Can a typeface save the government $234 million?

Correction: This story orginally included incorrect figures for estimated savings if the government changed all its fonts to Garamond. The estimates have been updated to $136 million by the federal government, and $97 million by state and local governments . The story has been corrected.

Fourteen-year-old Suvir Mirchandani made national headlines when he claimed that the federal government could save over $200 million simply by switching fonts on its documents. That claim is patently false. (Jeff Simon/The Washington Post)

A teenager from Pittsburgh made news this weekend with a simple plan to save the federal government hundreds of millions.

His idea: Garamond. Just get the government to use the same font for all its printing.

“The government could save almost $234 million simply by switching to that one font. That’s because the font is thinner, it’s lighter, it just simply uses less ink,” Suvir Mirchandani told CNN.

Mirchandani estimated that the federal government could save $136 million from this switch, and that state and local governments could save another $97 million.

Unfortunately, it looks like he’s wrong.

Experts on fonts and government printing said that Mirchandani had made a valuable point: by using more efficient fonts, it is possible to save both money and paper.

But they said he made two significant errors in his estimate of how easy it would be to convert the government to this single font--and how much money would be saved in the process.

For one thing, he seems to have significantly over-estimated what the government spends on ink in the first place.

In Mirchandani’s paper — published with a co-author in the Journal of Emerging Investigators — he estimated that the federal government spends $467 million on ink every year.

But the actual amount spent seems to be far less.

The Government Printing Office, for instance, only spent $750,000 on ink last year. And it handles about half of all the federal government’s printing (in his CNN interview, Mirchandani said he’d tried to check with the GPO during his research, but they didn’t get back to him until after the paper was done.)

The second problem is the font itself.

Garamond uses less ink because its letters are smaller than other fonts, if all are set for the same point size. That makes it cheaper.

But it also makes it harder to read.

“You’re making things that much less legible,” said Thomas Phinney, a font expert who wrote a blog post deconstructing the proposal to switch to Garamond. His objections were reported first at Fast Company Design.

“I‘m willing to bet that the people who are reading the printed versions are — on average — older, and are that much more likely to have vision issues,” Phinney said.

As it stands today, there is no single official federal-government font. Instead, the Government Printing Office prints in whatever font a federal agency asks it to — including, in some cases, Garamond.

“GPO appreciates Suvir’s suggestion and will carefully review its applicability to the government documents we produce in print,” said Gary Somerset, a spokesman for the GPO, in an e-mail.

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
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