By Liezl van Zyl

Tips for emphasis in contracts

Emphasis is supposed to make important clauses stand out - but the techniques lawyers use often have the opposite effect. Here are some tips for effective emphasis.
A clown in a sea of storm troopers
When we draft contracts, we emphasise certain contract clauses because we want to (or are required by law to) bring something to the reader’s attention. However, many of the typical emphasis techniques in contracts have the opposite effect. This blog will show you some alternative ways to emphasise clauses that really draw the reader’s attention and might even make them want to read!

Common emphasis techniques we see in contracts

Traditionally, lawyers use typographic emphasis to draw attention to important clauses. They place whole paragraphs in ALL CAPS or bold text, or they underline important sections.

Common emphasis techniques

Sometimes they do all three – just to be sure something stands out. We see this technique often in contracts that have many important clauses. Then emphasis techniques are combined in an effort to show that some clauses are even more critical than others. It’s also usually a sign that the contract hasn’t been reviewed in some time.

Where do these techniques come from?

These techniques date back to the days of the typewriter when the only way to draw attention to a clause was to write it in ALL CAPS, go back and type over your paragraph again to make it look bold or underline a paragraph. That’s it – those were your options. Snore!

Over the years, those techniques have become so entrenched that some have started mistaking them for law. Yes, some laws require specific clauses to be emphasised, but few, if any, specify how those clauses must be emphasised. The legal requirement may be that the clause is brought to the reader’s attention or that the reasonable person must notice the clause. It doesn’t say to underline a clause or write it in ALL CAPS.

But what’s wrong with these typographic techniques?

Large sections of ALL CAPS or bold text are cumbersome to read. So, instead of motivating readers to pay special attention to the important clauses, readers have learned to skip over those sections because they are too difficult to read. ALL CAPS is especially notorious. When all the letters are capitalised, they lose their individual shapes, slowing the reader down and wasting precious mental processing capacity that could have been spent on understanding the content.

Is it time to try something new?

If your aim is to draw the reader’s attention to a clause, and you realise that your emphasis technique is causing the reader to skip over that clause, then it is absolutely time to try something new.

For inspiration and tried and tested emphasis techniques, we turn to graphic design and UX design. There are so many different ways to make text stand out, but we have chosen three of our favourites:


Alternative emphasis techniques


  1. Create a text box for important clauses. Just a frame. It’s subtle, but it works well.
  2. Place the text in a colour box in a contrasting colour. The colour contrast between the text and the box must be good enough so that it’s easy to read. Go for dark text on a light background colour. Even light grey works well if you can’t use colour in your contract.
  3. Add an icon that readers will recognise. The recognition part is important. Different groups of people will interpret images differently – so use an easily recognisable image. The less abstract it is, the better. Exclamation marks are a safe way to indicate important information.

It’s not necessary to try more than one technique in an agreement. Instead, choose the one you think will work for you and try it in your next agreement. It’s a really simple way to make it easier for your reader to read your contract and get the important points across.

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