Green Spelling?

Have you ever found yourself wondering about what really goes into making a book? Do you ever wonder why a publisher chose a specific font, or what would happen if they changed it? How about the global costs in ink and paper of minor spelling variation?

This is stuff we have to ponder every day. And sometimes it leads our brains down some very weird and complex paths. Using our decades of experience in the world of printing, we decided to explore some quirky little ‘what-ifs’. The results were… surprising, to say the least.

The Font Everyone Loves to Hate

First off, let’s make something clear: printer ink is really, really expensive. How expensive? Well, so expensive that if you sold it by the litre, it would cost more than 4 identically-sized tubs of premium whiskey or Chanel No 5. It also wouldn’t smell so good either, but that’s another story.

Printer ink is so expensive that even something as innocuous a switch in font can harm surprising financial consequences. That’s right: not all fonts are created equal. For example, if this article were written in Comic Sans, it would use ever-so-slightly more ink (and no-one would be reading it). It’s a naturally chunky font, and using it at size 12 on a standard A4 sheet means 5.74% of your page will be covered in ink. For comparison, Helvetica gives an ink-coverage of 5.45%, while Garamond hits a low of 4.47%.

Now, these differences don't sound like much in anybody’s book. But believe us; the impact could be huge, even with much smaller numbers. Let’s take Helvetica for example. The difference in coverage between it and Comic Sans is around 5.32%. Now, let’s imagine a world where everyone uses Helvetica (it’s not hard to imagine – it’s already used by some of the biggest brands on Earth). Then imagine some unknown catastrophe (dragons?) causes every typographer on Earth to flip to the world’s most-hated font. Are you with us so far? OK, now here’s where it gets terrifying: the consequences would be extreme.

Thanks to this switch, we’d globally consume around 69 million extra ink cartridges a year. With an average cost of $23.15 per ink cartridge, this would leave the printing and typographic industries with a financial black hole to the tune of $1.6 billion. Its official, folks: using Comic Sans would lead to financial armageddon (plus hundreds of nervous breakdowns in the design industry alone).

Saving the Planet, One Word at a Time

This unsettling thought got us wondering what impact other changes might bring. We all know the centuries-long argument about British versus American spelling. Usually it just boils down to “you say color, I say colour.” But we wanted to see if it went deeper than that. So we decided to calculate the environmental impact of using one spelling over another.

First, we checked with Google Books Ngram to see how frequently ‘colour’ was used in its library of 8 million books. The answer didn’t sound like much – ‘colour’ accounts for 0.0027763711% of all words across their digital library – but we already knew from our earlier experiments that tiny sums can make big differences, so we carried on.

The next step involved us making some assumptions. For ease of calculation, we decided to assume an average page carried 500 words. So if ‘colour’ accounts for 0.0027763711% of all words, it should crop up at a rate of 0.013881856 occurrences per page.

Here’s where it gets complicated. We decided to assume that each word contains an average of 4.5 characters. This means an average of 2250 characters a page. Since ‘colour’ contains one an extra character, switching to ‘color’ would save us 0.013881856 characters per page. This means the average number of characters on any page would drop to 2249.986118.

As our number of characters drops, our page length drops too (by 0.000616971%). The upshot is that we’d wind up saving a whole page for every 162,082 we printed. And we humans print a lot of pages.

It’s been estimated that one tree makes 80,500 pages. This means that switching from ‘colour’ to ‘color’ would save us one tree for every 13 billion pages we print. Again, this may not sound like much, but consider the Harry Potter series. It’s been estimated that 1.9 trillion pages of Harry Potter have been printed (not including the reams of terrifying fan fiction out there). By using American spelling across the entire run, we could – in theory, and in our completely hypothetical scenario – have saved 145 trees. That’s equivalent to a decent-sized woodland.

Trees Galore!

Turn it to more-common words and the results are even-more impressive. We won’t spoil it for you, but did you know switching from ‘labour’ to ‘labor’ could save over 300 trees in a similar-sized print run? We’ve got the data on even more in our infographic below, along with further reasons you should have for hating Comic Sans (as if you needed them). Scroll on down to find out more.

License: Creative Commons Attribution No Derivatives 4.0.