As was widely reported in late March, a 14-year-old student discovered that the federal government could save $136 million of its $467 million ink expenditure by simply switching to a lighter typeface for printed materials -- something Davis, Calif., officials began doing about five months ago.

For his middle school science project, Suvir Mirchandani discovered that the ink saved by using a font like Garamond rather than the usual Times New Roman would quickly lead to cost savings -- not only the $136 million per year for the federal government, but also an additional $234 million annually if state governments follow suit. School districts, too, he found could save as much as $21,000 annually and reduce ink consumption by 24 percent.

Gary Somerset, media and public relations manager at the Government Printing Office, described Suvir's work to CNN as "remarkable." Whether the GPO would introduce changes to typeface, however, was unclear. Somerset was noncommittal, according to CNN, saying the GPO's efforts to become more environmentally sustainable were focused on shifting content to the Web -- something also happening at both the state and local levels.

"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 told the news outlet.

In Davis, Calif., a policy began rolling out in December 2013 to use the Arial font for all printed materials, which was also found to be less expensive than Times New Roman. It’s a small, low-risk change that can potentially have a big impact, said Chief Innovation Officer Rob White, and it also starts an interesting conversation about how governments operate in general.

Mirchandani identified that the most difficult part of such a change is that it’s asking people to change their behavior, which can be difficult to achieve. White agreed that that assessment is dead-on. “We see that in city government and we see that broadly in government in general – the constant feedback loop of this is, 'The way we’ve done it, and this is the way we’ll continue to do it,'" he said, "even though they might be presented just a slight change."

In Davis, the change to a lighter typeface is part of a larger sustainability effort, White said, and it goes along with reducing many other things, including the amount of items printed overall. “We’re reducing the actual amount of time spent on doing any of the work,” White said. “So instead of staff reports and packets and information to the public that are tens of pages long, which has been the case in the past, we’re moving those to two and three and four pages, or single-page handouts, or an infographic.”

White said that overall, staff members have been receptive to the idea to a degree that he didn’t expect. In addition to the immediate cost savings, White added, Arial is easier to read than Times New Roman.

About 100 miles south west in Palo Alto, Calif., CIO Jonathan Reichental agreed that the change is great idea. “No one is going to say that changing typeface is a poor idea, and it’s certainly worth doing,” he said. “Enforcement, I think, is going to be a little bit tough. What are you going to do if you see somebody not using it? Are you going to reprimand them? It’s kind of quirky in that respect.”

It’s a good idea, he said, but like White, Reichental says the idea should be framed in the larger context of how government should change its operations in bigger ways. Reducing ink consumption is a good idea, he said, but moving toward printing out less materials in general is the direction everyone is headed, and that is perhaps a more important focus.

In Palo Alto, offifcials haven’t run the numbers, but he said he’s sure they could save money by switching typeface. “Printing is the exception rather than the norm, and overall we can bring down costs, and paper and ink is a big cost, as is the maintenance for printers,” he said. “There are real costs.”

His city is interested in staying a leading digital city, and a big part of that will be to move more things to the digital platform as more people use devices like laptops and tablets to access data in their daily lives.

Colin Wood Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com and on Google+.