A 14-year-old claimed the US government could save $136m by swapping the typeface it used on its public documents to one that consumed less ink. Experts have since debunked the theory, but it's caused a major hubbub among typeface obsessives, writes designer Matt Robinson.
The "ink efficiency" of different typefaces is something the design industry has been aware of for some time. However, it's not until calculations are made on such a large scale that these small design differences really catch the public's attention. I worked on a similar project myself at university with creative partner Tom Wrigglesworth. We investigated the ink-efficiency of different typefaces and created a simple way to measure them. We actually sketched out large words in a particular typeface using a ballpoint pen. The remaining ink left in the barrel of the pen worked like a bar graph - the more ink-efficient the typeface was, the more ink was left in the pen.
We chose eight of the most common typefaces. Like teenager Suvir Mirchandani, the most "eco" one turned out to be Garamond - the worst offender was the heavy, bold, suitably named Impact.
The idea of an "eco typeface" isn't particularly new. Ecofont is a program you can download that puts holes in typefaces so that when you print them, they use up less ink. The stationery shop Ryman has also done a similar thing with its Ryman Eco typeface. As both of these are created by design companies, they've been carefully designed to look good while also saving you ink.
So why hasn't everyone else already switched to Garamond? While these all make for interesting experiments, the reality of font choice isn't just as simple as ink efficiency. In terms of average day-to-day use, you won't notice any difference in printing costs by making the switch. As well as this, keen typographers are quick to point out that Garamond isn't necessarily more efficient, it just uses smaller letters, which in turn make it much harder to read when used at the same "font size". So it's not really a fair test.
The most important factor when it comes to choosing the right font isn't printing cost but clarity in terms of reading and comprehension. Therefore, the font you use for a birthday message or quick sign around the office is almost certainly not going to be suitable for writing an entire novel. Assuming you want to people to actually enjoy reading it.