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Thinking Green for Earth Day

What is a “green font”?

My friend Joanna sent me an email a couple of weeks ago saying, “I heard a news blip this morning that I thought was sort of fascinating.” She went on to quote the news item about the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay’s decision to switch to Century Gothic as the default for all printed campus e-mails.

“You should design a ‘green’ font,” she urged.

I began to respond with a dissertation about how there are plenty of so-called “green” fonts already, but it got me thinking.

As some news articles have noted, most fonts that are light in weight or narrow in width will save ink and paper, compared to Arial. This also made me think of EcoFont, which was critiqued on Typophile upon its release. Some posters thought it was too gimmicky. Is there really anything that can be called a “green” font?

If you really want to talk about saving resources, the first thing that springs to my mind is Bell Centennial — the godfather of “green” fonts.

Back in 1974, AT&T commissioned Matthew Carter to design a new typeface for their phone directories. Matthew designed Bell Centennial so that while it looked bigger and more legible, it was actually being set at the same size, and narrower. AT&T saved an average of something like 5 lines per column. That might not sound like much, but if you multiply the number of lines by the number of columns by the number of directory pages by the number of editions, it really adds up. As Matthew tells it, “In 1978, nobody thought about saving trees, but AT&T did think about their paper bill. I do not know if they ever made an exact calculation of the savings, but I do know they were extremely happy.”

Back to the present. I got to thinking about which of our fonts might make a better substitute than Arial. Or Century Gothic. After all, as Allan Haley noted in one article, Century Gothic is quite wide and really more suitable for headlines, not extended reading text.

But light, space-saving, and readable? Hey, we’ve definitely got some of those. Here are just a few examples:

Franklin Condensed Thin
ITC Franklin
The heart of readability is familiarity. Everyone knows Franklin, whether they’re aware of it or not. With our recent expansion, we’ve added thinner weights that don’t use much ink and read quite nicely. There are even some narrow styles that save even more space.

Amplitude Condensed Light
This typeface takes inspiration from faces with ink traps (such as Bell Centennial). These funny notches are mostly meant for newspapers, to allow the ink to spread on cheap paper without clogging up the letter details. Does it save ink? Mmm, possibly. They definitely add character. Amplitude has a wider range of weights and widths, and the light styles work surprisingly well at tiny sizes.

Spira Light
This little gem doesn’t get used enough, in my opinion.

Amira Light
Who knew that hacking the serifs off Prensa would result in such a lovely sans? The lighter styles not only use less ink, but they bring beauty to the world.

In the words of Mike Parker, “Oldstyle diagonal emphasis relieves buildup of critical elements at the widest part of each character as heavy curves move to corners.” This typeface was designed with continuous text in mind.

Interstate Hairline
You really want thin? What about Interstate Hairline? Ok, I’m only joking. This just shows you, you can go too far. You’d be sacrificing legibility to use this weight as text.

Happy Earth Day, everyone.