Updated: Feb 21, 2022
Some typefaces are designed to be legible, others to be beautiful, others to be odd, eccentric and quirky. But some typefaces are designed for very specific purposes and extend into important world issues, far removed from the pages they’re printed on.
Today we’re diving into typefaces that serve a higher purpose than just looking pretty. Instead, these typefaces aim to help make the world a better place from an environmental perspective. While I will be the first to say that there are MUCH larger and more impactful ways we can help reduce the consumption of resources (ex: challenging consumer culture on all fronts - in fashion, consumer products, food waste, excessive packaging, and LOTS more), I think the fact that design can have the power to produce a more environmentally friendly final product that aims to uses less ink, but also get us thinking is a very good thing; design that can nudge us to change our behaviours in so many other areas in our lives to create a much, much greater impact.
Let’s have a look at 3 different designs that try to save the world, one typeface at a time.
Although author of Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, Simon Garfield, places Ecofont at #8 on his list of The 21 Worst Fonts in the World, there’s a lot to be said about Ecofont. It’s designed to save ink and therefore also save money and the planet in the process.
Ecofont isn’t actually a font so much as software that takes existing typefaces and “prints them as if they had been attacked by moths” as Simon unapologetically states. He argues that because of the holes pecked into them, their weight, and therefore their true beauty, is lost. Although you can save approximately 25% of the ink consumption using Ecofont software, the design misses the mark. Function over form isn’t always a welcomed concept in the world of design.
Simon goes on to suggest just using thinner weight faces that naturally use less ink and/or not printing out the drafts at all (we’ll get to that later) are other ways to save that don’t involve using the “Swiss cheese” of fonts.
Money Saving Garamond
What if the world’s most eco friendly typeface has been right under our noses for over 400 years? Designed in the 16th Century by french type designer, Claude Garamond, there have since been a number of iterations and remakes of the face, including the 1989-released Adobe Garamond. Garamond is an Old-Style serif text face designed to be used to typeset long blocks of copy. The typeface mimics handwriting with a pen but with a more formalized structure.
In 2014, CNN reported the following story headline: Teen to government: Change your typeface, save millions. 14-year-old Suvir Mirchandani worked on a money-saving research project that found him smack-dab in the middle of the world of fonts. Suvir noticed that he was receiving a lot more handouts in middle school than he did in elementary school. This prompted him to want to find creative environmental solutions different than simply not printing the handouts. In a live interview on CNN (brave soul!), he said that his research pointed to the use of typefaces on official government documents, specifically ways to reduce the overall ink volume on printed documents. Suvir notes that "Ink is two times more expensive than French perfume by volume”.
And his research process was fairly rigorous (especially for a middle-schooler who was only in sixth grade at the time… I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I was lip syncing to the Spice Girls and making friendship bracelets when I was his age). He collected random samples of teacher’s handouts and focused on commonly used characters, including e, t, a, o and r. He identified four specific typefaces to study: Garamond, Times New Roman, Century Gothic and Comic Sans. He used a commercial application called APFill® Ink Coverage Software to measure how much ink was used for each letter in each typeface. To verify his findings, he enlarged and printed out each of the letters to measure and chart the ink usage. His research concluded that using the typeface Garamond would save 24% ink consumption and could save the school board as much as $21,000 annually.
This led the preteen’s teacher to suggest he publish the findings and the Journal for Emerging Investigators that uses the same standards as academic journals but focused on publishing the works of middle school and high school students. The journal’s reviewers saw the huge real-world potential of Suvir’s findings and advised him to look bigger, which was aimed at the US federal government with an annual printing budget of $1.8 billion. The General Services Administration estimates the annual cost of ink at $467 million and Suvir found that using Garamond exclusively could save nearly 30% or $136 million. And he estimates that an additional $234 million could be saved if each of the states jumps on board.
Of course, switching typefaces isn’t necessarily as easy as it sounds. There’s significant time and cost involved in re-typesetting the documents. There’s also a question of why the specific typeface was chosen to begin with. Is Garamond more (or at least as) legible than the current option? Is it as accessible? Does this typeface perform the same typographic functions as the typeface currently used? It’a a fine balance between ink consumption and the legibility and readability requirements of a typeface. For example, fine lines often don’t translate well to print at small sizes, exasperated when printed on uncoated porous paper.
I also have to question whether this $1.8 billion expenditure includes toner-based printing (toner-based devices are much less expensive to print per page and last a lot longer when compared to inkjet), as well as commercial printing costs. I would be hard-pressed to believe that the $1.8 billion figure represents office printers alone. I would think some or even a significant chunk of this cost is in commercial printing costs, where the ink is much less expensive than its liquid inkjet counterparts. So while I see the novelty and value in Suvir’s research, I also have some questions as to how much savings there would be in reality, based on the government’s printing devices; specifically how much printing happens on very expensive inkjet-based printers, versus toner-based printers and commercial printing devices.
Buuuuuuutttt, if Garamond is good enough for Dr. Suess and Harry Potter, it’s good enough for me.
Here’s a typeface actually designed with sustainability at it’s (very hollow) core. Ryman Eco was designed by Monotype in partnership with UK stationery company, Ryman. It was released in 2014 and you can download the typeface for free at: rymaneco.co.uk. It can save up to 33% of ink usage and the company touts that it’s “the world’s most beautiful sustainable font”. In a similar methodology to Ecofont’s holy letterforms, Ryman Eco contains stylized hollow channeled centres. Designer Dan Rhatigan’s aim was to minimize the surface area of every letter that “capitalizes on the imprecision of everyday printing”. At small sizes these channels are filled in with ink, creating the illusion of a fully filled letter. At larger sizes it acts as an ornate-looking display face; the negative space acting as a design feature. Form and function.
Dan makes an excellent point in a video discussing the benefits of using Ryman Eco. He argues that we’re not harming the environment with all of the ink used; “rather it’s the packaging of all the ink cartridges, it’s all that plastic, the envelopes that those cartridges go into. If you reduce the amount of ink, it’s not just the ink savings but it’s the savings of all material that holds that ink.”
In an article about the typeface by The Huffington Post, they report there are critics of Ryman Eco. Naysayers espouse that the solution of cutting ink consumption is simply not the answer. They argue that ending the world’s reliance on paper communication is the answer.
Well... yes and no.
The independent not-for-profit paper advocate, Two Sides North America, aims to debunk myths about paper consumption and work towards anti-green washing, showing the world that paper is a sustainable resource. There is A LOT of information to comb through on their website, but some of the highlights include:
Papermaking is not a cause of forest loss in North America - the main causes include urbanization, agriculture and hydroelectric projects
The use of forest products, like paper, has encouraged landowners to grow and manage more paper products; in the U.S., forests grew by more than 1200 NFL football fields per day in the 30 years between 1990 and 2020.
“Go green - go paperless” campaigns are unsubstantiated; the energy consumption required for digital technologies is increasing by 9% each year
This is a huge topic and area for debate in the graphic communications industry - there are so many factors to consider throughout the lifecycle of a product that make a one-size-fits-all solution impossible. Much like I expressed at the beginning of this episode that it’s naive to believe that simply using a different typeface will have a large impact on ‘saving the world’, Ryman Eco’s designer Dan states: “I don’t expect using 33% less ink to save the world directly, but I expect it to be one step in a bigger conversation about how we can save things. I expect it to be one gesture that triggers you to think about what else you can do to make an impact.”
I couldn’t agree more.
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