Tuesday, April 12, 2016

How to Change the Default System Font in OS X El Capitan to Lucida Grande

Change the Default System Font in OS X El Capitan to Lucida Grande
The Lucida Grande font is known for its crisp and obvious readability which makes it a great user interface font, and it rightfully served as the Mac OS X default system font for many years. Then along came Yosemite, where the Mac system font was changed to the generally unpopular Helvetica Neue. Apple has since improved font readability considerably by changing the default system font yet again in OS X El Capitan, this time to a new font called San Francisco. While the San Francisco font is considerably better as a display font than Helvetica Neue, it’s still not quite as readable for some Mac users and on some non-retina displays as Lucida Grande. Fortunately, with a little effort you can change the default system font on a Mac with OS X El Capitan to Lucida Grande again, and return to the classic user interface font.

This app changes the system font, used in menu bars, menus, the Finder, Dock, window title bars, and elsewhere. If you like the system font the way it is now, or don’t even care, you likely won’t benefit from this application.

Replacing the Mac System Font in OS X El Capitan to Lucida Grande (from Mavericks)

  1. Consider starting a backup of the Mac with Time Machine and waiting for it to finish if you haven’t done so in a while, it’s unlikely you’ll have any problems but backing up is good practice anyway
  2. Go here to download the El Capitan Lucida Grande app, it’s free and open source if you feel like poking around the code yourself
  3. Right-click (or Control+Click) on the “El Capitan Lucida Grande.app” file you just downloaded and choose ‘Open’ – this will launch the app beyond Gatekeeper
  4. Choose the “Patch & Install & Clear font cache” button in the launcher app, then enter the administrator password when requested, the admin login is necessary to create a new file in the /Library/Fonts/ folder, which is the system level font directory*
  5. When finished, quit out of the app and reboot the Mac for changes to take effect throughout OS X
When OS X reboots the system font will be changed to Lucida Grande from San Francisco. Here’s a before and after shown as animated GIF, the change is subtle:
Replacing the default system font in OS X before and after
Here’s a still before and after as well, this is what a Finder window and menu bar look like in OS X with the default San Francisco font (the before):
OS X El Capitan default system font of San Francisco
And here is what the same Finder window and menu bar look like in OS X with Lucida Grande font (the after):
OS X El Capitan with Lucida Grande
As you can see, the changes are extremely subtle. This animated gif gives you an idea of just how subtle the change is, with Lucida Grande being ever so slightly bolder, slightly wider, with slightly more spacing, with the result being it’s slightly more readable to some individuals.

Looks Interesting, But How Does this App Replace the System Font?

For those who might wish to understand what this app is doing to replace the system font in OS X: it’s quite simple, the “Lucida Grande El Capitan” app works by creating a new patched version of the Lucida Grande font and placing that system font file in /Library/Fonts/ called “LucidaGrande_modsysfontelc.ttc”. In other words, it’s simply creating a new font file that is recognized by OS X as being the default system font, thus when Mac OS X boots it loads that new system font file version of Lucida grande rather than San Francisco — it does not replace or modify any system files.

The Default System Fonts Are Barely Different? What’s the Point?

Indeed, going from San Francisco to Lucida Grande is much more subtle than abandoning Helvetica Neue for Lucida Grande or for Comic Sans, so if you’ve never thought twice about the system font in OS X El Capitan let alone in Yosemite or Mavericks, you probably won’t even notice the change, meaning this isn’t really aimed at you. But, for users who either just prefer Lucida Grande due to longstanding habit, or because it’s easier for them to read on a particular display, this little unofficial font patch is a nice modification to Mac OS X.
Perhaps in the future Apple will introduce a ‘bold fonts’ option in OS X Accessibility preferences to make default font text easier for some Mac users to read, much like the bold fonts choice in iOS. But that hasn’t happened yet, so in the meantime, if you’re not thrilled with the system font in OS X El Capitan, consider changing that system font back to the classic Lucida Grande, because for many it’s just easier on the eyes and easier to read.

A few known font display bugs

Indeed there are a few text kerning and spacing bugs with the initial release patch, presumably a fix will resolve those issues shortly. The most annoying is likely found in Safari where multiple tabs start squishing the text together in a tab title, here’s what it looks like:
font bug
Again, a future release of the Lucida Grande replacement font will likely resolve that issue. If it’s a dealbreaker, just uninstall it and wait for the time being.

What About Changing the Default System Font to a Different Font?

If Lucida Grande isn’t your thing, there are other options for new default system fonts in OS X El Capitan which use the same basic idea as this app, many of these existed for prior OS X releases but have yet to be modified for El Capitan. Currently, other alternatives are:
* Note that you can also install fonts and modified Mac system fonts in the user fonts folder at ~/Library/Fonts/, but doing so sometimes causes weird font display gibberish that isn’t remedied by dumping font caches in OS X, particularly with dialog and alert windows. Thus, if you’re replacing the system font, go with the root font directory.

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