The Importance of Document Design

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Category: Legal Practice, Legal Writing, Public
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Jim Dimitri’s article, WordWise:  Best Practices in Document Design, is a must read for any lawyer interested in taking advantage of document design in drafting legal documents. Dimitri advises that a writer should “use the most readable font” and “use effective vertical and horizontal spacing” in designing a legal document. Dimitri’s article is useful not only for the advice he gives, but because he defines key concepts in document design, such as monospaced fonts (which “use the same width for each letter”) and proportionally spaced fonts (which use “different widths for different letters”). Dimitri suggests that a writer use proportionally spaced fonts because they are easier to read.

Dimitri also distinguishes between serif and sans serif fonts. The letters in serif fonts have “an extra stroke,” while sans serif fonts do not. Dimitri notes that serif fonts are easier to read than sans serif, and he recommends Baskerville, Book Antiqua, Calisto MT, Century, and Century Schoolbook serif fonts. He also explains why Times New Roman, which seems to be out of favor recently, should not be used in standard legal texts. Times New Roman was designed for reading in narrow columns.

What comes through in Dimitri’s article is that typeface is not simply an aesthetic, it is a matter of readability. So, choose your typeface with readability in mind, thinking about the audience, the size of the page, and whether the text will be read online or hard copy. Screen readability is increasingly important, and Dimitri recommends sans serif for computer or tablet screens.  Examples of sans serif include Helvetica, Franklin Gothic, Gill Sans, Optima, and Arial, although Dimitri notes that Matthew Butterick, the author of Typography for Lawyers, does not favor Arial.

One of the points I found most interesting is that Dimitri recommends using one space after each sentence. Those of us who learned how to type on a typewriter might find that difficult to do, but Dimitri told me that it takes about a day or two of concerted effort to change to one space. Using two spaces is inappropriate with proportionally spaced fonts because those fonts create “’rivers’ of white space that disrupt a reader’s eye movement through the text.” (I went back and changed my spacing to one space in this blog.) Dimitri also suggests aligning text on the left, instead of justifying it. Justifying text creates additional white space on the page, which makes it more difficult to read. I couldn’t agree more.

Dimitri stresses that a person should use these suggestions within the perimeters of the rules set forth by a court. Courts, too, care about readability and document design. The Seventh Circuit, for instance, links to Ruth Anne Robbins’ article, Painting with Print. In using computers, attorneys have more choices now in how to create a document, and with those choices comes a responsibility to make sure that the document is visually pleasing and legible.

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2 Responses to “The Importance of Document Design”

  1. Good article. It amazes me how many attorneys use Times New Roman 12 point font as their standard font. Apparently, they fail to grasp the concept that size font is too small to read. They claim they can get more words on a page that way. True, but it is a nightmare trying to read documents with tiny fonts. I wonder what this font I am typing in right now is?

  2. Melissa Greipp Says:

    Times New Roman does seem to fit more words on the page than some of the other fonts. Times New Roman has been around since 1932, by the way. It was originally commissioned for The Times, a British newspaper.

    Justifying takes up more room on the page, so that’s another reason to avoid it.

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