The problem with “pretty”

From an installment of Matthew Butterick’s newsletter on typography describing how a judge’s ruling was typeset:

As readers, it takes us a moment to understand what’s happening, as our eye cycles between the upper part of the page and the lower. But then we see: each footnote memorializes a Black person who died during an encounter with law enforcement. After that, each line resounds like the tolling of a bell. Even the footnote-reference number becomes freighted: it is also a death count, ticking upward, page by page.

Pretty isn’t the right word, is it? This typography is elegant, unexpected, concise, and powerful. Footnotes, sometimes the refuge of the discursive or sloppy writer, are here used in a potent, emotional way.

But that, to me, is where the magic of typography lies. Imagine how other judges or lawyers would’ve probably presented this material. They might’ve made it dense and dull, thereby diluting the impact. Or they might’ve gone the other direction, making the page bold and shouty when it should be solemn.

As a writer, Judge Reeves understands that there is nothing more harrowing than the facts, simply stated. This is reflected in both the words on the page and the way they’re presented typographically. Truly beautiful work.