• Nerdlaw: Thou shalt not defile thy briefs with Microsoft's default settings
  • October 14, 2010 | Author: Kendall M. Gray
  • Law Firm: Andrews Kurth LLP - Houston Office
  • (An homage to the Radio Shack commercials with Lance Armstrong and his clueless assistant, Alphonse)

    Me:  (on my bike trainer in my office, of course) ALPHONSE!

    Alphonse: Yes, Kendall.

    Me: Why do people write using Microsoft Word's default settings?

    Alphonse: They don't think--

    Me: --That's RIGHT.  They DON'T  think.  These are the guys who brought us Microsoft Vista and the Blue Screen of Death.  Why would you ever let them decide how your brief looks?

    Me: (continued) Computers can do all kinds of fonts and desktop publishing functions.  We don't  use the IBM Selectric any more.

    More Me: From now on, we're all going to stop acting like cattle.  Instead of going with the herd, we're all going to think for ourselves and make informed and aesthetic choices about what our documents ought to look like.

    After the jump, more on default settings, Bill Gates, Judge Easterbrook, and the font that dare not speak its name.

    Do you think that document design doesn't matter?  Well then try this experiment:

    • Take the best thing that you've ever written
    • Put it in 10 point courier font
    • Unjustified margins
    • Single spaced
    • No bullets
    • No charts
    • No bold headings
    • No emphasis
    • Just a block of 10 point courier font with an inch of margin all the way 'round the edges.

    I defy you to read all the way through it.  Your good brief is now inscrutable, simply by changing its look.

    Now do the same experiment from the point of view of an appellate judge.  Uglify someone else's brief from a case you don't care anything about.

    Mmmmmmm.  Yummy.  Can't wait to read that at the end of a long day.  I'm sure I'll find it very persuasive.

    Document design clearly does matter.  Good document design organizes information and makes it easy to access and understand.  Bad document design, beyond being aesthetically off-putting, interferes with comprehension and persuasion.

    In fact there are whole societies of academics who pour over the research about what constitutes good document design and why. 

    But if all you do is use the default settings on your word processing program, you're letting someone else make all the choices and limiting one of your persuasive tools.  Among other things, Bill Gates (in all probability) is choosing Times New Roman--the font that dare not speak its name. 

    No big deal, you say?  Not according to Judge Easterbrook:

    Desktop publishing does not imply a license to use ugly or inappropriate type and formatting—and I assure you that Times New Roman is utterly inappropriate for long documents . . . . It is designed for narrow columns in newspapers, not for briefs.*

    And more:

    Times is probably used inappropriately more than any other typeface today. Ironically, it’s no longer commonly used in newspapers, not even the Times.**

    Lots of time and effort went into the design of fonts and what they communicate.  If you need convincing, just check out the documentary "Helvetica" about the design of the ubiquitous commercial font and how it changed the world. 

    But your word processor is making bad document design decisions, even at the most basic level of what font to use.  Thus, my proposition:

    Nerdlaw: Thou shalt not defile thy briefs with Microsoft's default settings.

    For whosoever shall commit any of these abominations shall be cut off from among their people.

    OK, maybe that's a little harsh.  All the smart kids will just snicker at you.

    But what settings are altogether righteous and beautiful?  Stay tuned and find out, or make your own suggestions in the comments. 

    * Derek H. Kiernan-Johnson, Telling Through Type: Typography and Narrative in Legal Briefs, 7 J. ALWD 87, 88 (2010) (quoting Frank H. Easterbrook, Speech, Challenges in Reading Statutes (Chi., Ill., Sept. 28, 2007) (available at http://lawyersclubchicago.org/docs/Challenges.pdf ) (accessed Feb. 27, 2010)).

    **Id. at 88 n.1 (quoting James Felici, The Complete Manual of Typography: A Guide to Setting Perfect Type 70 (Peachpit Press 2003)).