point sizeSmaller on paper; bigger on screen

The point size of your text can be smaller than you think. The op­ti­mal point size for body text in printed doc­u­ments is 10–12 point.

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 three 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 com­fort­able on screen be­cause we read screens from far­ther away (see screen-read­ing con­sid­er­a­tions).

by the way
  • In a le­gal doc­u­ment, I can’t imag­ine any rea­son to use a font smaller than 7 point or larger than 30 point.

  • “So if 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 “the point 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. (“Did you 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.

    “Did you hear that? But­t­er­ick said that fine print can be good ty­pog­ra­phy!” Touché, I guess.

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