Dealing with Garbled Fonts

Posted by admin on March 1, 2009 at 1:14 pm.

Note: The article below was written by Benjamin Levisay, founder of and Alpha FontGeek. It first appeared on FontGeek May 31, 2006. This article is probably one of the most helpful and referred to articles ever published on the site. In order to keep it easily available for FontGeek readers, we are republishing it on the updated FontGeek website.

PS. If you want to visit the old FontGeek website, which is full of incredibly helpful information, click here.

One of the most common e-mail requests for help that I get from readers is about font problems in what are normally considered non-graphic programs. Yes, I am talking about your browsers and your email applications, and while hardcore graphics artist don’t usually consider this a high priority with regard to getting their jobs out the door or to the printer, who among us isn’t annoyed when we can’t read our email or look at a web page correctly? These are the kind of problems for which we don’t plan for and we find difficulty getting support from the companies that make our graphic applications.

Let me clarify the problem. In your email program (it could be Apple’s mail or even Microsoft’s Entourage) or your browser (usually Safari, Firefox or Explorer) you will sometime find that the text shows up garbled. The result is you cannot read it correctly, or that you have to increase the text size in those programs to read the site’s content.


I’ve seen a lot of online posts about this, and they all seem to have one magic bullet to solve the problem. Unfortunately, one bullet may not do it. There are actually two distinct problems that can be perceived as the same thing, and several factors that can contribute to either of these two problems. Jumbled text could be a font cache problem, or it can be an incorrect font substitution problem. Troubleshooters usually know about one and not the other. With that in mind I’d like to explain the different problems and show you the troubleshooting steps you need to follow in order to alleviate these problems on your Mac.

Identify the Problem

The first thing you need to do is to identify which problem you are having. You are either having a font cache issue or an incorrect substitution problem.

These three images (below) show garbled text that I captured as screenshots from different websites using Safari.


If you look closely at them you’ll see that there are some differences. The first, Sample 1, shows the unfamiliar characters overlapping each other. This is an example of font cache corruption.

The Second Example, Sample 2, shows the unfamiliar characters more evenly spaced. This example, although not readable, looks more orderly and evenly spaced. This is an example of a incorrect font substitution problem–in this case Times Phonetic is being incorrectly substituted for Times.

The third example, Sample 3, shows numbers and fractions. This is also an example of incorrect font substitution–in this case Helvetica Fractions is being incorrectly used instead of Helvetica.

If the problem you are seeing looks like the first image go to the section below, which deals with Font Cache Problems. If the problem looks like the second or third image go to the section named Font Substitution Problems.

Dealing with Font Cache Problems

Font caches have become a real headache for Mac OSX users. They not only crop up in your browser and email applications but also in your graphic documents. When fonts are activated (either by a font manager or by placing them into one of OS X’s Fonts folders) they are cached for use. Some of these font caches are handled by the OS and some of these font caches are handled by the applications themselves. In either case is is very easy for these cache files to become corrupt.


If you are seeing examples similar to that just above, it is most likely caused by a corrupt cache file. What appears to be happening with this particular problem is that incorrect or corrupted encoding information is being used when mapping the character codes as input by your keyboard to the glyphs they represent in the problematically cached font.

smasherThere are various programs that you can use to delete font caches. The one that I use is Smasher from Insider Software. You can use Smasher’s font cache smashing feature to remove these cache files in an attempt to restore normal behavior, and to help rule out font cache corruption as the sole cause of the problem.

Note: Smasher has several font cache smashing features which can be activated by purchasing the program but the Mac OSX font caches can be cleared using the program in demo mode.


After using Smasher to clear you Mac OS X font caches, you will be forced to restart your computer. If after restarting your computer you’re still having problems with text displaying incorrectly in your browser or e-mail programs then you are most likely looking at an incorrect font substitution problem.

