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Typography for Lawyers

Butterick bends his own rules in the name of typographic eclecticism.

Contributed by Indra Kupferschmid on Jul 5th, 2011. Artwork published in .

When the FontFeed featured a brief review of “Typography for Lawyers” a couple of days ago I finally felt encouraged enough to ask about something that puzzled me ever since I first saw the book. Matthew Butterick’s desk reference is commendable when it comes to mission, structure, content and style of writing. However, as a book designer (as well as a teacher), I have ambivalent feelings about the vast choice of typefaces applied throughout the volume. Butterick uses no fewer than eight type families, namely:

  • Lyon Text roman, italic, bold and small caps for body copy and subheads
  • Arno Display for chapter headings
  • Quadraat Sans on the cover and inside for tips, tables and info-boxes
  • Cheltenham for subchapter headings
  • Verlag Book and Black for cross headings, captions and marginalia
  • Alix for monospaced text
  • Amira Bold caps for captions to examples
  • Whitney Index White Round for enumeration
  • plus more typefaces in samples which I will not list here

And again different typefaces on the website (via @font-face):

  • Concourse for headings (a new sans-serif by Butterick in progress)
  • Charter for Text

Six of eight families in the picture above, Arno for the headline, Cheltenham Bold Condensed in the margin, Lyon for body copy and Lyon Italic for subheads in the margin, Verlag for marginalia and in all caps for cross headings, Quadraat in the “How to” tips, Amira all caps as caption to samples. Click any images to enlarge.

While all of the above are excellent typefaces, each of them suitable for a whole publication like this, I see no real need to combine them all in one book. Why not pick just two or three of them and make use of their full range of variants, styles and weights?

I tried to list the typefaces in order of appearance which usually resembles the hierarchy roughly but couldn’t clearly make it out. At some point a too diverse typography can also lead to confusion rather than guidance. What kind of text am I reading? What belongs together? Differentiation of various types of texts and structures is necessary but shouldn’t feel arbitrary.

So I asked the author and designer of the book, and got a wonderful report about dauntless eclecticism, orchestrating typefaces, and what happens when you work on a project over a long period of time (which I should know all too well). Now I feel like an academic party pooper. Matthew writes:

That’s an interesting story (I mean, if you like fonts) —

While writing the book, I tried to find a balance in tone between 1) authoritative and useful, and 2) approachable and relaxed. While designing the book — which I did in parallel with the writing — I wanted that tone to carry through visually. I wanted readers to open the book to any page and say “oh, this looks interesting” and not “oh, this looks like a homework assignment.” In other words, make it read more like a magazine than a dictionary.

That was fine by me, because my favorite typography has always been the serious-but-eclectic American magazine, starting with Spy in the ’80s and currently best represented by The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine (which is absolutely my favorite thing to read every week).

My affinity for this approach is also probably traceable to my original typographic training, which was in a small letterpress shop. The essence of letterpress work is making do with what you’ve got and finding novel ways to combine things. It’s an eclecticism borne from necessity and limited choice (which is different than eclecticism borne from unlimited choice).

Early designs of the book used fewer families. I took my own advice and started by choosing a body-text font. My first choice was Sabon, but I wanted to give a push to a current type designer, so I discovered Lyon and went with that. The sidebars needed to contrast with the main text. Metro is one of my favorites, but it hasn’t aged well, so I used the Metro-influenced Verlag.

Nearly everything in the book was Lyon or Verlag at some point. For certain elements, functional and visual considerations dictated otherwise. For instance, the section headings in the margins were originally Lyon Bold. But late in the design, I had to make those margins a pica narrower, and Lyon Bold didn’t fit enough text. So I switched to FB Cheltenham.

A similar story for the technical instructions. At legible point sizes, Lyon and Verlag took up too much vertical space. So I went with FF Quadraat Sans italic, which is quite condensed but not steeply angled, and has a color and texture that blends smoothly with Lyon.

Arno Display, used for chapter headings in the book, was originally the font on the home page of the TFL website, so that was a nod to visual continuity. For monospaced text, of course I used my own design, FB Alix. As for Whitney Index, I would’ve used Verlag Index if it had existed, but it didn’t, so I went with the next best thing. (There’s that letterpress resourcefulness at work.) And Amira — I just happen to like it a lot and wanted to find a place for it. So that’s some gratuitous eclecticism.

