Turning the Page on Sustainability - Praxis
Turning the Page on Sustainability

Turning the Page on Sustainability

By constantly questioning the status quo and exploring innovative solutions, the design team of this US publishing giant is finding ways to reduce waste without compromising the magic of the printed page


As the world gets hotter each year, and India burns under a severe heatwave sweeping across the country, everyone seems to be waking up to the reality about how humans have brought this misery upon themselves by destroying forests and cutting down trees. Unfortunately, the publishing industry is a major contributor to global warming with a massive carbon footprint (CF).

A case study conducted at Dalian University of Technology revealed that the typical CF associated with a scientific publication amounts to 5.44 kilograms of CO2. This is equivalent to an energy consumption of 37.65 megajoules (MJ). Findings from another 2009 study indicate that newspapers, office use, magazines, books, retail transactions, and various other applications constitute more than 80% of the total Global Warming Potential (GWP) attributed to the publishing industry.

110,000 Trees & Harry Potter

Almost two decades ago, The Guardian newspaper in an article estimated that it took 110,000 trees to publish just one of the Harry Potter books. The Shotton Paper Mill (which provided paper for the Guardian) estimated in their models that 8.5 trees (each 10m tall and 30cm wide) produce about one tonne of paper. If we assume that approximately 13 million copies of the book has been printed, each copy weighs 1 kilogram, and none on recycled paper –110,000 trees would be required.

But things are about to change. In the world of publishing, the focus is often on the captivating narratives and thought-provoking ideas that fill the pages of books. However, the unsung heroes behind the scenes, the designers at leading publishing houses, are playing a crucial role in creating not just aesthetically pleasing, but also environmentally sustainable, reading experiences.

Publishing Ranks 3rd in Carbon Footprint

Let’s face it: traditional book publishing substantially impacts the environment and from multiple angles – cutting down of trees, CO2 released in the production process, as well as wastes created. Following are some shocking facts at random:

  • Estimates reveal that the US publishing sector annually consumes 32 million trees
  • Book production is alleged to be the third highest industrial CO2
  • The publishing industry globally emits over 40 million tons of CO2 each year
  • Every year 16,000 truckloads of unread books are dumped as waste, accounting for 10 million cut trees.

Design Thinking at Harper Collins

HarperCollins, one of the Big Five publishers in the United States, publishes around 10,000 new books each year in 16 languages. In 2023, HarperCollins had 171 titles on The New York Times print and digital bestsellers list, with 28 of them reaching the top spot. That’s a lot of books and indeed forests of trees felled. This was bothering the company and their designers decided to do something about it. So, they put on their design thinking hats to come up with a unique solution to save thousands of trees, by making a single tweak to their book design.  These book designers decided to play around with fonts and layout to cut down the number of pages of the thousands of books they publish each year, without sacrificing readability and design.

Sustainable Innovation

The HarperCollins design team, led by Leah Carlson-Stanisic – the associate director of design, used a remarkable innovation to reduce their carbon footprint. When a new manuscript arrives, Carlson-Stanisic and her team carefully considers the appropriate font, drawing from their expertise and intuition to select a typeface that best captures the essence of the content, whether it’s a historical serif for a work of fiction or a modern sans serif for a technology-focused title. That’s the usual practice.

But Carlson-Stanisic and her colleagues have taken their design prowess a step further, putting their skills towards a critical new mission: minimising the environmental impact of HarperCollins’ publications. By thoughtfully tweaking fonts, layout, and even the ink used, the designers are able to pack more content onto each page while maintaining optimal readability. These subtle, almost imperceptible changes have already led to a staggering 245.6 million pages saved – the equivalent of 5,618 trees.

350 Pages Less Per Bible

The journey towards more sustainable book design began within HarperCollins’ Christian publishing division, Zondervan Bibles. Historically, Bibles have used upwards of 2,500 pages, but in 2015, the Zondervan team developed a new compact typeface called the NIV Comfort Print that allowed them to reduce the page count by over 350 per Bible. This resulted in a total savings of 100 million pages in 2017 alone.

Inspired by this success, Tracey Menzies, the VP of creative operations and production at HarperCollins, wanted to explore the application of these eco-friendly design principles across the publisher’s entire catalogue. The team put their ingenuity to the test, experimenting with dozens of different fonts and layouts to find the most compact yet readable options. They ultimately curated a list of 15 “eco-friendly” fonts that will now be the go-to choices for HarperCollins’ designers. In one example, they found that setting the same text in Garamond Pro versus Bembo resulted in significantly more words per page – a difference that is virtually imperceptible to the reader.

Eco-friendly Fonts

Of course, balancing sustainability and aesthetics posed some challenges. Heavier fonts like Bodoni allowed for more words per page, but the large characters led to ink bleed-through, making the text on the opposing page harder to read. As Carlson-Stanisic explained in conversation with the media, “The designer is always balancing out not just a single page, but also what’s on the page before and the page after”.

Ultimately, the HarperCollins team has demonstrated that smart, thoughtful design can drive substantial environmental impact. For the book “So Fetch”, using a more eco-friendly font saved nearly 1 million pages over the course of its print run. These sustainable practices don’t have to come at the expense of reading experience. It was simply a different approach that didn’t sacrifice aesthetics.

As the publishing industry continues to evolve, HarperCollins’ commitment to designing for sustainability serves as an inspiring model. By constantly questioning the status quo and exploring innovative solutions, the design team is finding ways to reduce waste without compromising the magic of the printed page. It’s an incredible demonstration of the power of design to drive meaningful change and create a more sustainable future for the publishing industry.


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