Beautiful law: how design and visualisation can make law simpler, useful and even fascinating

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By Legal Futures

26 January 2015


By Serena Manzoli

Recently it dawned on me that I should pay taxes in the UK and I wanted to know how to do it. So I went straight to the legislation.gov.uk portal and looked up to the Income Act 2007. Hey, I studied law.

Well, see figure 1 at the bottom of this page. After one hour, it was me yawning, endlessly wandering among the titles of the Income Act, a nightmare of 1,035 sections.

What rules apply to me? Where should I click? More reading, more yawning.

I realised that there’s a stripped-back version of instructions on gov.uk on how to deal with your income taxes and I spent the rest of my time there. It’s a much better user experience. They tell you exactly what to do, with a tenth of the words, and the design is neat.

I mean, the legislation.gov.uk website is great too – they designed it after a brilliant research on user needs. The only thing which remains bad is the very final product: the law. Lawyers made it.

Why couldn’t law be designed by designers as well? Designers, humans being who love beauty and keep users in mind. All the time. Well, most of the time.

Designers to the rescue

It seems we’re getting there. When faced with the inner ugliness of the laws, some designers decided to put design methods to use. With a bold intent: make the existing laws simpler, user friendly and beautiful.

And they invented that thing that we’ll be calling legal design from now on.

Stefania Passera, PhD fellow at the University of Aalto, is a designer tout court who turned into a legal designer. She takes a law, an unintelligible and badly written tangle of words, and ask people who take part in her legal design jams to turn it into something different.

I’ve been to her legal design jam in Milan, where we, the lawyers, met them, the designers, and worked together for eight hours. Designers patiently taught us about diagrams, reshuffling categories, asking questions, obvious questions: who’s that law for? How can we make it simpler?

The results are promising. In a legal design jam Stefania lead in Syros last year, participants took the dull and gave it a huge makeover. They reframed it around the user.

Think about it: laws are often conceived as object-centered, not user-centered texts. Every section deals with a different object. If, for instance, you’re a seller and look to the CISG for guidance on what you have to do, you won’t find a section devoted to you, but rather two object-centered sections – titled Delivery of the goods and Conformity of the goods.

The result is that you’ll find yourself endlessly wandering around articles 31-44, trying to understand what applies to you, as those sections contain also rules which are written for buyers and third parties.

One of the groups at the Syros legal design jam rendered the seller obligations in the way shown in figure 2 (© 2013 CISG Legal Design Jam Group @ Syros 2013).

While another group re-constructed the user journey in a diagram (see figure 3). What if laws were written this way in the first place?

Legal designers come in various shapes. Margaret Hagan is a lecturer at Stanford University design school in the US, where she researches and teaches on this new field, builds apps to turn legal education into a game, and sketches incessantly. Her manifesto: put a usable set of interfaces and tools on top of the labyrinth of law.

Ms Hagan focuses on lawyers: they need to learn design to better communicate the law to their clients and help them understand why a legal solution is better. So that, finally, they’re able to choose for themselves. Isn’t it what legal experts should do, instead of hiding behind smoke and mirrors of legalese?

In France, ex-lawyer Olivia Zarcate recently co-founded the Legal information design network, where lawyers mingle with designers and academics and sparkle discussion on this nascent field. Understand the law with metaphors, spread the law with images, she says.

Her legal design works on a more abstract level: the legal system rather than the single laws. An example: in Anatomy of law, she described the legal system as a human body, where every branch of law is represented like an organ in the body.

This is simple but clever for two reasons. First, every branch of law gets a meaning both on the basis of its relative position – what it is compared to other branches – and its function, just as organs in the body: years of scholars ranting about structuralism and functionalism, explained in a figure.

Second, that’s an effective way to convey the difference among administrative, criminal, private law, which is embedded in lawyers’ minds but which non-lawyers have difficulties to understand. Both Zarcate and Passera were invited to the Clearer legal Information conference in London last April, organised by the Simplification Centre, the UK Information Design Association and the international association for plain legal language, Clarity.

Legal design is gaining momentum. But that’s not the only way the law can be improved.

From design to visualization

Do you get an aesthetic thrill looking at the Statutes Code? No probably. But you get close to something similar when you look at the visualization of the French civil code created by Jacques Verrier (see figure 4 below, © 2012 Jacques Verrier).

A zodiac of articles where links mean mutual citations and where, for the first time, we see the very structure of the law. Not a long, dull text where you can easily get lost, but rather a map, where everything is seen from above.

There is a whole world which gets disclosed through visualization, and law is no exception.

In a video, Verrier tracked the evolution of the Civil Code from 1804 to 2012. At a glance, you see what sections of the code were more affected from social changes: family law for instance grew bigger during the second half of the twentieth century. That was the time of battles for gender equality: new family laws were enacted and old articles amended. You can see it.

Can you exploit it? I’m pretty sure you can. Isn’t visualization pivotal for data analysis? In exploratory data analysis you see patterns only if you visualize data: this can prove true also for that bunch of data which is the law.

On the same wavelength, but using different kinds of visualization techniques, Monica Palmirani and Luca Cervone of the University of Bologna have decided to represent, through Sankey and bubble diagrams legal amendments in time. It’s greatly useful for lawyers to get to know when a law was amended and to visualize changes in time is much more appealing than browsing through a never-ending list of textual links (see figure 5 below, ©2014 Palmirani and Cervone).

Designing good laws: the future

In a way we’ve talked so far about the post production. Legal designers who put their hands on laws, after they have been written. What if, in a not too distant future, legal designers worked with lawyers in drafting the laws? Law could be written for a wide public of users instead that for an intimate group of appreciators.

There’s a whole toolbox that law makers could borrow from designers. The UK leads the quest here: maybe for its flourishing design scene or maybe because of its abnormally tangled legal system.

What about A/B testing a legal draft for instance? The Good Law initiative, carried out by the Cabinet Office and the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, is working on this very thing, trying to find out what language and drafting technique works best for the reader, and using methods which are not dissimilar from the ones used for A/B testing a website.

The Big Data for Law project, recently launched by the National Archives, wants also to find out how to design better laws. But its approach is more on engineering and measurability. The lead of the National Archives legislation services is, after all, John Sheridan, a mathematician.

To get a glimpse on the scope of the project, think about medieval cities, with their tangled, labyrinthic, random grid. Middle ages carpenters built with no structural engineering notions and no city planning. Those carpenters are not different from modern legal drafters. The Big Data for law project aims at looking at the statute law to find good design practices “based on evidence about how useful and effective they are”.

Once you find the right drafting practices, you’re able to replicate them, with almost mathematical precision. Like they were engineering rules.

Finally, what you should get is… good law.

And maybe even beautiful law.

Serena Manzoli is a legal entrepreneur. She’s the founder at Wildcat, a legal search engine for humans who are not lawyers. Previously involved in Peppercorn, she’s member of the Legal Design Network and likes writing on how tech and design can change the law, for better


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