Finding efficiencies is a funny thing. Because of economies of scale, what appears to be a minor, even trivial, change—when multiplied across a large organization—can end up saving a lot of money.

We all received an interesting lesson in that recently when a 14-year-old boy, Suvir Mirchandani, claimed that federal and state governments could save up to $370 million per year simply by shifting to a different font in their printers.

It’s not that the concept was new. People have been talking for years about how you can save ink depending on which font you used. What was different was Mirchandani applied the savings specifically to the federal government and came up with a precise dollar figure. That grabbed people’s attention. (For what it’s worth, CNN reports that the federal government already has a program in place for this, with which it expects to save up to $30 million per year.)

You may not even notice the font on your documents, unless you’re a typographics junkie (in which case, check out this documentary), but fonts can vary a lot in terms of how much ink they use. Just as one example, there’s whether the font is serif—that is, when letters such as I and U have little feet and hats on them—or sans serif—which means those letters don’t have little feet and hats. The little feet and hats are very small, but when you’re printing out a lot of pages, it adds up. Similarly, some fonts—like Garamond—have thinner vertical strokes than others, which also saves ink.

demonstration of what a 'serif' is

This is a serif.

In addition, some fonts, even when they’re the same point size, are smaller than others. Garamond, in particular, the example that Mirchandani chose, is smaller than Times Roman. In fact, the amount Mirchandani saved by switching to Garamond is almost exactly the percentage by which it’s smaller than Times Roman, notes John Brownlee in Fast Company. (He and other critics go on to cite several other factors, such as the type of printer—inkjet vs. laser vs. printing press—and how the procurement contract is written up. For example, some contracts are priced by page printed, rather than how much ink is used.)

Before you all run out and change the default font in your company’s word processing programs, though, there’s still more to it.

Ultimately, the goal behind printing a document is for it to be read. (At least, we hope that’s the goal.) And, as it turns out, there’s good reason for the little feet and hats, as well as the slightly larger font size: They’re traditionally thought to make the text easier to read— for users who may be older and may have vision issues.

(That said, designers love to have those how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin discussions about serif vs. sans serif, which is more readable, and does it even matter anymore.)

There are other factors as well. For example, if your organization is multinational, sans serif text might be considered to be easier to read than serif, because sans serif fonts tend to be the default in Europe. Similarly, for online text, sans serif is thought to be preferable, because it’s cleaner and doesn’t require such high screen resolution. In some cases, the font used even affects how people feel about the information.

Not to mention the economic hit to all the companies that make and sell ink.

The point? Well, there are two. First is that even minor changes can save your company a lot of money, and it’s always worth looking for such potential changes. Second, it’s important to consider all the factors, not just amount of ink used, or even just money; it doesn’t do you any good to save tons of money on printing if nobody can read what gets printed out.

All this stipulated, of course, the way to really save money on ink is to, you know, not print at all.  Font size doesn’t matter when you can zoom in digitally.

Image by graficostudio (graficostudio) [GFDL (https://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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