Stellenbosch is a university town. It’s beautiful, and if you haven’t had the chance to visit it, I highly recommend it. It’s filled with history, wine, and students. Thousands of students who all need to live somewhere, rent apartments, and sign leases. Many of them have never seen an agreement before and have never had to think about what it means to be a tenant. They simply sign their agreements and hope for the best.
For the past six years my husband (an attorney) and I (an information designer) have been guilty of using a standard lease agreement with our tenants. It’s a 13-page whopper, complete with two pages of definitions, exclusions of liability, aforementioneds and notwithstandings, and three pages of standard clauses – or boilerplates. Now, while there was nothing legally wrong with the agreement, it made my brain itch, and it was time for a change. And that is how Hey Plain Jane and Van Zyl Scheepers Attorneys came to redesign a lease agreement together.
This article describes the process of changing the 13-page lease agreement into a one-pager with visuals. As always, the process started with an analysis of the audience and purpose. Next, we set goals for what we wanted to achieve, and then we started with the basic information that must be included for the lease to be legally binding.
Audience and purpose
The readers postgraduate students or young professionals. Usually, they have limited experience with lease agreements.
The information they generally look for in an agreement is the amount of rent and the size of the deposit, whether WIFI is included and what they must do to get their deposit back once the lease runs out. So, we wanted a revised agreement that was not only informative and instructive, but one that also made the tenant feel welcome and set the stage for their relationship with the landlord.
Our wish list for the agreement
We set goals for the agreement so that we could measure our success at the end of the project. We wanted an agreement that
- Is fair and balanced
- Improves the relationship between the landlord and tenant
- Is easy to understand
- Is attractive
- Will hold up in court
How we made it fair and balanced
The 13-page agreement felt terribly one-sided. In an almost adversarial tone it focused on the rights of the landlord and the responsibilities of the tenant. We took the relational drafting approach in our revised agreement and tried to strike a balance between the rights and responsibilities of both parties.
What we did to improve the relationship between the landlord and tenant
The length and formality of the original agreement discouraged the reader not only from reading the agreement, but from coming to the landlord when things didn’t go according to plan. In the revised agreement we applied tried and tested plain language techniques to reduce the level of formality and build the relationship between the parties. The techniques include:
- Adding an informal greeting to the start of the agreement and ‘we hope you feel at home’ to the end
- Making it personal by referring to kids and dogs
- Using personal pronouns and adding icons that illustrate the parties
- Adding humour
- Using contractions to decrease the level of formality
- Using familiar, natural language
- Adding the top tenant tips section
How we made it easy to understand
To improve reader comprehension, we cut the clutter and reduced the text to bare necessities. This is not just a plain language exercise, but also an exercise in risk management. Thinking about which risks we need to mitigate and which we are willing to live with allowed us to dramatically reduce the length of the agreement.
We used familiar, natural language, the active voice, simple sentences and clear headings.
How we made it attractive
George Bernard Shaw famously said that the biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place. If the reader doesn’t read the agreement there can be no understanding, even if the language is clear.
The revised agreement has a surprising design. No columns, no size six font, no definitions section. Instead, it uses meaningful icons to draw the reader’s eye towards the headings. The icons add meaning might even make you chuckle.
How we made sure that it will hold up in court
This had to be the most frequently asked question once we put our agreement out into the world: will it hold up in court. When we started drafting the revised agreement we went back to the basic requirements for a valid lease agreement.
In South African law, a lease agreement must contain
- the names and addresses of the landlord and the tenant;
- a description of the property that the tenant leases;
- the amount of rent and any escalation that the tenant must pay;
- the frequency of the payments;
- the amount of the deposit;
- notice for termination;
- any other charges that the tenant must pay; and
- the fact that the tenant may cancel the agreement with 20 business days’ notice, and that the landlord may charge reasonable penalties for the cancellation.
Our agreement meets all these requirements. In fact, since posting the agreement on LinkedIn we’ve had feedback from attorneys in New York and California claiming that it would also be valid in their jurisdictions. We will leave that up to you to investigate if you want to use the agreement there. But it is certainly valid in South Africa.
Why this project matters
When it comes to agreements of any kind it’s easy to argue ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. We’d argue that we probably don’t know how broken the agreement is until we start to pick it apart. And as a result of the ‘broken’ agreement, the relationship is broken. Traditional contracts with their adversarial tone set the stage for adversarial relationships. Our hope with the revised agreement is that a tenant will feel comfortable enough to talk to the landlord when something goes wrong – instead of simply moving out, defaulting on rent, or heading to the rental housing tribunal.
This is just one agreement. But we hope it catches on. Imagine the difference it could make.
Here is a link to the contract on LinkedIn. While you’re there, let’s connect.