“Change your typeface, save millions,” cry the masses after reading a recent CNN article. It’s the perfect sensational story. A middle-schooler has found a way to save the government money just by changing the typeface used on official documents.
14-year-old Suvir Mirchandani’s says if we change the default typeface to 12-point Garamond, the US Government could save between $62 and $394 million annually. It seems like an elegant and simple solution, but Mirchandani’s research ignores basic concepts of typography and leads to false conclusions.
By tracing Mirchandani’s methodology and by looking at his published data, we can see where the research went astray. His work is published across two studies: “The effect of font type on a school’s ink cost” (May 10, 2013) and “A Simple Printing Solution to Aid Deficit Reduction” (March 10, 2014). The second uses the claims from the first and expands it to come up with the savings calculations.
In “The effect of font type on a school’s ink cost,” Mirchandani looks at a sample of handouts provided by teachers at his school. He used a computer program to determine the most commonly used characters across the entire sample then created a “test document” from it. The test document reflects the “frequency distribution of the 21 most commonly used characters at the school.”
The test document was then set in a variety of typefaces and sizes before being analyzed using a program called APFill to determine what percentage of the page is covered in type. If a certain typeface and point-size combo has a greater coverage area by percentage, then it would require more ink to print.
The percentage coverage was compared to 12-point Century Gothic and savings were calculated. It was the results of this study that led Mirchandani to believe “among all size 12 fonts, Garamond is the most efficient.” In making this conclusion, he was setting up the subsequent experiments to fail.
In his second study, he took a selection of five government documents and set them in 12-point Garamond, Century Gothic, and Times New Roman. He used APFill to analyze the percentage covered and made his calculations and recommendations from there.
Not all type sizes are the same
The problem with Mirchandani’s research is an issue that type designers have to deal with every day: nominal point-size is not a very good indicator of the actual size of type. Said another way, not all 12-point fonts are the same size. Though this may seem like an inane comparison, it’s similar to the idea that “not all feet are a foot long.” When comparing 12-point typefaces, Mirchandani was assuming equivalence when there wasn’t any.
Here are the three typefaces used in Mirchandani’s second study: Garamond (yellow), Times New Roman (pink), and Century Gothic (blue). Each is set in the exact same nominal point size (in this case, 190 pt) yet they all appear to be different sizes.
There’s not a simple explanation as to why this is the case. When physical type was used, the point size referred to the actual size of the metal the letters were cast on. But as we’ve moved into digital type, the system has grown more convoluted and obscure. The reality is that when you change from Times New Roman to Garamond, you’re not just changing how the letters look, but you’re dramatically changing their size, even if they’re both technically 12-point.
In order to make comparisons between typefaces, we have to find a common scale. To accomplish this, we want to throw out the nominal size and scale everything so all lowercase heights are the same. The easiest way to do this is to look at the letter x (it’s a nice, square letter and it occupies the height between a typeface’s baseline and mean line). If we look at the three typefaces unscaled, we can see the x-height varies by a huge amount. Century Gothic is massive compared to Times New Roman and Garamond is the smallest of them all. It becomes clear why Mirchandani would conclude that at the same type size, Century Gothic would consume more ink and Garamond would lead to ink savings.
But let’s scale them to the same x-height and observe the real differences. Here we can see that Garamond has more coverage and Century Gothic requires the least. This is the exact opposite of Mirchandani’s findings.
While you have to admire the search for an elegant way to cut costs and improve efficiency, Mirchandani’s research doesn’t provide any real solutions. His recommendation is to print everything out at a smaller size (even if we don’t call it a smaller size). But in the world of official government documentation, there are rules about type size that determine the legality of a document. If a disclaimer is set too small, for example, it might not be legally effective. Changing the default size to 6-point would save a lot of ink, but it would make things nearly impossible to read and it might invalidate the document.
If we are thinking critically here (and we still want to find a cost-cutting typeface) we must expand the question. Instead of thinking of which font is smallest, we need to search for the most widely available font that uses the least amount of ink (when proportionately scaled to 12-point Times New Roman) while still maximizing legibility.
It’s easy to jump headfirst into sensational headlines, but the reality of saving money and increasing efficiency through typography is more complex than picking a smaller font size.
“A Simple Printing Solution to Aid Deficit Reduction”, Suvir Mirchandani & Peter Pinko, Journal of Emerging Investigators
“The effect of font type on a school’s ink cost”, Suvir Mirchandani & Peter Pinko, Journal of Emerging Investigators
“Save Thousands By Switching Printer Fonts”, Environmental Leader
“Teen to government: Change your typeface, save millions” CNN