The Font Wagon

.. Only it turned out to be like rushing for tending the calf when someone called out the bull has delivered..  Read More…

 April 6, 2014, Sunday:  When global media outlets from CNN  to  the Economic Times reported the story of a 14-year old middle school student Mirchandani from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania who claimed the government could save nearly half a billion dollars a year by switching the font in official documents from Times New Roman to the light-stroked typeface Garamond, most people jumped into the bandwagon. Only it turned out to be like rushing for tending the calf when someone called out the bull has delivered!
The Garamond font family

The Garamond font family

To begin with let’s take a close look at how the 14-year old Mirchandani arrived at his conclusion. As part of his science project he measured four different fonts (Times New Roman, Garamond, Comic Sans, and Century Gothic) to discover that Garamond’s thin, light strokes consumed 24% less ink. In his paper published in the ‘Journal of Emerging Investigators’  he concluded that if the federal and state agencies came on board, it could save close to half a billion dollars a year.

However, what people have not been told by the media outlets is that the cost savings of switching to Garamond is largely imaginary, because at the same size, Garamond doesn’t actually use less ink than the other fonts. The biggest issue with Mirchandani’s argument is that he didn’t quite well understand the oddity of the way fonts are measured, and he measured Garamond at the wrong size! Type expert Thomas Phinney explains how.

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 bodythe 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 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 would 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. If you printed any of the other fonts to match Garamond’s actual size, you’d get almost the same savings in ink cost.

Secondly, governments and corporations habitually 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.

Just cutting down on the ink that a font uses can’t substantially reduce the governments’ and corporations’ printing budget. Mirchandani’s study assumes the governments and corporations printed all of its documents on a cheap HP inkjet.

Using less ink, Of course, 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 a government or a corporation did switch to a font that maintained legibility at the same size as Times New Roman while using less ink, it is unlikely that the government or corporation would save much money by switching to it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s