Ban Garamond? C’mon, People, It’s Not Exactly Comic Sans

Journalists have been having a lot of fun with the notice from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit “to encourage the use of typefaces that are easier to read and to discourage use of Garamond.”

“Maybe it was a string of obscure acronyms appearing in a relatively small typeface that hurt the eyes of judges,” wrote a commentator at the National Law Journal.  Slate asked “What did Garamond do to deserve a D.C. Court’s wrath?”  I have some sympathy for the judges. When a big part of your job involves reviewing deadly dull legal briefs, readability matters. Yet I find myself wondering, in all seriousness, whether the court might be making a mistake.

The D.C. Circuit is reportedly worried that use of a narrow font like Garamond allows lawyers to squeeze extra text into mandated page limits But the font has other virtues. Experts praise Garamond as an “elegant typeface” with “high legibility” — ideal for “reading material that includes continuous text.”

Like legal briefs, for instance.

Moreover, if one’s going to choose a font with serifs, Garamond is easier to read than the Times New Roman and Century fonts the D.C. Circuit prefers.  Garamond has a smaller “x-height” — a measure of the size of lower-case letters relative to upper-case letters.  As Betty Binns points out in her 1989 classic “Better Type,” research tells us that a large x-height leads to “poor differentiation of certain letter pairs, such as lowercase n and lowercase h.”

However, newer studies suggest that for reading serif letters on a screen, a higher x-height may be better. One wonders, then, whether the D.C. Circuit’s irritation at Garamond might be a product of the pandemic, with judges and clerks suddenly reading more on laptops.

But if that’s so, perhaps the court would do better to scrap the ponderous formality of serif fonts altogether — including Times New Roman and Century — given that when viewed on a screen, sans serif passages are easier to recall.

The D.C. Circuit recommends that documents be submitted in Times New Roman or Century. Century is required for most pleadings in the U.S. Supreme Court, and the justices’ opinions are set in a variant known as Century Schoolbook. It’s a serious-looking font, but it scores low on tests of legibility. Times New Roman has been the default choice among lawyers for longer than I’ve been a lawyer, and seems to be the default for lots of published scholarship. Matthew Butterick, author of “Typography for Lawyers,” dismisses Times New Roman as “the font of least resistance.” And although the quotidian isn’t always bad, the font’s legibility isn’t much better than Century’s.

A further irony is that Times New Roman was designed to do exactly what’s stoked the D.C. Circuit’s concern about Garamond: enable the Times of London to crowd as much text as possible onto the great gray sea of its front page. Although the industry was impressed when the new font was rolled out in the 1930s, many readers weren’t. “What a hash you have made of your beautiful paper!” one wrote. But an admiring William C. Edgar, the respected editor of the Minneapolis Tribune, praised the new typeface, in part for its similarity to ... Garamond.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no brief for Garamond, and harbor no prejudice against serifs. But writing is my profession, and I’ve come to prefer drafting columns, articles, and books in sans serif fonts like Tahoma, because I find the clean lines easier on the eyes. (I’ll admit that until now, I’ve never wondered whether my editors share this view.)

Nor am I proposing a lawyers’ jacquerie. There’s no gain to flouting any court’s typological preferences. Some judges have imposed fines, and courts routinely reject briefs for failure to follow rules on word count, typeface, even color of the cover.

But if we’re going to have regulation of acceptable fonts in what are after all government offices, especially in those particular offices known as courts, it would be nice to see a thorough discussion of the evidence.

Ellen Lupton, in her delightful “Thinking With Type,” devotes two beautiful, glossy pages to examples of Garamond. The images leap with energy. When set in Garamond, Lupton explains, “headlines are slim, high-strung prima donnas,” and “subheads are frisky supporting characters.”

Sounds highly readable to me.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster.”

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