(a) About fonts: nature and legibility

Before introducing the typeface families and explaining matters such as line spacing, it is helpful to introduce the working vocabulary of typeface designers (and typesetters). First, a font was originally referred to as a typeface of a certain size and style (and a style is a condensed, light, bold or other variant of the main typeface). Now that typefaces are not cut from wood or cast from lead anymore, the terminology has become a bit clouded since font is now synonymously used for all typefaces.

Font properties. When two fonts are printed in the same size, one often looks bigger than the other. Bigger x-heights make a typeface appear larger. Differences in line weight and character width also affect the fonts’ perceived size. What do they mean, x-height, small-caps, serifs, stem, ascender and descender?

Small caps are in a league of their own: they are not upper-case letters of a smaller size, but small capitals designed to match optically with lower-case letters. They are slightly higher than the x-height (and about 82 percent of the moderate capital’s height) and about 87 percent of the moderate capital’s width. In contracts, small caps can be used for all-caps party names: asml, tnt, bp, basf, bmw, sap, nxp, lvmh. Do not overuse small caps.

Legibility and readability. A decisive factor for selecting a font is its ‘legibility’. Many fonts are designed to convey a sense of novelty or fanciness, properties that are irrelevant and even undesirable for contracts, prospectuses or legal advice.
Legibility is influenced by various factors, some of which are more important than others. A factor improving legibility is serifs, which harmoniously link letters to each other. On computer screens, however, sans serifs appear to be more legible. Also, over time, the sans serif font designs have been improved to reduce the impression that the stems of two adjacent letters blend. A remarkable aspect affecting legibility is the design of the upper half of the font; whilst the upper part remains relatively legible when removing the lower half, the opposite is certainly not true. (Try it yourself with a ruler.)
In addition to the concept of ‘legibility’, which largely relates to font properties, is that of ‘readability’, which relates to texts as a whole. Readability not only deals with semantics, grammatical structuring and drafting style, it also relates to the typography and use of fonts in texts, line spacing and alignment.

 

(i) Letter families

Classification and history. Typefaces can be classified into two broad families: Romans and sans serifs. The Roman typefaces embody the entire history of typefaces; they originated in the late Roman period (i.e. introducing Roman capital letters), further evolved via easy ‘writable’ Uncial script in the late Middle Ages (i.e. introducing lower case letters) to the Humanist period characterised by a focus on human dignity (i.e. with calligraphy as the copywriting technique and the movement of the hand as the basis for a new typeface, Garamond).
The sans serifs first appeared in the 1920s, as a representation of futurist and early abstract movements in art. A famous typeface, considered as the absolute of sans serif, is Helvetica.

 

(ii) Characteristics: Helvetica, Times New Roman and Garamond

Three typefaces stand out when you select the font for a house style: Helvetica, Times New Roman and Garamond. They are present on virtually every computer and will therefore show up on each printer.

Helvetica is one of the most admirable typefaces. With the introduction of MS Windows (notably version 3.0 or 3.11) in our lives, everyone used to rely on the manufacturer’s printer drivers (you may remember HP Laserjet (or DeskJet)) and each new computer program came with floppy disks filled with the drivers of the then currently available printers. The manufacturers forced us to use pre-defined, fixed sized fonts. Many of you will remember the awful Courier font. One of the other typefaces, which was not by default on each printer, was Helvetica.

Helvetica’s history. It was designed in 1957, at the turn of an era; it is a symbol for the shift from the analogue to the digital world, marking the growth of post-war confidence and the European economy, as well as the very beginning of the digital age of word processing and the consumer society. One may say that Helvetica is the perfection of what the pre-digital world offered. Many designers consider Helvetica to be a perfect typeface design.

Helvetica: Apple and Microsoft. Whilst the graphic industry’s computer, Apple Macintosh, could work with the original, the DOS and Unix-driven companies were limited by the fonts delivered with the printer. Windows made it possible to resize and reshape the default typefaces: sizeable and potentially more elegant. But Helvetica is a copyright protected design. Hence, Microsoft took the Helvetica and, in order to avoid copyrights made its own copy of it. This surrogate of Helvetica is Arial. Its more computer-screen-friendly variant is Verdana.

Helvetica’s characteristics. Helvetica can be characterised as neutral, pragmatic and rational of structure, like the country where it was created and which inspired its name, Switzerland. Helvetica makes texts look more ‘simple’, ‘accessible’ and ‘transparent’. You will appreciate that the professional look and feel of Helvetica (and accordingly, its representing the example of simplicity, intuitiveness and accessibility), its being a symbol of the turn of two eras (and accordingly, its being a sign of innovation) made Helvetica the corporate typeface of many companies.

