Switching Fonts May Not Save the Government Millions After All

We all love stories about teenagers schooling the government, but sometimes we get schooled, too. Last week, we wrote about 14-year-old Suvir Mirchandani's research project that suggested the government would save $400 million by switching from Times New Roman to Garamond. Turns out, it's a little more complicated than that.

John Brownlee lays out the various arguments over at Fast Company. There's some typeface nerdery explaining why Garamond looks smaller at the same 12-point size, so it would need to be printed in bigger size to be equally legible. But, as commentators on the original piece have also noted, the bigger issue that the government doesn't print all its documents on HP Inkjet printers. Brownlee explains:

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.

While we couched the $400 million savings as a rough estimate, we should have more specifically pointed out the caveats. But the larger point still stands—this is less a story about the government than it is about how small changes can add up. Even if the government isn't only using inkjet printers, lots of us still are, and printing in a slightly smaller font can still make a difference for our own wallets.


The Government Would Save $400 Million If It Just Switched Typefaces

Of the many schemes to make the government more efficient, this is probably the only one that involves typography. A middle schooler in Pittsburgh has calculated that by simply switching the typeface used in government documents from Times New Roman to Garamond, it would save taxpayers $400 million in ink.

Suvir Mirchandani was inspired by an earlier project looking at how to save ink in teacher handouts. He recorded the ink usage of four different fonts—Garamond, Times New Roman, Century Gothic and Comic Sans—and found that Garamond's thin strokes would save his school district 24 percent in ink


Then he decided to apply his results to a bigger scale: the U.S. government. He sampled documents from different government agencies and dug through printing budgets. As CNN reports, this is what he found.

Using the Government Services Administration's estimated annual cost of ink — $467 million—Suvir concluded that if the federal government used Garamond exclusively it could save nearly 30%—or $136 million per year. An additional $234 million could be saved annually if state governments also jumped on board, he reported.

These numbers are only estimates, of course, but they show how subtle changes made many times over add up to big differences. (Also, ink is mad expensive. By ounce, it costs more than Chanel No. 5 perfume, as Mirchandani points out.) And our government is still a prodigal producer of printed goods. Every day, for example, we print 2,000 copies of the Federal Register, which regularly runs to hundreds of pages.


The government has to be at least somewhat transparent about its printing practices, but the rest of us—those of us who still print things out, anyway—could take a cue, too. In 2010, the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay changed the default typeface of its email system from Arial to Century Gothic to save ink. And of course, there are special ink-saving typeface with tiny holes in the letters.

Prefer to choose your typeface based on aesthetics alone? By all means, go ahead—just don't print anything out. [CNN]