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.

Nev­er­the­less, many le­gal writ­ers adopt a high-risk model of reader at­ten­tion. In­stead of treat­ing reader at­ten­tion as pre­cious, they treat it as an un­lim­ited re­source. “I’ll take as much at­ten­tion as I need, and if I want more, I’ll take that too.”

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 ef­f­cient. 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.

Writ­ing as if you have un­lim­ited reader at­ten­tion is also dan­ger­ous, be­cause run­ning out of reader at­ten­tion is fa­tal to your writ­ing. The goal of le­gal writ­ing is per­sua­sion. At­ten­tion is a pre­req­ui­site for per­sua­sion. Once the reader’s at­ten­tion ex­pires, you have no chance to per­suade. You’re just giv­ing a mono­logue in an empty theater.

If you be­lieve reader at­ten­tion is a valu­able re­source, then tools that help you con­serve that re­source are like­wise valu­able. Ty­pog­ra­phy is one of those tools.

Good ty­pog­ra­phy can help your reader de­vote less at­ten­tion to the me­chan­ics of read­ing and more at­ten­tion to your mes­sage. Con­versely, bad ty­pog­ra­phy can dis­tract your reader and un­der­mine your message.

I’m not sug­gest­ing that the qual­ity of your ty­pog­ra­phy is more im­por­tant than the qual­ity of your writ­ing. It’s not. But ty­pog­ra­phy can make good writ­ing even better.

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.

“But I don’t have vi­sual skills. I don’t know any­thing about graphic de­sign.” That’s like say­ing you can’t dress prop­erly for court be­cause you don’t know any­thing about fash­ion design.

Com­pared to study­ing for the bar exam, it’s easy to learn the skills nec­es­sary for pro­duc­ing good ty­pog­ra­phy. Be­yond that, you need only the abil­ity to form opin­ions about ty­pog­ra­phy. And every­one who reads—even kids—can do this.

Un­con­vinced? Try this. On the next two pages are tworé­sumés that you’ve re­ceived for an as­so­ciate open­ing at your firm. Be­ing a busy per­son, you only have two sec­onds to de­cide who gets the last in­ter­view slot. Who do you pick?

Don’t read the ré­sumés—you don’t have time.
Just make a two-sec­ond decision.

Whose ré­sumé got your at­ten­tion—Vi­o­let’s (the first one) or Trixie’s (the sec­ond)? Whose ré­sumé bet­ter per­suaded you, in two sec­onds, that the can­di­date was worth interviewing?

I’m guess­ing you picked Trixie’s. But why? Maybe you’d say Trixie’s ré­sumé looked more pro­fes­sional, neater, or bet­ter or­ga­nized.  All true, but those qual­i­ties don’t ap­pear out of nowhere.

Or maybe you picked Vi­o­let’s. It doesn’t ac­tu­ally mat­ter. Be­cause if you look again, you’ll see that the cre­den­tials on the résumés are iden­ti­cal. So what­ever pref­er­ence you had was based purely on ty­pog­ra­phy. Not only did you just prove that ty­pog­ra­phy mat­ters, you proved that it mat­ters to you.

And if ty­pog­ra­phy mat­ters to you as a reader—a lit­er­ate adult with no spe­cial vi­sual skills or train­ing—it mat­ters other sim­i­larly sit­u­ated read­ers. In­clud­ing every­one who reads your work.

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. The Vi­o­let–Trixie test is just one example.

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

by the way
  • The sub­stance–pre­sen­ta­tion dis­tinc­tion has al­ways been a false di­chotomy, be­cause the two over­lap. Ju­ries, for in­stance, are not merely al­lowed but en­cour­aged to draw con­clu­sions about wit­ness cred­i­bil­ity—and by ex­ten­sion, the facts them­selves—from the pre­sen­ta­tion of the tes­ti­mony. (See, e.g., Cal­i­for­nia Civil Jury In­struc­tion 5003, which tells the jury to con­sider “How did the wit­ness look, act, and speak while testifying?”)

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