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Remember the lines in Roman Polanski's Chinatown: “She's
my sister — she's my daughter — She's my sister and my
daughter!” Well the same could apply to Matthew Butterick. He's a
type designer. He's a lawyer. He's a type designer and a
lawyer who has a website devoted to teaching typography to legal
professionals, Typography for Lawyers.
Currently an attorney in Los Angeles, Butterick came to my
attention when he was a digital font designer working with the
Bureau. He then founded his own studio called Atomic Vision.
Before all that he graduated from Harvard in visual and
environmental studies, while “also studying mathematics and
letterpress printing,” he notes. Butterick could easily be the kind
of over-achiever one loves to hate, but he's put all of these
talents to excellent use. I contacted Butterick to discuss law,
typography and whether justice is blind to good type.
Heller:When I heard you had become a lawyer after
being a typeface designer and website development studio
proprietor, well, I was very surprised. How did your passion for
type lead you to law?
Butterick: In 1999, my website studio in San Francisco
was absorbed by a technology company. I worked there for two years.
I took some time off. When my energies came back I wanted to try
something completely different. So I moved to Los Angeles. After a
few months of going to yoga and playing in bands, I thought, OK, I
need to find some kind of professional activity that gets my brain
back in gear.
Many of my friends from the San Francisco scene had gone back to
the next wave of tech startups and design companies—Web 2.0 and all
that. It was tempting, in some ways. During my time as a web
developer I had always advocated for simple, functional, textual
websites. In 1995, nobody wanted that. But by 2003 or so, everybody
did. Not that I was responsible, but it was gratifying to see the
But I was burned out on websites. Or at least, the website
business. Probably like a lot of designers, the relentless march of
commerce took a toll on my enthusiasm for the creative parts. So I
decided to remove that pressure, and let design be something I did
for fun, for myself and friends, rather than something I was
selling, and let my enthusiasm regenerate.
Heller: OK, that I understand. But why law?
Butterick: That left me still looking for a professional
activity. I said to myself, “Well, what's something that's
intellectually rigorous, that I can do by myself, that people are
willing to pay for, that would be entrepreneurial, and that engages
a different skill set than design?” And I thought, “Hey, why not
become a lawyer?”
To some, that adds yet another inexplicable turn to my career.
But I don't see it that way. A lot of the practice of law is about
taking complex things, simplifying them and making them
understandable—for your client, for judges, for juries, for your
opponents. The inputs and outputs are different than when I was
making typefaces or websites, but the essential alchemy is
Heller: So now, among other things, you work on intellectual
property issues. What is your focus?
Butterick: I practice civil litigation, and I focus on
representing people who have been steamrolled by bigger
adversaries. Within that scope, I also handle artist's rights
cases. Sometimes it involves intellectual property issues. Other
times it just involves people not getting paid. As I say on my
website, the history of artists getting cheated on their work is as
long and colorful as the history of art itself.
Heller: You have launched an incredibly novel website,
Lawyers. The big question is not why, but do you think it will
do any good?
Butterick: Judging by the fan mail I get from lawyers,
the website is reaching its intended target and having its intended
effect. They're putting the tips to work, they can see the
improvement, and then they want to learn more. That's the virtuous
circle that any teacher hopes for.
Honestly, I thought I would get at least one piece of hate mail
along the lines of, “I've been a lawyer for 40 years, and Courier
is all any lawyer needs, and you're wasting everyone's time with
this nonsense.” But it hasn't happened.
The site also attracts a lot of non-lawyers, which surprised me
at first. But really, there's a lot of people who have the same
problem as lawyers do, which is, “I wish my documents looked
better, but I'm concerned that I don't have the time or the skills
to learn anything about typography.” I try to keep things as simple
and actionable as possible.
Two of Matthew Butterick's type designs for the Font Bureau,
(left) and Wessex.
