Getting decent font rendering on stock Debian

November 19, 2019

I recently converted one of my machines from a parabola installation to a Debian 10 system. I started from a text only interface - the bare minimum of packages - and installed the rest by hand. For reasons that aren't entirely clear, the default font rendering is pretty hideous. It took me a while to track down how to properly configure font rendering. Perhaps this isn't an issue for installs which include a desktop from the get go. If it is, maybe this can help. While I did this on Debian, there isn't much Debian specific - I've opted for the text file editing approach to configuration instead of strange menu-driven or ncurses stuff. This allows me to version the configuration or do automation work later.

The very short version

Enter the following into /home/user/.config/fontconfig/fonts.conf.

<?xml version="1.0"?>
<!DOCTYPE fontconfig SYSTEM "fonts.dtd">

  <!-- Enable antialiasing for all fonts -->
  <match target="font">
    <edit mode="assign" name="antialias">


Restart an application (firefox, virtual terminal) to see the changes. For me, just adding anti-aliasing to font rendering made all the difference. There are more dials to tune, but this was enough to make the font rendering passable.

Tools for debugging fonts

I don't know why fonts remain such a painful part of the linux experience. Perhaps it's just me, but figuring out what's going on, and how to configure the font rendering isn't obvious. As such, I thought I'd make a list for my future self of tools to use to help determine what is going on.

  • fc-conflist lists all the files which are read to determine font configuration.
  • xterm launched from a terminal usefully prints out some errors in font configuration (e.g. unrecognised entries). There ought to be a better way than this, but I don't know it (I discovered this by accident).
  • fc-cache builds font information caches.
  • fc-list lists all fonts on the system.

Using these together with restarting a test application can help get the fonts to render as you would like.

I also noticed taking screenshots was well worthwhile, or at least doing a side-by-side comparison of different settings. I thought my settings had made one program render very strangely compared to previous settings, but direct comparison showed no difference! In fact, anti-aliasing was the only change I made where I could tell the difference in the font rendering (it's possible all other settings I tried were already set in the other configuration files). Now text doesn't look like total garbage.