Last week, media outlets from CNN to the Economic Times reported on a story that pretty much everyone could feel good about: a 14-year-old font nerd in Pittsburgh crunched some numbers and figured out how to save the U.S. government nearly half a billion dollars a year, just by printing all of its documents exclusively in the light-stroked typeface Garamond. One problem: There's very little reason to believe that Garamond would save the government any money at all.
First, let's look at how Mirchandani arrived at his conclusions. For his middle-school science project, Mirchandani measured four different fonts—Times New Roman, Garamond, Comic Sans, and Century Gothic—and discovered that Garamond's thin, light strokes resulted in a font that required 24% less ink. Given that printer ink is twice as expensive as Chanel No. 5, it stands to reason that if government officials switched to a less wasteful font, they could save a lot of money: as much as $467 million per year if both federal and state agencies got on board, according to his paper published in the Journal of Emerging Investigators. Except that it isn't that simple.
Mirchandani is only 14, so he can be excused for not understanding this weirdo oddity of the way fonts are measured, but the biggest issue with his argument is that he measured Garamond at the wrong size! Therefore, the ink cost savings of switching to Garamond is largely imaginary. Type expert Thomas Phinney has a great post explaining why, but we'll do our best to present it in more layman-friendly terms here.
Fonts are traditionally measured in a system called points, with one point corresponding to 1/72nd of an inch. This is true in both physical and digital printing. Rationally, then, it seems obvious that a 12-point font should be 1/6th of an inch tall, when printed. But the reality is much different. There is no guarantee that when you print out a font at 12-points that the letters will be 12-points tall. Only the line which the letters will be printed on will be 12-points tall.
Imagine that you have a metal block for a 12-point letter "l." When you dip this block in ink for printing, the raised "l" will end up rubbing off on a piece of paper, but depending on how that "l" was designed, it is unlikely that it will actually be 1/6th of an inch tall. The 12-point measurement instead refers to the size of the type body—the flat metal part of the type that never touches ink.
What makes a 12-point font a 12-point font, then, has nothing do with ink. It's invisible on the page. This means that, depending on how a typeface is designed, some fonts at 12 points will be physically smaller (and therefore less readable than others at the same size. You could, in theory, have a 12-point font with letters that were almost invisible to the naked eye, but that wouldn't make it a more efficient font when it comes to ink savings or readability.
This is the major trap Mirchandani fell into. Garamond's letters are significantly smaller at the same font size than those of Times New Roman, Comic Sans, and Century Gothic. As Phinney notes, in fact, Garamond is about 15% smaller than the average of the fonts that our plucky 14-year-old compared it to, which translates into a 28% savings in surface area—pretty close to Mirchandani's alleged 24% savings in ink.
What this all means is that if you printed any of the other fonts to match Garamond's actual size, you'd get almost the same savings in ink cost, at the same expense of readability. Garamond doesn't really use less ink than Times New Roman, Comic Sans, or Century Gothic: it's just the equivalent of a 10-point font rendered on a 12-point line. And sure enough, if you look at Mirchandani's sample text, Garamond looks like it has been rendered at a much smaller point size than the other fonts; it's obviously harder to read.
But let's say Mirchandani is right, and that Garamond does use less ink than other fonts. Would it really end up costing the government less money? At first blush, the answer seems obvious. We're all annoyed by how expensive printer ink is. In fact, at a cost of $4,285 per liter, it's almost double the cost of even the most expensive perfumes on Earth. If the government could use less of this valuable resource, it should save massive amounts of money.
Right? Well, no. And there are a few reasons.
For one, while printer ink is undeniably a racket, it's largely a consumer racket. The government doesn't pay for ink the same way we do. Rather, like many offices, it strikes deals with outside companies that charge per page printed, regardless of how much ink or toner is used. This means that a U.S. government printer used to print out a color photo costs exactly the same amount as a blank sheet of paper with a single letter typed on it.
Second, inkjet printer ink may be how most consumers print at home, but the government supplements inkjets with laser printers, which use toner. Toner costs about half as much as printer ink per page, but Mirchandani's study assumes they cost the same.
In addition, the bulk of the U.S. government's printing is done on the printing press—printing out W-2 forms, pamphlets, and the like—not office laser jets or ink jets. Press printers have a vastly different economy than inkjet printers: they aren't charging based upon the number of gallons of ink used, but based upon the complexity of a given page's layout, and definitely not at a price of $4,285 per inky liter.
In short? Just cutting down on the ink that a font uses can’t substantially reduce the government’s printing budget. The whole study assumes the government prints all of its documents like someone's grandma printing out birthday cards on a cheap HP inkjet. In reality, though, the government mostly pays per page, either through service contracts or on printing presses.
Using less ink might cost the government slightly less money, but it's not going to come from switching to Garamond. Garamond's letters are smaller at the same height as other fonts, making it less legible at the same size when printed out. And even if the government did switch to a font that maintained legibility at the same size as Times New Roman while using less ink, the government would likely not save much money by switching to it.