Co.Design

Why Garamond Won't Save The Government $467 Million A Year

A 14-year-old's plan to save the U.S. government almost half a billion a year is too good to be true. Font nerdery ahoy!

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.

At The Same Size, Garamond Doesn't Actually Use Less Ink Than The Other Fonts

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.

These fonts are nominally all the same size. Why is Garamond the least legible? Because it's smaller.

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.


Not All Printer Ink Is As Expensive As Chanel (Especially For The Government)

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.

Conclusion

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.

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97 Comments

  • ericcwaltman

    Why not just make the font Times New Roman a lighter gray, rather than solid black? I'm sure that would save ink.

  • junkje

    We can save more money by firing ALL government workers that spend any time at all on porn sites!

  • Kenneth Udut

    The naysayer may be correct in the limited methods he mentioned. But he's wrong about how government agencies prints their stuff. SOME stuff goes to the printers. SOME stuff is laser printed. And for those points, he may be right. And SOME may up the 12 point garamond font to something more legible, making the savings moot. BUT there is a lot of interoffice printing done on regular consumer inkjets. Departments DO have to go to regular stores to buy things sometimes; not everything is done on laser; working in big offices I remember that while you had the office Laser for many things, there were plenty of Inkjets around whose budgets would come out of Petty Cash funds rather than a line item; and the people with the inkjets would go to Staples/Officemax/whatever; not always getting "special government rates". (the idea that the feds always pay the lowest bidder is only true for some projects but not for all day-to-day operations).

  • Doesn't the fact that the government is charged per page, mean the fonts such as: Agency FB, Tw Cen MT Condensed and Utsaah, would result in more words/page=less pages used= more money saved? All of the fonts above have virtually the same legibility as Times New Roman, however use less space on a line, making them more efficient than Times.

  • Jackson Campbell

    if you recall the section on points all fonts will have the same ling height at the same points. You might get some space saving by using thin fonts so you can fit more on each line, but it is likely that this would be negligible.. Most savings would come from going down in points so as to fit more lines.

  • Amy Wiedenbeck Nash

    Type is measured from the Top of the ascender to the Bottom of the descender of each typeface's letter. So, from the tip of the capital A to the bottom of the lower case g, j, p, q, etc. in 72 pt type is one inch. Thanks for setting the record straight...all type faces are not alike. Next battle: getting folks to stop misusing "font" when they mean "typeface."

  • H.G. Siewert

    Science, no matter where, how, or why it is conducted, should be peer reviewed. The kid put himself and his research out there, so now he must face the criticism and standards that the scientific community demands. It's not raining on his parade; it's real life.

  • Rather, like many offices, it strikes deals with outside companies that charge per page printed, regardless of how much ink or toner is used.

    So, two things. Only some government agencies contract out their printer supplies into a per-page contract; many agencies still buy their own printers and their own toner. Second, even those who contract out could negotiate lower prices if they reduced toner consumption.

    Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater here. Mirchandani's point, which I think is essentially valid, is that modern printers can produce readable text with less toner. We don't necessarily need the thick strokes of Arial or Times New Roman to achieve an acceptable result.

  • Kathleen Corgan

    Brownlee wrote:

    "What this all mean"s 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"

    tsk tsk coming from a design website; shouldn't that be "legibility" not "readability"? Two different things in the Typography/Design world. If you're going to pick nits, pick your own first...

  • Brian DeLeonard

    Most fonts are designed to be printed at about 12 points on the page. The actual size of the letter doesn't matter. Garamond is smaller at 12 points because it's designed to look better smaller. Switching to Garamond would mean printing smaller letters and using less ink.

  • Tristion TeeJay Edison

    Firstly, the numbers are wrong. According to the article posted on Yahoo, Mr. Mirchandani states that the government would be saving $136 million NOT $467 million. The article states, "In it [Mirchandani] detailed how the use of Garamond, instead of Century Gothic or Times New Roman in the government’s own printed literature could result in savings of $136 million a year — roughly 30 percent of the government’s annual ink costs ($467 million)." So right off the top, your argument, to me, is invalid.