Wednesday, April 2, 2014

If It's too Good to Be True . . .

It’s the kind of story we love: An outsider – in this case a fourteen-year-old kid (KID!) discovers a simple change in font selection could save the federal government upwards of $130 million dollars a year in printing costs. The link gets spread around the Internet (I know I spread it) and the unwashed masses revel in the ingenuity of said kid and the wasteful government that we have that’ll probably take YEARS to implement such a simple change.

And then the experts come in to pee on the parade.

Funny thing with expert pee, though: It knows its stuff.

In this case, the kid’s heart was in the right place: SuvirMirchandani wanted to make the flood of circulars coming home with him from school more ecologically sustainable, and figured out through actual study and math that using the Garamond typeface, with its thinner strokes, would use 24% less ink, saving his school up to $21,000 per year on ink costs.

Problem is while Mirchandani took great pains to compare font sizes and weighed papers to see which font used less ink and then conjured up accurate prices for ink jet cartridge ink, he’s no expert either in typography nor the way business or commercial printing (nor even likely the way his school district gets printing done) to see the flaws in his argument.

And the flaws are legion.

Thomas Phinney, writing at Phinney on Fonts, points out a few things for us:

It is not [Mirchandani’s] fault that the non-obvious aspects of the problem mess up the idea. Garamond lowercase is about 15% smaller than the average of the fonts they compare it to, while its caps are only about 7.5% smaller. So it is no surprise that it uses less ink at the same point size.

This is why most scientific studies comparing typefaces first compensate by resizing the fonts to eliminate differences in the lowercase height (called x-height by us font geeks). This study failed to do that. As a result, they actually get results that are the exact opposite of other studies. Century Gothic has a very large x-height, so printed at the same nominal point size it uses more ink than Times. Printed at the same x-height (as in other studies) it would use less.

Setting any font 15% smaller would save 28% of its area coverage. Of course, there are some caps in the texts as well, which would make the savings a bit less. Interestingly, this is pretty exactly much what the study found. So, you could just as easily save ink by setting the same font at a smaller point size.

Phinney and others also point out that the government, most businesses, and probably Mirchandani’s school district don’t go out and buy ink by the gallon at Chanel No. 5 prices. Most contract with other businesses to maintain their copiers, where they’re charged on a per-page basis, meaning the charge is the same whether the printer churns out a blank page or the page is completely covered in that expensive ink.

Also, most copiers and laser printers use toner, not ink, which is less expensive.

And as far as the federal government goes, they kinda get bulk discounts, seeing as much of what they print is run on printing presses, which reduces costs even further. Says Phinney:

[T]he study makes the interesting claim in a footnote: “Ink and toner are use synonymously in this study. Even though traditional ink is more expensive than toner, a focus on determining the percent savings in cost rather than the magnitude of the cost obviates this difference.” Um . . . how? They are assuming that the percent of printing cost allotted to the ink/toner is the same for all classes of output.

This is simply untrue. Many of the documents that account for a substantial percentage of the government’s overall printing costs are printed on a printing press, using offset lithography. For offset printing, the percentage of the cost of that is associated with ink is in fact much smaller than for laser or inkjet printing. But it isn’t a fixed percentage, either, due to the large proportion of the cost that is associated with setup. It will be a higher percentage for short runs, and lower for long runs.

Phinney and John Brownlee, writing at, also point out another problem: Legibility. Says Brownlee:

[I]f 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.

So it pays to go to the experts, to lend your research moxie truth, rather than the air of truthiness.

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