default font for Notes back to MarkerFelt if you wish. Leave MarkerFelt on your system if you prefer to use that font.
The keyboard viewer has changed in Mavericks to use the font AppleSDGothicNeo. It will display very strangely if this font is not active.
Be extremely careful when removing fonts in Mavericks. There is no longer a ProtectedFonts folder. If you remove a critical system font and delete it, it's gone and will need to be replaced from a backup, or by reinstalling the OS if you have no backup.
In all previous versions of OS X, the loss of Lucida Grande would make your system unusable. What Mavericks does differently as a form of font protection is to use the first available system font (not including Apple Color Emoji) for the menus. I had already minimized the fonts in my System folder, so when I removed Lucida Grande, Mavericks switched to Courier, which was next in the list. If I removed that, the menus switched to Geneva. Mavericks will continue to move down the list of available fonts alphabetically.
The minimum fonts recommended for Mavericks in the /System/Library/Fonts/ folder are:
Apple Color Emoji.ttf
Fonts updated in 10.9.2
Apple Color Emoji.ttf, AmericanTypewriter.ttc, ArialHB.ttc
OS X, 10.8 Mountain Lion
See the font list under Lion, 10.7. The minimum font list for 10.8 is almost identical to 10.7. AppleGothic.ttf is in the /Library/Fonts/ folder in Mountain Lion. It likely wasn't intended to be, but that's where it is. Be sure to keep AppleGothic.ttf when doing any purging of the /Library/Fonts/ folder. Otherwise, all other fonts are the same in Mountain Lion for the /System/Library/Fonts/ folder as they are in Lion.
The only other semi font related difference is that Notes has been separated from Mail as an individual app. As in previous versions of OS X, the default font for Notes is MarkerFelt.ttc.
OS X, 10.7 Lion
At first glance, it appeared Lion had eliminated Helvetica Light and Helvetica Light Italic from its required fonts. They are still there and have been moved into the Helvetica.dfont package. HelveticaNeue, which was a .ttc font package in Snow Leopard, is now once again a .dfont. So .dfonts aren't as obsolete as it once appeared Apple was going to make them.
MarkerFelt.ttc has apparently been forgiven of some transgression by the rest of the fonts in the /System/Library/Fonts/ folder and has returned there from its banishment in the /Library/Fonts/ folder of Snow Leopard. If you use an email program other than Mail, you can remove Markerfelt.
I really don't know why HelveticaNeueDeskUI.ttc is a protected font. From the name, one would guess that DeskUI stands for Desktop User Interface. I've removed it from the system entirely in testing, and Lion didn't seem to care in the least that it was gone. It's also one of those fonts that Suitcase displays beginning with a period. In fact, even the names of the four fonts within the TrueType Collection start with periods. Because of that, even when active, they don't show up in any application. They're not hurting anything to be in the System folder, and Apple must have some purpose for them; I just can't see what that may be.
While you may never use it, Apple Color Emoji.ttf must be left in the System's Fonts folder. It will only cause a problem if you open the Character palette and click on the Emoji heading, but then the Character palette will be royally stuck.
Previously, you could remove Apple's Helvetica fonts and permanently use Type 1 PostScript versions in their place. Not any more. Address Book is one app which will not launch if Apple's version of Helvetica is missing. So for prepress, designers or others who must use Type 1 PostScript versions of Helvetica or Helvetica Neue, it is now a requirement to copy Apple's Helvetica fonts to a non Fonts folder location, remove them from the System and ProtectedFonts folders, and then set up separate sets in your font manager for Apple's Helvetica fonts, and another for your third party Helvetica fonts. Then turn on whichever set you need at the time and turn the other set off. It's not perfect as you may need the the Type 1 fonts open, which will leave you temporarily unable to open Address Book until you disable the Type 1 fonts and turn the Apple supplied versions back on. There is no way around it. You simply can't have both on at the same time.
So other than this new problem with Helvetica for those who need the use of Type 1 PostScript Helvetica fonts, the minimum System folder font list for OS X, 10.7 is:
Apple Color Emoji.ttf
A handful of fonts have received an update for Lion over the course of the OS updates noted next. If you had previously removed the updated fonts from the /Library/Fonts/ folder, the /System/Library/Fonts/ folder and the ProtectedFonts folder, you will need to do so again. You can see some are repeated as some of the fonts have been updated more than once. Also, if you commonly use the Combo updates, they will contain all fonts which have been updated since 10.7.0. So even if there are no font updates in a given point release, you will still be reinstalling all fonts which have received changes. There are some minor date differences between 10.7.3 and 10.7.4 on a few fonts, but only by a few days. I would suspect they weren't actually changed.
Fonts updated in 10.7.2
In the /Library/Fonts/ folder:
Devanagari Sangam MN.ttc
Myanmar Sangam MN.ttf
In the /System/Library/Fonts/ and ProtectedFonts folders:
Fonts updated in 10.7.3
In the /Library/Fonts/ folder:
Devanagari Sangam MN.ttc
Myanmar Sangam MN.ttf
In the /System/Library/Fonts/ and ProtectedFonts folders:
OS X, 10.6 Snow Leopard
The font formats have changed in Snow Leopard, though the main list of fonts shows little change. Apple has replaced many of their proprietary .dfont fonts with standard TrueType OpenType fonts, which have a .ttf or .ttc extension. There are a handful of .dfonts left in the /System/Library/Fonts/ folder, but for the most part, they're obsolete (see section 8 for additional fonts Snow Leopard installs). As in OS X 10.5, the Multiple Master fonts are visible, but are blank entries which can be removed.
