why does typography matter?

Conserves reader attention

Typog­ra­phy mat­ters because it helps con­serve the most valu­able resource you have as a writer— reader atten­tion.

Atten­tion is the reader’s gift to you. That gift is pre­cious. It is finite. And if you fail to be a respect­ful stew­ard of that gift, it will be revoked.

Once your reader revokes the gift of atten­tion, you’ve achieved only the low­est form of writ­ing. Yes, you scat­tered some words across some pages. But your reader dis­ap­peared. So what was the point? Your writ­ing might as well be a ran­dom string of char­ac­ters. Like the prover­bial tree falling in the woods, no one’s there to notice the dif­fer­ence.

What could be more pre­sump­tu­ous? Or dan­ger­ous?

Writ­ing as if you have unlim­ited reader atten­tion is pre­sump­tu­ous because read­ers aren’t doing you a favor. Read­ing your writ­ing is not their hobby. It’s their job. And their job involves pay­ing atten­tion to lots of other writ­ing. Your judge has not set aside your motion for sum­mary judg­ment so she can savor it dur­ing her upcom­ing vaca­tion to Maui. More likely, it’s just one doc­u­ment in a pile of hun­dreds, all com­pet­ing for her atten­tion.

I’ll even go one bet­ter: I believe that most read­ers are look­ing for rea­sons to stop read­ing. Not because they’re mali­cious or aloof. They’re just being effi­cient. Read­ers who have other demands on their time—mean­ing, all of them—can’t afford to pay more atten­tion than nec­es­sary. Thus, they’re always look­ing for the exit. Though legal writ­ers rou­tinely ignore this fact, they do so at their peril.

Con­sider an oral argu­ment in court. By the day of the hear­ing, you’ll have spent a lot of time on the struc­ture and sub­stance of your argu­ment. But do you show up to court in jeans and sneak­ers? No, of course not. You wear proper court attire. And when you speak to the court, do you read from your notes in a monot­one? No, of course not. You vary your cadence. You ges­ture. You extem­po­rize.

You do these things because you don’t merely want to be seen and heard—you want to per­suade. To per­suade, you need to hold the court’s atten­tion. And to hold that atten­tion, you can’t under­mine your argu­ment with dis­trac­tions.

It’s the same on the printed page. The text mat­ters the most, but if that’s all that mat­tered, then every­thing could be set in 12-point Times New Roman. And that would be the equiv­a­lent of speak­ing in a monot­one. In the same way that good speak­ing skills mat­ter dur­ing an oral argu­ment, good typog­ra­phy mat­ters in a writ­ten doc­u­ment.

Writ­ers skep­ti­cal of typog­ra­phy often say,No one cares how a text looks. They just focus on the sub­stance.” This is plainly absurd. Our expe­ri­ences as read­ers repeat­edly prove the oppo­site is true.

Typog­ra­phy mat­ters. The only ques­tion is whether you—as a writer and as a law­yer—are going to neglect it.