In his article, Yves suggested a font superfamily. They have their place, but I have mixed feelings about them. First, a lot of superfamilies have a great sans and a not-so-super serif, or vice versa. Second, and more importantly, superfamilies can match a little too well, creating a somewhat relentless consistency from page to page.

I think about it like the difference between a song played live by a full band, where everyone puts emphasis in slightly different places, versus a recording where all the parts are played by one musician with a multitrack recorder. True, I do recommend in the book that mixing fonts by the same designer can work well. But ordinarily, I prefer to mix fonts from different designers, for that “full band” feel. — Matthew Butterick

“Less is more” — Butterick on mixing fonts in “Typography for Lawyers”. “Most documents can tolerate a second font; many fewer can tolerate a third; almost none can tolerate four or more.” Click to enlarge.


Chapter on system fonts with a warning in Helvetica condensed (right): “This chart is offered as a harm-reduction device.” Click to enlarge.


  • Lyon
  • Arno
  • Quadraat Sans
  • Cheltenham
  • Verlag
  • FB Alix
  • Amira
  • Whitney
  • Charter




Artwork location

21 Comments on “Typography for Lawyers”

  1. I enjoyed reading Matthew's explanation. Hearing directly from the designer about his type selection process is always interesting to me, particularly when they are actually giving it some thought, rather than relying on standby faces or traditional methods. But I have to say the eclectic result isn’t optimal for a book like this where the various examples are already typographic, adding yet another bundle of ingredients to every page. For reference material — especially typographic reference material — calm clarity is best.

    The palette could be reduced from eight to five by using Lyon Display for chapter heads, dropping Amira, and replacing the antiquated Cheltenham with Quadraat Sans Bold Italic or letting Lyon Bold heads simply be smaller. Of course, Matthew and I already disagree about Cheltenham, even on this cut.

    Design squabbles aside, the book’s content is excellent.

  2. Oh c'mon. The book looks great. The "use as few typefaces rule" is there for people who don't know what they're doing.

    (But I must agree that if the book preaches this it must practice what it preaches)

  3. Right on about most superfamilies being something other than "super." I think a lot of the push behind superfamilies is a desire to make typeface selection easier for font users, use this typeface, it matches the other one that you are already using … it even has the same name. There is no substitute for real testing, and making your own decisions.

  4. Matthew’s explanation is both comprehensible and likable; Nevertheless in practice I would have preferred some reduction.

    Anyway, I’ve been admiring Matthew’s work since I first spotted the TFL website.

  5. Not having seen the book in person, I won't comment on the book itself. In general I believe that three typefaces should be enough to work with for most books.

    But I do agree with him on his point about superfamilies. If you use them together, it can get really boring, really quickly.

    Superfamilies are great feats, and I have huge respect for any designer that finishes this task. But using both together creates boring design, because there is no contrast in the resulting design.

    Of course you could create contrast by using the sans only in huge sizes and red, and the serif only tiny and black. But aside from such tricks, superfamilies used as a whole create too little visual contrast on the page, and thus do not offer the range of possible expression that two unrelated type families offer.

    Superfamilies are of great help to designers that don't know what they're doing, using them together will not create the ugliest designs possible. It just won't assist you in creating an interesting visual rhythm in your design. And in my opinion, visual design – just like music – is all about rhythm and tone.

  6. Super families may not be super, for sure, but they also provide the typographer greater choice of weights among a particular design - doesn't mean they all need to be used at once. We should not forget their benefits.

    And, although super families certainly exasperate the problem, a lack of typographic variety can happen when even a relatively modest 4 weight family's variations are over-used. I don't blame the typeface for this though, I blame a lack of imagination on the designer's part.

  7. Just to be clear: by super family, I mean those type families that contain at least two different type styles. Sans and Serif, Sans and Slab, Sans and Serif and monospaced Slab, etc.

  8. @wolf: “But I must agree that if the book preaches this it must practice what it preaches”

    Well, actually the book preaches to lawyers interested in making their own self-crafted documents look easier to read and more professional, not to expert designers typesetting books.

    So it only needs to practice what it preaches in the examples given.

    btw I agree the book looks great, I for sure wouldn't have dared going so wide with type range but it's clear the designer knows what he's doing.