The recommended minimum font list for OS X, 10.6 is:
HelveticaLight.ttf (added in 10.6.5)
HelveticaLightItalic.ttf (added in 10.6.5)
Menlo.ttc (the new default font for Terminal)
MarkerFelt.ttc is still required for the Notes portion of Mail in Snow Leopard, but is no longer in the /System/Library/Fonts/ folder. Instead, it's been moved to the /Library/Fonts/ folder.
OS X, 10.6.5 Snow Leopard
Two new fonts have been added in this midpoint update. Both of which are added to the /System/Library/Fonts/ folder, and the ProtectedFonts folder (reference section 5). As with Apple's versions of Helvetica and Helvetica Neue, the new HelveticaLight.ttf font conflicts with the Adobe Type 1 version. So you have yet another font to manage or remove in order to use your preferred, or required version of Helvetica Light. Other fonts have received updates, so if you've removed them following your initial install of Snow Leopard, you'll have to remove the fonts again following the install of any Snow Leopard Combo or Delta update which includes them. These fonts are:
In the /Library/Fonts/ folder:
In the /System/Library/Fonts/ folder:
In the ProtectedFonts folder:
OS X, 10.5 Leopard
In this version, the Multiple Master fonts used by Preview are visible, whereas they are hidden in earlier versions of OS X. Helvetica and Helvetica Neue are now in the /System/Library/Fonts/ folder rather than the /Library/Fonts/ folder. Courier is no longer a critical system font in Leopard. Also notable is that Leopard comes with OpenType versions of the same named fonts installed by Microsoft Office listed in section three. The following list is the minimum set of fonts for OS X, 10.5.
Helvetica LT MM
MarkerFelt.dfont (for the Notes portion of Mail)
Times LT MM
OS X, 10.3 Panther, and OS X, 10.4 Tiger
Required fonts in the /Library/Fonts/ folder.
The /Library/Fonts/ folder contains many standard web fonts. At minimum, the following fonts should remain in order for web pages to display properly. The names below are how they will appear in Leopard, 10.5 through Sierra, 10.12.
Panther 10.3, and Tiger 10.4 have most of the following fonts as legacy Mac TrueType. Their names will be the same as the shorter list noted at the beginning of section three. Panther, 10.3 does not include Impact. Neither 10.3, or 10.4 include any version of Wingdings.
Recommended minimum fonts for the /Library/Fonts/ folder:
Arial Bold Italic.ttf
Arial Narrow Bold.ttf
Arial Narrow Italic.ttf
Arial Narrow Bold Italic.ttf
Comic Sans MS.ttf
Comic Sans MS Bold.ttf
Georgia Bold Italic.ttf
Times New Roman.ttf
Times New Roman Bold.ttf
Times New Roman Italic.ttf
Times New Roman Bold Italic.ttf
Trebuchet MS Bold.ttf
Trebuchet MS Italic.ttf
Trebuchet MS Bold Italic.ttf
Verdana Bold Italic.ttf
Note: In addition to the above list, if you are running Snow Leopard, you must keep MarkerFelt.ttc.
Note: In addition to the above list, if you are running Mountain Lion, Mavericks, Yosemite, El Capitan or Sierra, you must keep AppleGothic.ttf.
All other fonts in the /Library/Fonts/ folder can be removed.
If you use iLife or iWork: The following fonts are also located in the /Library/Fonts/ folder. While the iLife and iWork apps will launch without the following fonts, the supplied templates use them. Apple suggests these fonts always be available for these apps. If you do not use any of the iLife or iWork apps, you can remove these fonts. Most of these fonts in Leopard, 10.5 and earlier are .dfonts. Also in 10.5 and earlier, Chalkboard and Chalkboard Bold are separate fonts. In 10.6 and later, they are combined in the TrueType Collection, Chalkboard.ttc.
Of the above list, the font Optima.ttc has been moved to the /System/Library/Fonts/ folder in Yosemite, El Capitan and Sierra.
If you use Microsoft Office: See Section 3 of this article for more info on the fonts Office installs. Some are newer and some are older than those installed by Leopard through Yosemite.
Once you have manually reduced the fonts on your system to the minimum, always use your font manager to control all other font activation and deactivation. The better font managers will stop you from creating font conflicts. Your font manager can't help prevent that if you manually place fonts you want to use in a Fonts folder.
An important step you should take after manually removing fonts is to clear the font cache files from the system. See section 17 for the proper procedure. Font Book users should also reset the application to update its database. See section 6 for more details.
When it comes to font managers, there's one thing I can't stress enough: have only one font manager on your Mac at a time.
When you double click a font, macOS or OS X no longer launches multiple font managers if they're installed, and hasn't for a while. It will only launch the one assigned to your fonts. Though even that can mean different font managers if for instance, Font Book is still assigned to older legacy Mac TrueType fonts, and everything else to your third party font manager. That's a problem when you don't really want to use Font Book. Having Font Book's database on the system can prevent another font manager from working correctly, and just the act of having Font Book launch creates a new database. Then you have to remove the database again. So if you aren't using it, you should not have Font Book on the drive. See section 6 on the steps for completely removing Font Book and its database.
A scenario of having more than one active font manager: You open a font in Suitcase. Then later, you open the same font in FontExplorer X Pro. You then disable that font in Suitcase. However, the font is still active in all of your applications. Why? Because FontExplorer X Pro is still holding the font open. I used Suitcase and FontExplorer X Pro for this example, but this will happen in virtually any case of multiple font managers on your system. Once you have decided which font manager you are going to use, completely remove any other font manager from your Mac.
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