Teen to government: Change your typeface, save millions
By Madeleine Stix, CNN
March 29, 2014 -- Updated 0730 GMT (1530 HKT)
(CNN) -- An e. You can write it with one
fluid swoop of a pen or one tap of the keyboard. The most commonly used
letter in the English dictionary. Simple, right?
Now imagine it printed out millions of times on thousands of forms and documents. Then think of how much ink would be needed.
OK, so that may have been
a first for you, but it came naturally to 14-year-old Suvir Mirchandani
when he was trying to think of ways to cut waste and save money at his
Pittsburgh-area middle school.
It all started as a
science fair project. As a neophyte sixth-grader at Dorseyville Middle
School, Suvir noticed he was getting a lot more handouts than he did in
Interested in applying
computer science to promote environmental sustainability, Suvir decided
he was going to figure out if there was a better way to minimize the
constant flurry of paper and ink.
Reducing paper use
through recycling and dual-sided printing had been talked about before
as a way to save money and conserve resources, but there was less
attention paid to the ink for which the paper served as a canvas for
history and algebra handouts.
"Ink is two times more expensive than French perfume by volume," Suvir says with a chuckle.
So Suvir decided to focus his project on finding ways to cut down on the costly liquid.
Collecting random samples of teachers' handouts, Suvir concentrated on the most commonly used characters (e, t, a, o and r).
First, he charted how
often each character was used in four different typefaces: Garamond,
Times New Roman, Century Gothic and Comic Sans. Then he measured how
much ink was used for each letter, using a commercial tool called
APFill® Ink Coverage Software.
Next he enlarged the
letters, printed them and cut them out on cardstock paper to weigh them
to verify his findings. He did three trials for each letter, graphing
the ink usage for each font.
From this analysis,
Suvir figured out that by using Garamond with its thinner strokes, his
school district could reduce its ink consumption by 24%, and in turn
save as much as $21,000 annually.
Encouraged by his teacher, Suvir looked to publish his findings and stumbled on the Journal for Emerging Investigators
(JEI), a publication founded by a group of Harvard grad students in
2011 that provides a forum for the work of middle school and high school
students. It has the same standards as academic journals, and each
submission is reviewed by grad students and academics.
14-year-old Suvir Mirchandani began studying fonts as part of a science fair project.
Sarah Fankhauser, one of
JEI's founders, says that of the nearly 200 submissions they have
received since 2011, Suvir's project was a real standout:
"We were so impressed. We really could really see the real-world application in Suvir's paper."
Fankhauser said Suvir's
findings were so clear, simple and well thought-out, it had the peer
reviewers at JEI asking, "How much potential savings is really out
For the answer, JEI challenged Suvir to apply his project to a larger scale: the federal government.
With an annual printing
expenditure of $1.8 billion, the government was a much more challenging
task than his school science project.
Suvir repeated his tests
on five sample pages from documents on the Government Printing Office
website and got similar results -- change the font, save money.
Will government printers embrace a change?
Using the General
Services Administration's estimated annual cost of ink -- $467 million
-- Suvir concluded that if the federal government used Garamond
exclusively it could save nearly 30% -- or $136 million per year. An
additional $234 million could be saved annually if state governments
also jumped on board, he reported.
Gary Somerset, media and
public relations manager at the Government Printing Office, describes
Suvir's work as "remarkable." But he was noncommittal on whether the GPO
would introduce changes to typeface, saying the GPO's efforts to become
more environmentally sustainable were focused on shifting content to
"In 1994, we were
producing 20,000 copies a day of both the Federal Register and
Congressional Record. Twenty years later, we produce roughly 2,500 print
copies a day," he said.
On top of this, the
Congressional Register is printed on recycled paper, which GPO has been
doing for five or six years, Somerset says.
One federal initiative
that focuses on minimizing ink-usage is called "Printwise." Organized by
the General Services Administration, it teaches government offices how
to default their computer settings to Times New Roman, Garamond and
Century Gothic to minimize printing waste. According to GSA's press
secretary Dan Cruz, they hope this type of initiative could save the
federal government up to $30 million annually.
Suvir appreciates the government's efforts, but he sees his project as a means of making an even bigger impact nationwide.
"Consumers are still printing at home, they can make this change too," he says.
Holding out hope
At 14, Suvir understands
how difficult such a project might be to implement -- "I recognize it's
difficult to change someone's behavior. That's the most difficult
But he holds out hope:
"I definitely would love to see some actual changes and I'd be happy to
go as far as possible to make that change possible."
With decades ahead to
lend a hand, Suvir and other young men and women like him may even be
able to untangle some of the knotty political and technical issues that
beset Washington, corporate suites and the world at large.