Design in government is worth the cost

A lot of people have been sharing a story about a teen who suggested the federal government could save millions of dollars by switching all fonts used in printing to Garamond.

I can understand how people would think this is cool. It involved a clever experiment that looked at the shapes of the letterforms used in a number of different fonts used in documents printed by the federal government. By looking at which letterforms would use less ink, the experiment led to the conclusion that millions of dollars could be saved by using Garamond. Pretty cool, right?

I have to admit, I have a soft spot in my heart for Garamond. It is one of my favorite serif fonts. That said, should everything be printed in Garamond? Absolutely not.

Typography is a fundamental part of design, and as my design instructors drilled into me, design is about contrast. Contrast, contrast, contrast.

Contrast thick letterforms with thinner ones, sans-serifs with serifs, bold colors with softer colors.

I disagree with the idea that the government should simply use the thinnest letterform available, purely to save money on printing.

Design is about solving problems visually so that we can communicate more effectively. Bringing a project in on budget is certainly a part of design problem solving. However, choosing to remove all typographic contrast, simply to save a buck, seems incredibly shortsighted to me.

Too often I have seen people look at design costs in government as wasteful spending.

I look at the cost of design as essential. If we want government services to function well, for government communications to be easy to understand, for government information to be accessible and maybe even enjoyable, then the cost of design is the price of admission.

Last weekend, my wife and I took our daughter to the Union Depot in St.Paul so she could have her 18-month photos taken.

The Union Depot was recently remodeled as a revived transit hub, and it is beautiful. I found the usage of color, texture and materials throughout the Union Depot stunning. I am sure it cost a great deal of money to create a Union Depot that works well in part because it looks great.

I would bet that more people will make use of the Union Depot, because being in the building is such a delight. That is money well spent.

I am not advocating spending money willy-nilly. If there are two fonts that look similar, and both can serve just as well in the design, but using one saves a significant amount of money, by all means, that is a choice worth considering.

However if we are choosing all fonts purely based on cost, we might as well use Didot for everything. The incredibly thin strokes in Didot surely would save money, even though they would render the text unreadable.

Garamond is a flexible font, and if there is any font I had to use for the rest of my life, that would be near the top of my list.

Kudos to the teen for an interesting experiment, even if I believe that the recommendations are misguided.

Let’s value design in government. The cost is well worth it if we want government to work well.