While courts often require text to be set at 12 point—and sometimes larger—it’s not the most comfortable size for reading. If you compare a court filing with the average book, newspaper, or magazine, you’ll notice that the text in the filing is larger.
When you’re not bound by court rules, don’t treat 12 point as the minimum. Try sizes down to 10 point, including half-point sizes.
But I can’t guarantee 12 point will always look too big. That’s because the point-size system is not absolute—different fonts set at the same point size won’t necessarily appear the same on the page.
That means you need to let your eyes be the judge. Don’t just rely on the point size. For instance, the two fonts below —Sabon, Times New Roman, and Arno—are set at 12 point, but they’re not the same size visually.
You can match the length of two fonts by setting a block of text twice: once in the old font and once in the new font, both at the same point size. Adjust the point size of the new font until each line of text breaks in roughly the same place. (You won’t be able to match them exactly.) Below, the point sizes of Sabon and Arno have been adjusted so they occupy the same space as Times New Roman.
Point size can be even smaller in professionally typeset materials like publications and stationery. Text on business cards is often only 6–8 points. At these sizes, all caps text and lowercase are equally legible.
It’s fine to emphasize text with a larger point size (or de-emphasize it with a smaller point size). But use the subtlety that point-size adjustments offer. If your body text is set at 11 point, no need to jump to 14 point for emphasis. Start with a smaller increase—say, half a point—and move up in half-point increments.
The opposite rule applies—make the text larger. For websites, I recommend body text in the range of 15–25 pixels. Larger font sizes are more comfrotable on screen because we read screens from farther away (see screen-reading considerations).
In a legal document, I can’t imagine any reason to use a font smaller than 7 point or larger than 30 point.
“Soif I use a larger font like Sabon in a court that requires 12-point type, should I set it at 11 point?” No. Your court rules supersede the vagaries of the point system. Either accept the larger size or choose a font that looks smaller at 12 point.
Most courts control the length of briefs with limits on point size and page length. In the typewriter age, this worked because typewriter output was standardized. In the digital age, it makes less sense, since artful formatting and layout can make documents appear longer or shorter as necessary. (If you’re unclear on the concept, ask someone who’s written a college paper in the last 20 years.) Courts, law professors, and anyone else who needs to set standards for document length would be better off putting these rules in terms of word count. Unlike typewriters, all word processors have a word-count function. Compared to page limits, word counts are harder to evade. To be fair, they’re also harder to verify.
If lawyers have established a reputation for anything typographic, it is their legendary affection for
fine print. Fine print is synonymous with evasion and deception. I have some fear about advising that “thepoint size of your text can be smaller than you think” because I don’t want to encourage the fine-print abusers out there. You know who you are. ( “Didyou hear that? Butterick said we can crank it down even smaller!”)
Good typography reinforces the goals of the text (as you may remember from what is good typography). Lawyers are advocates, so when I dispense typographic advice, I’m careful not to take a position on the propriety of certain habits. For instance, as a consumer, I don’t like getting a credit-card contract that’s an acre of 6-point type. But if I were a lawyer for the credit-card company, my job would be to advance the interests of my client, including the typography. So is that good typography? In context, yes.
“Didyou hear that? Butterick said that fine print can be good typography!” Touché, I guess.