Every company should establish a proper and consistent ‘look and feel’, a contract house style. In order to make an informed decision, it is helpful to understand how choices affect the ultimate purpose, the legibility of a contract, and how they match with the character of your organisation.
In essence, the house style consists of, and the legibility of a contract is influenced by: the font (or typeface), font size, line spacing, margin width and paragraph alignment. There are more factors, but we assume that you are not going to adjust things like kerning (character spacing) or word spacing.
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.
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.
About spacing, alignment and margins: readability #
In combination with the choice of font (and font size) a house style heavily depends on line spacing, paragraph alignment and page margins (or line length).
120 percent. A rule of thumb for line spacing (in jargon ‘leading’ – pronounced l’edding) is the font size multiplied by 120 percent, slightly greater than the capital height. For font sizes greater than 11 point or more, line spacing may increase a bit, whereas 8 or 9 point fonts can do with a little bit less line spacing. These rules of thumb suggest that single line spacing is too small and one and a half too wide.
An appropriate default setting would be 11 points (Arial) letter size and 14 points line spacing. Of course this is largely a matter of preference.
Typography & margins. Rather than the line length, which is typographically a more appropriate reference point, use the margin settings of word processors. When establishing a house style, you should consider that readability decreases when lines are either too short or too long. Readability reduces if the reader must move from line to line too often and finding the beginning of a line is ‘laborious’ because, supposedly, the eye cannot hold the beginning in sight whilst reading on to the end.
Furthermore the readability would improve by using a broader bottom and right margin.
The line of a contract clause should contain on average 13 to 16 words, or 60 to 75 characters (but not more than 90). This can be achieved by margins of 2.5 or 3 cm on A4 paper size. Consider a broader left margin in view of the fact that letters and agreements are often kept in a binder (tying the left side closed, as they are often also single side printed).