  9. Thierry - yes, I meant weights, widths, serif styles (?), etc. too.

    And of course, I also meant exacerbate ... although I suppose super families could exasperate just as well.

  10. SamECircle says:
    Jul 13th, 2011 9:44 pm

    I found myself reading the fonts not to use page, and wondered: What's wrong with Baskerville Old Face? Especially as a body font, I use it for a lot of things! I rather like it. Am I wrong?

  11. I just got it off of Amazon but it hasn't arrived yet. It looks good from a distance at any rate. I would never go so wide with type choices either, but as this is really for lawyers (and other business types that don't know type - ahem) I figured this was a way of showing the different fonts in a real world way. Offering suggestions, so to speak... but like I say, I haven't read it yet.

  12. He puts Mistral, Comic Sans and Brush Stroke in the "Fatal" list! Those are my favourite three type faces!

  13. Sam Phillips says:
    Aug 6th, 2011 4:58 pm

    I had a read of this when I was hanging about in a friend's studio and I have to say as a resource it is really very good. On the other hand I found book layout a bit weak and as this article suggests, its busyness rather contradicts some of the points which the author has very astutely made. Similarly, although I like the pared-back approach to the cover, I think the use of generic stock imagery is disappointing given the typographic prowess of the designer. But once again the content is excellent and this easily makes up for the shortcomings of the design.

  14. Only Fatal For Lawyers says:
    Aug 11th, 2011 7:53 am

    @Fatal: Butterick was only commenting on the use of those fonts by attorneys, not on the quality of the font itself. After all, would you want your lawyer to use Comic Sans on the legal brief keeping you out of jai?

  15. Matthew Butterick says:
    Sep 6th, 2011 2:28 pm

    Since this item was published, I've been working on the Kindle version of Typography for Lawyers, which was released last week.

    For those who haven’t tried it, making a Kindle book is like building a website in HTML circa 1993. While I'm glad that electronic books have taken off so vigorously, it's disheartening that our current tablet devices — with their wireless networking, touch screens, GPS, etc. — still can't handle the rudiments of book typography.

    This is not news. Stephen Coles pointed out the iPad's meager typographic capabilities when it was released 18 months ago. But iPad typography hasn't improved much since then. Nor has Kindle typography (if "typography" is even le mot juste for a device with one font). The others aren't any better.

    That doesn’t mean I think electronic books should merely simulate the reading experience of a printed book. Every reading format has advantages and disadvantages. For instance, one thing I like about the Kindle version of Typography for Lawyers is that cross references have become clickable links.

    But as a writer and a typographer, I care about the written word. I want it to rise to the highest potential of any medium where it appears. There’s no reason electronic books can’t be as visually and typographically rich as printed books.

    So why aren't they?

    For those who would suggest that it’s just a matter of patience — that technology always starts with the basics and then evolves — I’m skeptical. Consider the web. The web is primarily a textual medium. But over its first 20 years of existence, web typography has barely evolved. Meanwhile, the web has given us the ability to do other remarkable things, like broadcast videos of kittens to a global audience.

    So I consider typography — or the lack of typography — primarily a matter of expectations, not patience. We get the technology we deserve. Somewhere along the way, we all gave the web a pass: “Nah, we don’t need typography. Let’s get moving on those kitten videos, though.” And maybe that was justifiable because the web, as a medium, was intrinsically different than what had come before.

    But unlike the web, electronic books are the next step in a noble and deeply significant 500-year cultural tradition. What we allow to be stripped from them may be difficult to restore. Right now, everyone is giving electronic books a pass on typography. And we're getting what we deserve: nothing.

    I don't like to sound curmudgeonly. And it's hard to raise an alarm about typography when, by most objective measures, typography seems to be doing great. Compared to 20 years ago, there are a lot more people making fonts professionally, which means there must be a lot more people buying them and using them. (I know, there's more to typography than that, but it's a useful index.)

    Typographers love to talk to other typographers about typography. Talking to non-typographers about typography — a distant second. But if typography's next 20 years are going to be as fruitful as the last 20, it seems to me that more non-typographers need to be brought into the tent. Because whether or not they buy fonts, they'll all be making choices about which electronic newspaper to read, which electronic book app to use, etc. If typography is a matter of expectations, these are people whose expectations matter.