Dealing With Incorrect Fonts Substitution Problems

What is a font substitution problem? It’s very simple: When a document or a web page calls for a specific font due to unavailability or inadequate font calls to the OS another font is chosen instead, an incorrect font substitution results. For the most part this isn’t the worst problem to have with a browser or e-mail application. If a webpage calls for Arial and somehow Arial Narrow (or another normal roman font) is used, you still will be able to read the text. Right? So what’s the big deal?

Here’s a common scenario where an incorrect font substitution will cause a webpage to be completely unreadable. Let’s start with one of Apple’s web pages. If you go to Apple’s Hot News web page and look at the source code form within Safari you will see, among other things, that Times and Times Roman are specified (see screen shot below).


What the web page is saying is that it wants the OS and/or active font manager to use these fonts when displaying this web page. But the font call for these fonts in not all that specific. In other words, the web page isn’t asking for Times regular or Times Roman Medium.

Note: This isn’t Apple’s fault. Web Browsers and CSS Style Sheets are’t set up to make those specific kinds of font calls the way Adobe InDesign or QuarkXPress do.

The next part of this scenario involves the presence of a very common Times font called Times Phonetic. If you had Times-PhoneticAlternate of Times-PhoneticIPA present in either your font manager or in one of your various OS Fonts folders this font could and often does get used instead of the normal Times font specified in the web page. So what you would see instead of the text in Times would look like the text shown in the screenshot below.


Another great example of this would be Helvetica. If you look at the CSS Style Sheets of you will see that Helvetica is specified in certain parts of the site. This is just fine unless you have another very common Helvetica font present, once called Helvetica-Fraction. If you have Helvetica-Fraction or Helvetica-FractionBold present in wither your font manager or in one of your various OS Font folders, then this font could, and often does, get used instead of the normal Helvetica font specified. So what you would see instead of the text in Helvetica would look like the text in the screen shot below.


If you’re storing all of your fonts in one or more of the various Fonts folders the you’ll need to find these fonts, remove them, and restart your computer. Hunting the specific styles down and removing them may be a bit difficult but once you’ve done that you should be able to revisit these web pages and the problem should be resolved.

fapiconIf you are using a font manager finding and removing these fonts is much easier. Since I am using FontAgent Pro I will show you how to go about this using this program.

1. Launch FontAgent Pro.

2. Sort all the fonts in the All Fonts Pane by choosing Activated in the Filter by menu.

3. Scroll through your fonts until you find out is you have any Times-Phonetic or Helvetica-Fractions fonts present and active.

4. Click on the Phonetic fonts to preview them and see if the preview corresponds to the font substitution prolem you are having in your email application or browser.


5. Click on the Fraction fonts to preview them and see if the preview corresponds to the font substitution problem you’re having in your email application or browser.


6. Switch the Filter by menu back to All Fonts and search for these Helvetica-Fraction fonts and Times-Phonetic fonts.

7. Deactivate those Fonts.

8. Export those fonts into a safe place for backup (in FontAgent Pro using the Export option under the Files menu).

9. Then delete these fonts from FontAgent Pro.

You should now be able to revisit your web pages and/or open your problem e-mails to see if you’ve successfully resolved the problem.

It’s also important to note that there are some other common font style variations besides fractions and phonetic that can be incorrectly substituted in your browser or e-mail application. Fraction fonts can also be called expert fonts. Also alt (or alternate) font styles can cause incorrect font substitutions. So it might not be a bad idea to do a search for phonetic, fractions, expert and/or alt in your font manager so you can avoid potential problems ahead of time.

You may find you need the occasional fraction, expert, phonetic or alt font in some of your graphic documents. When that happens reload those fonts from the export you did (earlier in Step Eight) and use them as necessary. But remember to remove them when you’re done so you don’t continue to have the same kinds of incorrect font substitutions in your browser or email application.

Note: Since this article was written, FontAgent Pro added a new feature where you can suppress auto-activation of individual fonts and libraries. Just select the font in question, perform a Get info (Command + i) and uncheck the Allow Auto-Activation check box. Now the fonts in question will no longer auto-activate so you can keep them in FontAgent Pro and only activate them when they are necessary.