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Good typography promotes readability; and remember the 5 monkeys

By January 5, 2011law

Screen shot 2011-01-04 at 5.16.04 PM Continuing on with this week's theme (e.g. Typography for Lawyers is a great book and every lawyer and judge should read it), today we consider the issue of readability. We shall conclude today's post with a enlightening video about 5 monkeys.

Proposition #1: Lawyers produce many documents that they assume (or even hope) that people will be able to read. Putting aside the formidable barrier created by the obtuse language that lawyers use, let's assume that lawyers write stuff that can actually be understood by their readers.

In the world of litigation lawyers create briefs. Most courts have rules about the formatting of such briefs. Usually, the rules prescribe a font no smaller than 12 pt, and line spacing that is double spaced. Why were these formatting rules created? Probably no one really knows, but certainly many lawyers and judges will offer opinions as though they were present when the committees debated these lofty questions.

Question #1: Do the typical rules created by these long dead, unheralded committees actually improve readability? Or to put it another way, what purpose were these rules trying to achieve?

One possible answer was to level the playing field. In a world with page limits on briefs it makes sense to constrain all typeface and line spacing choices to a standard that all are bound by. And in the era where typewriters ruled the earth, this might make sense.

In today's world, where computers dominate, the question of proportionality can be addressed by a limit on the number of words that a brief can contain.

Another possible reason that 12 point type and double lines are prescribed is readability. And I have no doubt that many lawyers and judges would proclaim this to be the paramount reason. Which leads me to this question: what exactly to lawyers and judges know about making type readable?

Any lawyer or judge who uses ALL CAPS TO MAKE A POINT OR FOR ANY PURPOSE OTHER THAN TO LIST A ONE LINE CAPTION, BY DEFINITION, fails to understand readability. Lawyers use ALL CAPS all the time. Rare is the lawyer who knows that using all caps significantly reduces readability because….(wait for it) words have shapes and our brain works faster when we can detect the shapes.

I knew that before I read Butterick's book (Typography for Lawyers). What I didn't know was that the same is true for excessively large type and excessive line spacing. The thing about Butterick's arguments is that they're made from a true understanding of what enhances readability, or what conveys professionalism.

Lawyers and judges can say what they want about their expertise in typography. Just like the average citizen can proclaim herself an expert in constitutional rights. But actually knowing something is not the same as believing you know it. And it's pretty clear that, whatever lawyers and judges tend to believe, they really don't know much about proper typography. Hell, many of them don't know how to write properly.

So, why do we continue to use bad captions, ALL CAPS, bad font choices and line spacing in our professional documents? The answer is simple and it has to do with the 5 monkeys. The next time you see someone doing something just because it's been done that way for a long time, pause and think about how much we “intelligent humans” are like monkeys.


P.S. If you appreciate my observations, you might want to join my inner circle.
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