Legal Design Podcast episode

In May 2022 I joined Henna Tolvanen and Nina Toivonen on their ground-breaking Legal Design Podcast .

You can listen to the episode above, and read a rough transcript below.

Nina: Welcome to Legal Design Podcast Amanda! It’s an honor to have you as our guest. What would you like to tell about yourself to our listeners?


I’m delighted to be here, thank you. I’m a regular listener of the podcast, and I really appreciate the lively and diverse archive of legal design work that you are creating.

I am Professor of Law at Kent Law School, which is in the South East of England.

For most of my career I have focused my research on questions about law and economy

  • So, for example, how does law generate, destroy, coordinate and communicate about economic actions, values and interests?; and how do economic actions, values and interests in turn shape law?

Over the last decade I have been thinking about what design can do for law, including legal practice, activism, policy making, research and teaching.

Nina: As you have mentioned, Amanda, one of your biggest research interests is to explore what design can do for law. That’s a topic me and Henna are also very eager to learn more about in this podcast. So let’s start with a big question: what can design do for law? 

Amanda: Maybe we can think about the general contribution of design to law on two dimensions—prompting and facilitating—both of which relate to communication.

First, design prompts us to take responsibility for the fact that law is about communication—it is an expression of rights and responsibilities, hopes and fears, goods and bads, realities and aspirations.

  • This realisation then, ideally, prompts us to invest more time and energy in thinking about exactly what we are trying to say with or about law, and to whom we are (and ought to be) trying to say it.
  • And this in turn, ideally, prompts us to be more explicit about the whose interests and what values we are (and ought to be) promoting or setting aside in the process.

Second, design facilitates us to communicate (to ourselves and to others) more effectively with or about law

  • then we can create (individually and collaboratively) more robust and relevant legal ideas, and more effective ways of communicating about those ideas to the widest possible audience.

Henna:  Amanda, you talk about doing law in design mode. Could you explain to us and our listeners what you mean by this? And how did you get interested in doing law this way? Where did it all start for you?

Amanda: I’ll start with how I got into it.

About 10 years ago I started thinking about how visual methods might help people from different disciplines (especially economics and law) to speak more directly to each other about issues of common interest. I started studying design part time at University of the Arts London, eventually completing a masters degree.  I felt like a complete idiot most of the time—my classmates were young, technically skilled, culturally connected and creatively oriented. I was not. But it was incredibly fun, interesting and productive.

The most important thing I learned during that time is that design is about much more that designed outputs. It’s also about the mindsets and processes and strategies that designers use to get to that output.

It’s also about working in design mode (which is a term I borrow from Ezio Manzini).

When I speak about ‘working in design mode’ I am primarily referring to situations where non-designers draw on designerly ways to enhance their ability to do the job in which they are an expert. In my case that means drawing on designerly ways to improve my work as an expert legal researcher. I’m not being a designer. I am drawing on the ‘ways’ that are characteristic of design. I can draw on those ‘ways’ indirectly (by reading a design book or listening to a design podcast); or directly (by collaborating with expert designers).

Henna: In your research Amanda, you highlight three lawyerly concerns: the need to communicate; the need to balance structure and freedom; and the need to be at once practical, critical and imaginative. When I read this, it really opened my eyes why lawyers sometimes might feel that lawyering is stressful and even difficult and it might be hard to find balance. I mean if we address these concerns with the traditional way of doing law, doing law sounds almost impossible. Would you mind explaining how doing law in design mode can help ease these concerns?

Amanda: I’ll begin by explaining more precisely what I mean by ‘designerly ways’ (which is a term I borrowed from Nigel Cross).

Views differ about what are the core characteristics of designerly ways, and what terminology we should use to refer to them. I focus on three—mindsets, process and strategies—each of which connects with those three lawyerly concerns you mentioned, Henna (and here I am building on Ezio Manzini).

First, designerly mindsets are simultaneously practical (able to make things happen), critical (able to identify what is wrong and why) and imaginative (able to conjure that which is not yet/still present). This connects to the lawyer’s need to be practical-critical-imaginative;

Second, designerly processes that emphasise experimentation, both in the structured, ‘scientific’ sense of testing hypotheses, and in the free, ‘creative’ sense of following leads and being provisional. This connects to the lawyer’s need to be structured-yet-free;

Third, designerly strategies emphasise making ideas visible and/or tangible (digital/material; texts, objects, maps, models, artefacts, spaces). This connects with the lawyer’s need to communicate with and about law.

So, to return to your question, Henna: how does working in design mode help address lawyerly concerns? We can say that the combined effect of designerly mindsets, processes and strategies is to generate ‘enabling ecosystems’ in which lawyers can individually and collaboratively make and communicate sense of legal ideas.