Garamond. The Garamond design that is currently in use was originally designed in the mid sixteenth century by Claude Garamond’s associate Jannon. This member of the Roman type family has survived the centuries because of its remarkable readability. As one of the oldest typefaces, Garamond conveys a sense of solid tradition, yet still soft and attractive thanks to its elegantly rounded serifs and its diagonally emphasised strokes.

Times New Roman – History and characteristicsTimes New Roman was designed in 1932. By introducing the new typeface, the English The Times responded to a criticism about its newspaper being printed badly and typographically behind the times. In response, The Times commissioned a typeface design company, Monotype, to improve the newspaper’s “economy of space” and “legibility”. The resulting design, Times New Roman, is based on the Plantin typeface redesign of 1913, the original design of which goes back on the 16th century Garamond typeface. As with Helvetica but for other reasons, Times New Roman has a firm, authoritative ‘look and feel’.

Whilst Times New Roman became a timeless artistic symbol of its era, the characteristic “economy of space” also reflects its spirit of the age. Some people believe that Times New Roman is furthermore characterised by the varied rhythm between thick strokes and fine hairlines, and between the various movements of the stems, bowls and stresses; it would probably be more appropriate to reserve those qualifications for Garamond. Times New Roman is appropriate for reading plain texts such as contracts and for that purpose, it uses space economically – nothing more, nothing less.

This is Weagree – accelerated contract drafting – in Times New Roman

Legibility and economy of space. The two characteristics “legibility” and “economy of space” interact. Legibility is a term of art. It means that from a narrow-printing or downsized point of view, a text can still be read. For example, ink should not spread into the o and make it a bullet, an “l” should be distinguishable from an “i” and the parallel strokes within an h, m, n or u should not run into each other. The economy of space that characterises the Plantin-redesign had become possible thanks to the improvement of paper quality (which reduced ink spread).

To a certain extent, the legibility of text is determined by “serifs”. A serif is the small ‘bar’ at the end of line strokes (‘stems’). The serif enables a designer to make the line strokes of a character thinner, to optically link one character to another and thereby to make Times New Roman a clean omni-usable typeface with old-style (classical Roman) characteristics. Its features include a large x-height and flat, straightforward (businesslike?) serifs.

Legibility is the counterpart of another term of art, readability. “Readability” takes legibility a step further and addresses typeface aspects such as line spacing, kerning (the distance between characters) and other aspects related to font proportions and presentation. Obviously, readability also has another meaning (for another art), identifying that a text is understandable, simple, crisp etc., by virtue of the language.

Naming – Microsoft and Apple. The typeface was named “Times New Roman” because the old typeface used by The Times was called Times Old Roman. The new typeface was designed by the typeface design company Monotype, and licensed to Microsoft in the early 1980s. A competitor of Monotype, Linotype (yes, the Linotype appearing in German leading case law), made a similar font design that has been licensed to Adobe and Apple, and is called “Times Roman”.

The license by Monotype may explain why the Times New Roman of Microsoft has never been as criticised as its sans-serif counterpart Arial. Arial is a ‘quick and dirty’ almost-copy of the successful Helvetica (which is licensed by Apple and Adobe).

Alternatives. Compared to Garamond, Times Roman may expand a contract by one or two extra pages. If you want to go one step beyond Times, Arial or Garamond you might consider that Verdana was designed as a computer-screen-legible font and therefore useful if you believe that your contracts are not necessarily printed anymore (the printed version is less economic in space). If you do not like Times New Roman, you will probably be delighted to learn that Microsoft replaced it as the default font of Office 2007 and Office 2010; the current default font is Calibri (a sans-serif characterized font designed by Lucas de Groot, which takes advantage of recent screen display technologies).

After 40 years, The Times stopped using Times New Roman in 1972. During the 30 years that followed, partly due to changes in production techniques and the shift from broadsheet format to tabloid, The Times switched fonts five times.

CourierAnother typeface that deserves mention is Courier. This was developed for typewriters, which require equal letter spacing. Although legal, particularly notarial, practice continued to use it until the late 1990s its use should be discouraged.

Combination. It is uncommon to combine two fonts in one contract, but you may well do so. For example, headers and footers could be printed in Arial and the rest of the text in Garamond; or article headers can be in Arial and contract clauses in Times New Roman.

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