With the design process for The State Decoded underway, we’re putting a lot of thought into typography. Helpful to this process has been both Ruth Anne Robbins’ “Painting with print: Incorporating concepts of typographic and layout design into the text of legal writing documents” and Derek H. Kiernan-Johnson’s “Telling Through Type: Typography and Narrative in Legal Briefs.”
Both of those papers are conceptual in nature, so they’re complemented nicely by Errol Morris’ two-part series [1, 2] about the results of a quiz that he ran on the New York Times website, ostensibly measuring readers’ optimism. In fact, he was measuring the impact of different typefaces on readers’ responses. Those who doubt that a typeface could have much of an impact on the credulity of a reader should consider the effect of Comic Sans, which Morris discovered (unsurprisingly) correlated strongly with incredulity on the part of readers. Of the six typefaces that he tested (Baskerville, Comic Sans, Computer Modern, Georgia, Helvetica, and Trebuchet), Baskerville proved the most persuasive. The effect was small, but significant.
This is the sort of consideration that is clearly lacking in the present rendering of laws, both online and in print. (Typographically, LexisNexis’s printed state codes are a train wreck.) It’s also precisely the consideration that will set apart those sites based on The State Decoded, or anybody who cares to employ the project’s stylesheets. There will be more news about this ongoing design work in the weeks ahead.
It is not uncommon to come across statute sections that prescribe particular fonts/leading etc. for statute publications.
As ever with legisprudence, some thorny issues need to be addressed. For example a 1 (number 1) and a l (lower case L) are visually indistinguishable in some fonts. Another example : I have lost count of the number of times I have visited a page with Unicode encoding issues leading to symbols disappearing. Take “micro gram” for example (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microgram). I have seen legal texts that use the Greek symbol for “micro” and have been rendered in browsers as a blank space. In legal texts, you cannot afford to turn “100 micro-grams” into “100 grams” by loosing a character rendering.
I have yet to find a law-making body that has articulated what aspects of the rendering of law are purely artifacts of the rendering and which ones are part of the semantics. Maybe something the uniform law commission could look into.
I first discovered this when examining the Florida Statutes. Their XML provides for these explicit style instructions: AlignCenter, AlignRight, BlockFlush, BlockIndent, Flush, Indent, HangingIndent, Bold, Italic, and BoldItalic. They’re not widely used (in about 100 statutes in all), but they are used. I hadn’t yet seen specific fonts prescribed, though—I’m awfully glad you mentioned that.
To your point of the distinction between style vs. substance of rendering of law, that’s definitely been a point of frustration for me. A slavish reproduction of some of the Florida Statutes’ instructions, for instance, would look pretty bad. For instance, they preserve all newlines when present in the titles of sections, chapters, etc. Those newlines have absolutely no semantic meaning, and the Sunshine Statutes parser ignores them for that reason. That’s going to be a judgment call to be made by each group in each state that implements this software, a call that they’re going to need to make individually for each textual rendering instruction.
That’s a brilliant example of the problems that come of bad encoding! I’ll be using that to illustrate this point for years, I suspect. :) That highlights the importance of using not just a typeface that fulfills basic typographic goals for standard characters, but one that has a rich enough character set that it’s going to be able to hand characters that are hardly uncommon, but that one might not anticipate appearing within a legal code. There are a lot of hobbyist typographers out there who make some very nice-looking typefaces that are capable of rendering nothing more than the alphabet, numbers, and a few symbols. Using a font like that would leave a lot more than a µ-mess. ;)
Your project inspired me to clean up the Copyright Act a little.
Gruesome Official Rendering: http://www.copyright.gov/title17/92chap2.html
Took about 20 minutes of fumbling with the CSS.
That looks sharp, Eric! I wish there were some process by which such changes could be submitted to federal agencies for their consideration. (That’s much easier said than done, of course.) Your version is a great deal more readable, and it’s a shame that everybody visiting copyright.gov doesn’t get that benefit.