The Foundations of Design

Posted: December 2nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Design | No Comments »

Written communication is largely about design. One of the best resources on modern design is The Non-Designer’s Design Book (3rd Ed., Peachpit Press, 2008), by Robin Williams. In this delightful and insightful book, Williams highlights the four foundations of design: contrast, repetition, alignment and proximity. Of these four principles, alignment and proximity are essential to the design of legal papers.


Indents are structural tools because the alignment or indentation of headings is a visual clue that suggests how important a heading is. Headings at the left margin, such as Roman-numeral headings, are the most important. The indent before a subheading signals that an issue is subsidiary to the main point. The deeper the indent, the more subsidiary the issue. Scroll through your document to review each layer of headings as a group and to check that you have formatted and indented each layer of headings consistently.


Keep related items close together. For example, if your paper surveys the types of relief available for a violation of the securities laws, paragraphs discussing each type of relief should be probably be grouped together. Similarly, keep citations  near the case discussion—meaning in text. Putting citations in footnotes violates the design principle of proximity. It also requires the reader to bounce around on the page to piece together the full citation. Remember that our job is to keep the readers’ eyes moving forward and anything that stops that forward momentum is a writing crime.

(As you know, I disagree with the trend to put citations in footnotes in briefs and opinions. Dropping citations to footnotes is a substantive error, as well as an affront to the principles of good design. Within a citation, the name of the court and the year of the decision both indicate the weight of a case as precedent, so the citation itself contains substantive information. Substantive information should not be dropped to footnotes.)

Less is More

But while you should consider principles of modern design in laying out your paper, remember that the legal profession is not the advertising profession. Don’t be too flashy or slick. Never let design overpower content.


Good design makes for easy reading. How pretty is your paper?


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