Ellen Lupton Wades In on Document Design for Contracts

In this December 2011 post I questioned the utility, for purposes of contracts, of what I called document-design “bling.” And in this February 2012 post I suggested that you can go too far in breaking up contract text.

But I’m aware that I have negligible credentials in document design. And I’m aware that when it comes to the look of a document, people like what they’re used to. So I decided to pick the brains of the vastly accomplished authority on design, Ellen Lupton. (I learned of Ellen through her great book, Thinking with Type.)

To give Ellen some points of comparison, I steered her to a sample Koncision contract (here) and two contracts drafted by Australian firms, one by Minter Ellison (here) and one by Gilbert + Tobin (here), both of which I found online.

Here’s what Ellen had to say:

To be honest with you, I find the most readable of the three documents (Koncision, Minter, Gilbert) to be Gilbert. The use of strong horizontal dividing lines helps to unify the page, which in all three documents is excessively indented, but least so here. Adding color to the headings is unnecessary, yet the headings are easier  to find in this document than in the other three, owing to the horizontal rule as well as to the appropriately subordinated type treatment of the next level of heads. The hierarchy expressed in the other two documents is rather flat.

I agree with you that many documents (and nearly everything on the web) have too much space between paragraph elements. Yet here again the Gilbert document reads strongest, because the inter-paragraph spacing is countered by tighter spacing/smaller type in the main text. Thus we read each paragraph as a true element, which facilitates visual scanning.

I’m with you on keeping page numbers/footers simpler and less branded.

I’ll be giving serious thought to Ellen’s suggestions.

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.