Adding Document-Design Bling to Contracts?

I noted in my previous post (here) that of the Australian contracts that I’ve been reviewing, some include a conspicuous law-firm logo. But I also noticed that a  majority contain one or more of the following document-design embellishments:

  • varying point sizes
  • use of a serif typeface for body text and a sans-serif typeface for headings
  • use of colored headings
  • use of horizontal and vertical lines to separate blocks of text

I may be a hopeless reactionary, but I can’t be bothered with such document-design bling. Contract prose is analogous to software code, so in terms of document design all I want is a rigorous layout, a clear typeface that works across systems, and rudimentary ways to emphasize text (all capitals, bold, italics).

Embellishing your document design presumably gives your document a distinctive look. But people read contracts not for fun but because they have to, so it’s not like contract drafters are looking to lure readers away from other documents.

And if you add enough document-design bling, it can be distracting.

[Updated December 1, 2011, 6:00 p.m. Eastern time:

I just consulted the most obvious authority on such matters, Matthew Butterick, he of Typography for Lawyers. In our brief email exchange, he offered the following:

Anything that is “bling” is, by definition, superfluous, and I’m no fan of that. I always prefer a simpler, more organized layout over one with extra moving parts. In a contract, I’d frame the question this way: given that you have to put certain marks on the page (headings, words, numbers, etc.), how do you get maximum visual utility out of those marks?

I sent Matthew a sample of the MSCD “articles” enumeration scheme and asked him to suggest what he’d change. The changes he proposed didn’t include anything along the lines of the embellishments in the Australian documents. Instead, he suggested changing the one thing that I can’t change, namely the enumeration and indenting of the blocks of text. (As I explain in MSCD chapter 3, the features of the MSCD enumeration scheme take into account how sections and subsections relate to tabulated enumerated clauses.)

So after Matthew’s input, I end up being, if anything, more confident of my spare approach to document design.]

About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.