Nina: In your book Doing Sociolegal Research in Design Mode you explore and explain what design can do for sociolegal research. To put it simply, “sociolegal” refers to the understanding of law as a social phenomena. It views law as part of society and how law shapes human behavior and experiences, what it is to be human in a given social context. And when law is viewed from this perspective it becomes obvious that (legal) design can have a lot to offer to improve these behaviors and experiences. So to say, legal design and sociolegal/sociological approaches to law share the same idea that it is useful to observe and develop law using the knowledge and viewpoints of other sciences. 

However, as we know, this makes a big contrast to traditional legal research (legal dogmatics) and legal thinking which struggles with the idea of having multiple perspectives to legal issues, not to mention using other information sources than legally binding sources to solve legal problems. 

Do you think design can ease law and legal research with these struggles more generally? So that law could become more like “a real science” that operates with empirical data and experiments, perhaps also more interdisciplinarily? 

Amanda: I’m glad you are using the word ‘ease’ rather than ‘solve. I am convinced that design can help legal research to become more genuinely interdisciplinary, more empirically-grounded, and, therefore, more robust and relevant.

For example, earlier I suggested that what design can do for law at a general level is to prompt and facilitate communication.

That communication may be between academic disciplines. So designerly ways can help researchers from different disciplines to use and challenge each other’s conceptual frameworks, normative agendas and empirical evidence. Or the communication may be between academics and the wider world. So designerly ways can help the people I am researching to use and to challenge my conceptual frameworks, normative agendas and empirical evidence (for example, they can show me I am wrong, or irrelevant, or impossible to understand).

And note that both of those types of communication can occur across different languages, as well as different physical and mental abilities. Good design can help there too.

Nina: In the book you mention some example cases where you have tested or used design methods when teaching law / conducting research projects at Kent Law School. Could you share with us some of your favorite ones? 

Amanda: Yes, the last chapter of the book has lots of legal design research briefs with detailed instructions, many of which I have developed as part of the Research Methods in Law course which is compulsory for first year PhD students at Kent Law School.

My favourites are three model-making or prototyping activities. They can be done separately, but I find them most satisfying and impactful when done in series all on one day. 

First you build a LEGO model to explain your research project—what are the key components, how do they relate to each other, where do you see yourself in relation to the project?

Second, you find an artefact in a formal collection (for example, I have done this in the British Museum) that represents (for you) some aspect of your research— such as a relationship or a time period. You do a detailed analysis of the artefact (including, for example, its material character, and its historical or contemporary cultural significance) to generate new insights into your research topic.

Third, you make an object (for example, out of clay) to capture some a dimension of your research that you want to be able to keep a hold of (such as a person who is too easily forgotten, or an idea that you have not yet quite pinned down).

If you do these exercises collaboratively, you can also have pop-up displays of each participant’s models in relation to each other, which can be useful for generating a sense of community around a particular research theme.

Henna: Putting research into practice isn’t always easy. Legal Design is gaining more grounds in academia and it is safe to say that Legal Design is an academic discipline. There are many interesting studies for example in contract design but how to bring them into practice. Do you have some thoughts, Amanda, on how to make research more appealing to a wider audience?

Amanda I think that there are three important strategies here.

The first is to keep developing niche forums like this Legal Design Podcast series of yours, and the new Legal Design eJournal (which will redistribute published articles and working papers via the Social Science Research Network). These give people an accessible and immediate sense of what is happening in the field.

The second is to engage systematically with major international academic legal associations. For example, the Design Research Society meeting in Bilbao this year has a theme on ‘What Legal Design Could Be’ hosted by NuLawLab at Northeastern (which featured on your last episode); it would be good to see a legal design theme at an annual meeting of of a general law association such as the UK-based Socio-Legal Studies Association in the UK or the US-based Law and Society Association.

The third is to be patient. Good quality research, and high-quality research impact, take time.

Henna: Thank you Amanda for joining us. We’ve enjoyed the discussion a lot and are sure that our audience will love this. It is now time for our final question. Legal Design is, of course, an amazing development and it really can make a difference in the world of law. We often look at Legal Design with bias but how important is it to approach legal design also critically?

Earlier I spoke about the fact that lawyers and designers both are/seek to be critical in the narrow sense of being able to see what is wrong with the scholarly and wider worlds, and how it might be made more right. Several law school in the UK, including Kent Law School, self-describe as ‘critical’ in this sense. But there are two other dimensions to the word ‘critical’ that have more to do with responsibility.

First, there is the need to be ‘critical’ not only of the world, but also of ourselves. We must seek out, and respond to, critique from others who know what we do not; and we must especially be sure to make space for critique from those whom we may not normally have in mind due to our own biases (around geography, age, gender, race, physical ability and so on).

Second, there is the need to consider whether/how our work is ‘critical’ in the sense of being crucial, essential, not to be lost. We need to ask ourselves: are we adding something genuinely new, or are we simply reframing/rebranding something that already exists? and if we are adding something new, is it also meaningful, or is it just hot air? We need less of that.

Closing lines from Henna and Nina

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