    And that is ultimately part of the agenda of Typography for Lawyers: to get readers to raise their expectations. Not just for their own work, but for all the written material they spend time & money on. I frequently get mail from readers along the lines of "now that I have a taste for good typography, I can barely look at all the ugly documents in the world." Great. Demand better. Don't vote for junk with your wallet.

    Typography for Lawyers wasn't written for designers, but to those designers who read it: I hope it will spur you to think about how you can bring new recruits into the typography army. If you believe typography matters — visually, historically, culturally — consider it your duty to help make sure it doesn't get washed away by declining expectations.

  16. @Matthew although layout options are still a bit lacking with regards to typography on the web there are great strides being made at last. Font embedding has matured to a point where it very usable as you can see in sites like LBVD, Grain and Gram, or most things in Typekit’s “Sites We Like”.

    There’s a move towards to magazine like experiences on the web now which I love. As soon as more people make the leap into designing ebooks a similar push will happen as the best of the bunch will leave others scrambling to catch up.

    Having just created a wordpress plugin to generate the Spectator magazine’s kindle editions I can attest to the fact there is a long way to go! We’ll see what the response is like when ask about embedding ITC Fenice…

  17. Jesse Waters says:
    Aug 11th, 2015 3:18 pm

    Matthew, my response to you involves these points. You say, “So I consider typography — or the lack of typography — primarily a matter of expectations, not patience. We get the technology we deserve.” And therein lies the rub. You seem not to have the requisite patience — or, more important, stamina — to contribute to typographic improvement on the web. Web documents are often collaborative. Yet successfully to collaborate on a document composed with your typefaces, all collaborators must be involved in the purchase of what you call “professional” typefaces. (Preferably yours, of course.) A rather pricey proposition. “Don’t vote for junk with your wallet.” Maybe, yet an expensive proposition for new collaborators in terms of time and money. You write here of the iPad’s meager typographic capabilities” yet, when confronted with a suggestion to pursue mobile compatibility for your book, you reply “No!” and refuse to “shoehorn” your material into a mobile arena. You suggest, “What’s in it for me?” You “care about the written word”? At very least, an iPad copy of a (your?) work nearby can serve as a helpful reference while creating a laptop document. There’s a plethora of help for shoehorning, including work by experts such as Ethan Marcotte, Eric Meyer, and Jeffrey Zeldman. Mobile devices are up to the typographic standards you would have us demand. Use them. Learn. Join the typography army.

    By the way, did you think to walk the walk, composing your online book with only two or maybe three of your own typefaces?

  18. Philip Madell says:
    Jul 26th, 2016 8:27 pm

    In your book TFL, page 140–1, I do not understand how to set line spacing, as you say “Exactly is best—enter a fixed measurement,” with specifics. The next line says “Don’t use these—they miss the target …”

    Clarification, please? Thank you.

  19. Here’s what Matthew Butterick, the author of Typography for Lawyers, wrote on line spacing in his Practical Typography:

    Exactly is best—en­ter a fixed mea­sure­ment. Single, 1.5 lines, and Double are equiv­a­lent to about 117%, 175%, and 233% line spac­ing, con­trary to what their names sug­gest. Don’t use these—they miss the tar­get zone of 120–145%.

    Not sure which part threw you off. You’ll want to end up with a line spacing that is somewhere between 120% and 145% of the text size. The default options Single, 1.5 lines, and Double won’t bring you there, and hence should be avoided. You need to do the math yourself and enter a fixed measurement.

  20. Richard says:
    Sep 23rd, 2016 4:41 am
    Looking forward to getting the 2nd edition. Question though. Looks like Baskerville has been relegated to the C list, but it is on the A list in the 1st edition. What changed your mind?
  21. Hi Richard, I can’t speak for the book’s author, but the Baskerville that comes bundled with Mac OS X — a custom extended version by Monotype — has certainly a number of issues. It is largely okay for English, but not really suitable for smaller sizes, and reveals serious bugs as soon as you look beyond the Basic Latin character set. There are better versions of Baskerville available, like Storm’s Baskerville Original, which has the advantage of being offered in optical sizes. Its “Baskerville 10” subfamily is made for text sizes around 10pt. For my taste, Baskerville feels too literary for legal documents, though.

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