“Pretty” is a feature for contracts, too

An ugly suspension bridge, yesterdayCame across the following quotation from Eric S. Raymond, the godfather of the open source development model, in an article he wrote about the programming language Python:

Ugly programs are like ugly suspension bridges: they’re much more liable to collapse than pretty ones, because the way humans (especially engineer-humans) perceive beauty is intimately related to our ability to process and understand complexity.

That makes a lot of sense to me, because I think the same thing is true of contracts. Ugly, badly-written, poorly-structured contracts seem far more likely to “collapse” (into uncertainty, failure, disputes and litigation) than contracts that are well put together.

This isn’t because getting your paragraph numbers aligned is guaranteed to prevent a contractual dispute. It’s perfectly possible to have a contract that is beautifully laid out, but legally and commercially inadequate. However, in practice there tends to be a correlation between the visual appearance of a contract and the care with which its content has been drafted and negotiated.

Eric Raymond gives a deeper reason for this: it’s because contracts can be complex things, and a large part of how humans process complexity is through our ability to grasp structures and patterns, both visual and conceptual.

Or, as another well-known figure in free/open source software, Mark Shuttleworth, put it:

“Pretty” is a feature.

This is just one way in which programming and legal drafting have many similarities (this post by @grabbeh gives some more). This shouldn’t surprise us: both are concerned with using language (often rather esoteric language, even in these days of “plain English” drafting) in precise, logical, well-designed ways to achieve an outcome in the real world.


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