Heller: Do you really believe that lawyers are interested in
good typography? I guess I'm guilty of bias. What about the “fine
print” idea that in legal documents the critical issues are
Butterick: “Good typography” is typography that serves
the needs of the document. Lawyers are advocates, so I'm careful
not to take a stand on the propriety of certain habits. As a
consumer, no, I don't like getting a credit-card contract that's
acres of six-point text. But if I'm a lawyer for the credit-card
company, my job is to advance the interests of my client, including
the typography. You do what works.
If that seems cruelly pragmatic, think about direct-mail
solicitations. I find them ugly and unappealing. But I also know
that their design is the product of years of testing and refinement
about how to get people to part with their money. So is it “good
typography”? In context, yes.
Heller: When you were doing your law studies, did you ever
bring your typographic concerns to the bench? And if so, how were
Butterick: I did use Stempel Garamond or something for my
first paper in my legal-writing class. The professor said, “Next
time, use Courier.” “Why?” “Because that's how we do it.” “But
lawyers don't have to use Courier.” “Well, that's how we do it.”
And so on. Giving professors a hard time is a favorite pastime of
law students. You learn quickly that the professors are immune to
I've gotten mail from young lawyers asking, “I just started
working at a law firm. How do I make the managing partner adopt
everything on your site?” I say, you don't—you do your job. You
apply the techniques to your own work where you can. Sooner or
later people will say, “Hey, why do your documents look better?”
That's how you win.
Heller: On your website you list a number of books about law
writing. Do any of these address typography?
Butterick: Bryan Garner's books about legal writing touch
briefly on typography. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh
Circuit has a great little guide to legal typography on the front
page of their website. But I've recently signed a contract to turn
Typography for Lawyers into a book, so the void will soon be
Heller: Tell me honestly, counselor, can a typeface make or
break a legal case?
Butterick: No. And we should be glad for that. We have a
constitutional right of access to the courts. So the courts can't
reject documents because of how they look. If you're a federal
prison inmate and you have no lawyer and you submit a complaint in
pencil, the court still has to take it seriously. But that means
judges spend a lot of time with some awful-looking documents. Their
job is to look past the typography and make decisions based on the
merits. Typography is an optimization of a lawyer's work, not the
Heller: Are there court rules regarding fonts?
Butterick: Most courts have adopted rules about document
formatting, including font size, lines per page, margins, etc.
Some, like in California, get quite detailed. These rules exist for
the convenience of judges (so documents have a reasonably
consistent appearance) and fairness to the parties (so lawyers
don't abuse page limits by using teeny type). The federal district
court in Los Angeles has a rule that all court filings be in
14-point type. I think that's the biggest anywhere. No idea
Heller: How many of your clients are now typeface designers
or designers in general?
Butterick: Right now, none. It seems to me that designers
are relatively good at staying out of legal trouble. Musicians,
painters, illustrators seem to get into these disputes more
frequently. I did have a type designer call me last week looking
for legal advice about how to copyright his typefaces. I didn't
charge him for dispensing the bad news.
Heller: Again, honestly, while working on a brief, do you go
off into your type mode and start drawing typefaces?
Butterick: Never. When I'm working on a deliverable—I
have a stack of 33 briefs right here that I have to take to court
in a few minutes—I think like a lawyer. The primary question is,
have I hit all the issues? Is this judge going to understand what
I'm saying? Once I'm satisfied that I've done that, then I'll take
a look at the typography.
Strangely enough, I did return to drawing typefaces recently.
Hermes, my font family for the Font Bureau, had an uptick in
popularity over the last few years. So I added some new weights,
italic styles and alternate characters. I hadn't done typeface
design in 15 years. There was a bit of a re-learning curve. But I
got back into the swing of it.
Weirdly, I feel like a better, more confident type designer now,
even though I haven't done it in so long. Working with type as a
web designer and as a writer has helped me better appreciate how
type works. When I draw a comma on the screen, I can now visualize
the path that comma will travel on its way out into the world. Type
is the beginning, not the end.
Since 2000, Design for Democracy's ballot and election design project has worked to make voting easier and more accurate for all U.S. citizens.
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To commemorate AIGA’s 100th anniversary,
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