Work in progress: Doing socio-legal research in design mode

How might design enhance our understanding of, and our ability to communicate about, law as a social phenomenon? At what cost? 

Mindsets, tools and processes from design such as visualisation, sprints and prototyping are increasingly identified as distinctive and useful; and adopted across legal fields from practice to activism to policy-making (Perry-Kessaris 2019). 

With the support of a Leverhulme Research Fellowship (2020), I am exploring the novel proposition that sociolegal researchers might productively operate in ‘design mode’; and making the case for a potentially transformative opening of every aspect of sociolegal research processes to design-based methods. The results will be published by Routledge in monograph form–Doing sociolegal research in design mode.

Building on the conceptual framework of social innovation designer Ezio Manzini, I’ll aim to show that non-expert designers can be provoked to enter into ‘design mode’. For Manzini to enter into ‘design mode’ is to exercise of three naturally occurring human senses: the critical sense — that is, ‘the ability to look at the state of things and recognise what cannot or should not be acceptable’; the imaginative sense — that is, ‘the ability to imagine something that does not yet exist’; and the practical sense — that is, ‘the ability to recognise feasible ways of getting things to happen’. Design-based methods can ‘stimulate’ and ‘cultivate’ those three senses and, thereby, ‘make things happen’. Manzini identifies five ways in which designers ‘make things happen’. They make things ‘possible and probable’, ‘effective and meaningful’, ‘replicable and connected’, ‘local and open’ and ‘visible and tangible’.

I will draw on experimentation with about 200 sociolegal researchers and extensive individual testing (2014-2019) which addressed all aspects of sociolegal research (conceptualisation, data collection, analysis, dissemination, reflection); and confirmed that researchers from a range of career stages and educational cultures can productively be provoked and facilitated to take design-based approaches a wide range of research topics. For example, participants reported a model-making experiment helped them: ‘see connections’ and gaps across their project; realise ‘we should discuss our projects more, to learn more from each other’; ‘reflect on alternative solutions’; ‘express relatively unformed ideas’; ‘sit back and analyse’ the model, gaining ‘reflexive insight’; and ‘instinctually’ to ‘add elements’ and only ‘later…to see how they fit’ with the wider project. 

Collaborative + individual experiments 2014-2019. Images (c) Amanda Perry-Kessaris

I will use those experiments, contextualised in wider literature and practice, to show that it is possible and productive to provoke sociolegal researchers to enter into design mode and thereby develop Manzini’s conceptual framework in three ways:

  • Firstly, I’ll propose and demonstrate that design-based methods open up spaces of ‘structured freedom’ in which the practical, critical, and imaginative senses can operate in concert.
  • Secondly, the I’ll propose and demonstrate that the tension between structure and freedom is central to both law and design. Both are concerned in part with how things work, as a matter of function and utility; and in part with how things are understood, as a matter of form and meaning. While problem-finding and solving requires the structure of systems, sense-making requires the freedom of imagination.
  • Thirdly, I’ll propose and demonstrate that design-based methods maintain and make productive use of the structure-freedom tension primarily by emphasising communication and experimentation, and by making things visible and tangible.

Sociolegal researchers intend, but do not always manage, to approach law as a social phenomenon—communal, contingent and contextual. In particular their social orientation is not always reflected in their research processes, which are often conducted individually, on linear non-contingent paths, and to be communicated in ways that may not connect with wider academic and lay contexts. I aim to show that by approaching their projects in design mode, even temporarily, sociolegal researchers can address each of these gaps, and in so doing improve the quality and reach of their work. 


Manzini, E (2015) Design, when everybody designs.London: MIT Press

Perry-Kessaris, A (2019) ‘Legal design for practice, activism, policy and research’ 46:2 Journal of Law and Society185-210

Perry-Kessaris, A (2017a) ‘The pop-up museum of legal objects project: an experiment in “sociolegal design”’ 68(3) Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly225-244

Perry-Kessaris, A (2017b) Sociolegal Model Making

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