Measuring font ink-use by hand-drawing sample text with ball-point pens

Clever work by Matt Robinson and Tom Wrigglesworth: they drew the same piece of sample text in several fonts at large scale using transparent Bic pens, then measured the remaining ink in the barrels to show the comparative consumption used by each face. Yes, you could probably write some code that calculated the area used by the faces described in their PostScript files, but where would the fun be in that?

Measuring Type (via Kottke)


  1. At first inspection I see two problems:

    1. If more than one person performed the task, there would likely be differences in the way they performed the task, and thus with how much ink they used.
    2. If any strokes overlapped, and this did not occur randomly and equally for all fonts, this would affect the amount of ink used.

    As suggested, calculating area used would be far simpler, and I suspect almost perfect in accuracy. In terms of fun, hmmmm… I suppose some people might find the hand-drawn task fun.

  2. Ridiculous. The stroke width of Helvetica is significantly heavier, at the same em and height of Garamond, for everything but the tiniest optical size with huge ink spreads.

    This is misleading and incorrect.

    1. I’m confused as to why that makes this wrong. If the stroke width is wider, doesn’t that mean that Helvetica would use more ink than Garamond? And that’s what they’re showing here, Helvetica used the most ink and Garamond used the least. Maybe you’re mis-reading this – the amount of ink used is shown by the empty part of the pen, not the remaining ink.

      To everyone else, this is just something fun to do! They don’t mean it to be a practical thing. If you read a Cockeyed “how much is inside?” article, do you say “they should have contacted the manufacturer and found out what the volume of the anterior posthesis of the zzzzzzzz”

    2. Anonymous #2, I think you’re misreading the graphic. What you’re seeing is the ink that wasn’t used. The Helvetica pen has the least ink because the most was used in writing/drawing/making Helvetica.

      Also, for those of you getting alllllll worked up about the inaccuracy here, as the title perfectly states, they’re only “measuring font ink-use by hand-drawing sample text with ball-point pens” and nothing else. It’s not science. It’s just fun. Lighten up.

  3. Measuring how much ink print fonts use on test strings when particular hipsters draw them by hand with pens. This measures what, apart from the obvious? Useless wank.

    If it’s really an issue, test it with something that will actually be printed – a few issues of the Wherever Times for instance. With a printer.

  4. Reminds me of the accounting program I write in university.

    It would copy any file sentto the printer, render it in ghostscript as bitmaps of the same resolution and count the black pixels.

  5. You know, someone should calculate which font uses the least amount of ink with random text, and with a news article. I wonder if newspapers could potentially save money by switching to a less ink-intensive font?

    Just a thought.

    1. There is the Ecofont, which has “holes” in the letters so less ink is used. At normal print sizes the holes are so small the bleed from the printing process fills them in.

      A display at my extremely eco-conscious workplace used the font, it was not noticeable except for the largest headings on the display, where the holes were visible but didn’t reduce the legibility.

  6. Amusing, but… Like too many websites today, their own text is presented in pale gray: hard for my older eyes!

  7. Write/print Black ink on a white sheet – scan and count the black pixels? – If you really want accuracy accumulate the shades of grey, too

  8. As others have pointed out, this way doesn’t actually tell you anything, except “how much ink does this particular person use in replicating common typefaces by hand (for some reason)”. For actually useful data, calculate the area with letters weighted for usage frequency.

  9. Change “Yes, you could probably write some code that calculated the area used by the faces described in their PostScript files” to “Yes, you SHOULD write some code…”

    I agree with the skeptics here. There are a lot of issues with how this is done. I don’t know if any of you have ever tried to write with a ball point pen or the type they use on a wall, but I have found that when I do that the thing runs out of ink. They need to be pointed head down to write. It was the first thing I noticed.

    It has the cachet of taking something very easy (measuring the area of black text) and turning it into something hard for art (measuring the area of black text by coloring it in by hand and noting the level of the ink used on the pen).

  10. Whose Courier? Monotype’s Courier New (Windows) is painfully thin. Bitstream’s Courier (OS X), inspired by the IBM Selectric type ball is considerably heavier.

    Looks like they used the Monotype. Ugh.

  11. why is everyone so critical about this, its just a simple illustrative point. a nice idea that doesn’t need picking apart its not like they are using it for official statistics or anything?!

    1. “why is everyone so critical about this, its just …. a nice idea that doesn’t need picking apart”

      Heh…. A project that involves

      A. Typography
      B. Measurement

      needs a SHITLOAD of picking apart, always. Have you ever met someone who makes or modifies type for a living? Or measures stuff all day in a lab?

      I liked their HP ad, but these guys took the wring subjects lightly. :)

  12. Several comments about ink usage have come up, and I think I’m going to weight in on them. If you follow the link, you’ll notice that helvetica in comparison to the typefaces hand rendered before it take up the most surface area. The project imitates the “font samples” that are generated in a program like Illustrator when selecting what typeface you wish to use. Each typeface is rendered at the same point size, but because the relative “size” of each typeface is different (12pt Garamond is “smaller” than 12 pt Helvetica), the amount of ink used to render characters can vary widely (this all depends on kerning, leading, x-height, line height, etc… of a typeface).

  13. I remember reading some years ago about a newspaper that switched to another fonttype to save ink. Maybe someone knows about this? It could have been a Dutch newspaper.

  14. Weight is usually the easiest thing to measure accurately.

    What you do is have a printer put a fixed amount of text onto paper and weigh the paper or ink cartridge before and after.

  15. I think that the people who criticize this have way too much time on their hands, and should learn to have a little fun…

  16. I can’t decide whether this is typography-analness done poorly, or someone taking an artistic stab at anal-retentive typographers.

    Either way, it’s funny. I’m just unsure which kind of funny. Which is discomfiting… which in turn is always a good thing in art.!

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