Ballpoint pens as ink meters: are serif fonts greener?


You may have heard from Slashdot that the University of Wisconsin is switching from Arial, a sans-serif font, to Century Gothic, a serif** font that uses 30% less ink, for default printing. The university hopes to save ink, which is both thrifty and eco-friendly. But you may not have seen this art project by Matt Robinson and Tom Wrigglesworth: they used ballpoint pens to scribble large-scale test versions of various fonts on a wall, and the ink level afterward was an analog readout for which font uses more ink. Ingenious!


Word to the nitpicky: while there's no rule that a sans-serif font will always use more ink than a serif font, serif fonts can get away with thinner uprights because the serifs (the little "feet" or flares on the ends of the letters) offer the eye added information that makes the letter more readable. So generally speaking, serif fonts can have lighter ink footprints. And while a more rigorous way of testing the ink utilization of different fonts would of course be to print thousands of identical pages of text in a controlled trial on identical printers with identical ink cartridges (you'd better believe industry already has that information), I love the DIY ingenuity of this project - and the fact that the difference is so obvious. Perhaps we should all consider switching to serif fonts - for readability and ecology? (You're exempt if you're a typography maven who could film a short video about why sans-serif fonts are more pure and aesthetic - you know who you are).

Via tech president. See more of Matt Robinson and Tom Wrigglesworth's artwork here - including fun with inkjet printers.

Note: astute reader Matt caught that Century Gothic, unlike Century (what I was thinking of), is a sans-serif font. So in this case, the University of Wisconsin is not doing what I'd recommend at all. Maybe they should scribble on some walls and see how readable they think a weenie thin sans-serif typeface really is? Ugh! Terrible!

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Interesting... I'm forwarding this to our typesetters/designers!

Another reason to dump the absolutely horrid unreadable Arial travesty.

The ink efficiency is a nice added bonus to the better legibility of serif fonts. I wish there was some little Firefox add-on that would convert all ScienceBlog posts to a serif font.

I hear ya. To make our blogs serif on SB's system, we have to tweak the default code. I did at one point following PZ Myers' example, but later on a MT update broke my font, and I couldn't get it to return to normalcy, so I gave up. I prefer Wordpress, which is a lot easier in my experience to control.

I wish there was some little Firefox add-on that would convert all ScienceBlog posts to a serif font.

Already exists and is built into the browser. On Firefox for the Mac, the command sequence is:
Preferences>Content>Default Font>Advanced and clear the default check mark in the option, Allow pages to choose their own fonts, instead of my selections above. Of course, you need to select a Serif font in the selections, even the one for Sans Serif if you want to override certain style sheets.Not sure what the command sequence is for the Windows platform, but it's similar. Google chrome doesn't appear to have such an option.

By Onkel Bob (not verified) on 28 Mar 2010 #permalink

Century Gothic is a sans-serif font. It's sort of a spiritual descendant of Futura, which is of course one of the most legendary sans-serifs ever.

As much as I like Century Gothic though, it's better for labeling, signage, and short text. As body text it tends to be hard to read.

Whoops, Matt you are quite right. I misread it as "Century" (which is serif). Now I completely disapprove of what they're doing - why the heck would you move to a thin sans-serif font when serif fonts are available? That's not being smart about typeface readability, it's just being cheap on the ink and cruel to the eyes!