The problem with “pretty”

Frequently, lawyers discov­ering typog­raphy for the first time have said to me “Now I get it! Typog­raphy is about making things pretty!”

On a certain level, I can’t dispute this. Our ambi­tion as typog­ra­phers is not to make things uglier.

But pretty also sells typog­raphy short. When typog­raphy is used well, it can be subtle and powerful. It adds comple­men­tary meaning to the written word.

This past week, I saw two very effec­tive exam­ples of legal typog­raphy: one infu­ri­ating, the other heart­breaking.

Proposition 22

In 2018, the Cali­fornia Supreme Court issued its Dynamex deci­sion, which restricted the ability of compa­nies oper­ating in Cali­fornia to clas­sify workers as contrac­tors.

In 2019, the Cali­fornia legis­la­ture codi­fied this deci­sion in a bill known as AB 5. Though AB 5 applied to all busi­nesses, it was consid­ered espe­cially conse­quen­tial for compa­nies with ridesharing and delivery apps (like Uber, Lyft, Instacart, and Post­mates) who had long contended that they ought to be able to treat their drivers as contrac­tors. The answer from the legis­la­ture and courts had been loud and clear—no way.

In many states, that would’ve been the end of the story. But Cali­fornia permits ballot initia­tives: a system whereby private parties can propose changes to Cali­fornia law. If these propo­si­tions meet certain criteria, they are put to a statewide vote.

This year, the ride-sharing compa­nies spent over $200 million promoting Propo­si­tion 22, a ballot initia­tive designed to exempt their drivers from the require­ments of Dynamex and AB 5.

Part of that money was spent on this really terrific poster campaign:

As a typog­ra­pher, I love these posters. The colors and typog­raphy evoke old-fash­ioned sign­painting and ideal­istic ’60s psyche­delia. The word YES is the center­piece—of course! Who wouldn’t want to vote YES? It makes you feel like when you do, you’re going to be a labor-rights hero, lifted on the wings of a unicorn. It’s a great visual concept, executed well.

The problem, of course, is that it’s almost entirely bull­shit. In this case, voting YES means enshrining in law the small conces­sions on pay and bene­fits that the ridesharing compa­nies are willing to make, which fall far short of the stan­dard already set by the Cali­fornia courts and legis­la­ture. True, the posters were pretty—but in this case the pretty is being used to cover up the odious & ugly nonsense within.*

Still, this seemed like the kind of effort that the heavily liberal voters of Cali­fornia would reject in this elec­tion—after all, the Demo­c­ratic pres­i­den­tial candi­date prevailed by almost 30 points. Wrong: Prop. 22 won by 17 points. Pretty paid off.

Jamison v. McClendon

From the ridicu­lous to the sublime. A reader sent me a copy of U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves’s opinion in Jamison v. McClendon, issued in August 2020. I had seen some news mentions of this opinion; I hadn’t seen the opinion itself.

Take a look, because in terms of typog­raphy for lawyers, this is as good as it gets.

Judge Reeves’s overall docu­ment typog­raphy is excel­lent, with generous page margins and tidy body text (to my eye, remi­nis­cent of the opin­ions of the Seventh Circuit).

But there’s more. He opens his opinion—an “Order Granting Qual­i­fied Immu­nity”—with 19 single-line para­graphs spread over four pages. Each line ends in a foot­note.

As readers, it takes us a moment to under­stand what’s happening, as our eye cycles between the upper part of the page and the lower. But then we see: each foot­note memo­ri­al­izes a Black person who died during an encounter with law enforce­ment. After that, each line resounds like the tolling of a bell. Even the foot­note-refer­ence number becomes freighted: it is also a death count, ticking upward, page by page.

Pretty isn’t the right word, is it? This typog­raphy is elegant, unex­pected, concise, and powerful. Foot­notes, some­times the refuge of the discur­sive or sloppy writer, are here used in a potent, emotional way.

But that, to me, is where the magic of typog­raphy lies. Imagine how other judges or lawyers would’ve prob­ably presented this mate­rial. They might’ve made it dense and dull, thereby diluting the impact. Or they might’ve gone the other direc­tion, making the page bold and shouty when it should be solemn.

As a writer, Judge Reeves under­stands that there is nothing more harrowing than the facts, simply stated. This is reflected in both the words on the page and the way they’re presented typo­graph­i­cally. Truly beau­tiful work.

(The rest of the opinion is excel­lent also—careful readers will notice that Judge Reeves slips in some sly refer­ences to Star Wars.)

* Or, if you agree with the ridesharing compa­nies, then the pret­ti­ness of the pack­aging is consis­tent with the beau­tiful & wonderful ideas within. But given that these compa­nies weren’t making money even when they were flouting Cali­fornia law, it’s hard to under­stand how Prop. 22 really changes their long-term outlook.

update, 305 days later

In August 2021, Prop. 22 was ruled uncon­sti­tu­tional.