Through the looking glass: The adventures of a designer in legal land

A few years ago, I fell into this deep rabbit hole called legal and since then I’ve been trying to get a better understanding about what it is.

August 30, 2020

Changing of the tides.

A few years ago, I fell into this deep rabbit hole called legal and since then I’ve been trying to get a better understanding about what it is. I am a designer, a classical trained graphic designer to be precise. Trained in the visual arts and taught to think outside, inside and around the box. Or preferably deny the existence of the box and convince people that the box was never there to start with.

A lot of people like me, who don’t have a background in the legal profession, see the law as a conservative, close minded, authoritarian, mind numbingly boring and ironically enough, unjust system. However, after talking to lawyers about the legal profession, I realised my views on the subject might be wrong, terribly wrong.

The conversations I had with those working in law, sparked an interest. Being a curious person by nature, I felt that this world of law would be an interesting place to visit. Like the great adventurers who came before me, I decided to immerse myself in a world that was not mine. A world called legal and with a focus on legal design.

When I started working in legal design it felt like this really cool new profession that combined law and design. A field of work where design could really contribute to improving society and support law. All the people I started working with shared the same drive and enthusiasm. A mix of crazy lawyers and designers, coming together to create a better understanding of the law and truly help people to activate their rights.

However, at the Legal Geek conference of 2017 in London, it became clear that not everybody shared our opinion. Being at that conference felt like gate-crashing a very private tea party for people with a much higher education, a better income than me and with a big fondness for hierarchical caste systems.

We all know the number one question at these kinds of gatherings: “Which firm are you from and what is your field of specialisation?” After finding out I was just a mere designer they would hastily look for a way out of the conversation or just straightforwardly ask what the f**k I was doing there.

Never have I felt more out of place than on that day. Even when standing in line with a coupon for free food, I felt like an imposter trying to get his next meal. In the eyes of all these lawyers and AI-wizards, I was just a guy who was getting paid to doodle and pretend he was part of this cool elite club of intellectuals.

This whole experience made me hesitate - did I want to continue working in legal design? Why would I put in so much effort into something that would not be accepted? One answer could be that I don’t have that much of a social life and that I need something to keep me busy. But the real reason why I still love working in legal design is because I started to understand the law better and the reason why people pursue a career in the legal field.

A person who chooses a profession that they truly love, just like I did with graphic design, sees a certain beauty in it that others can’t see. By understanding the law better, I was able to see the beauty that was hidden for me all these years.

In the two years since my first encounter with the legal world a lot has changed. Innovation has become one of the pillars of the new generation. Off course the old school is for most still the way to go, but more people seem willing to step outside, inside and around the box. And a brave few are even willing to deny the existence of the box itself.

Last autumn I returned to London to attend once again a Legal Geek conference. At first, I was hesitant to go back to the place that left me more or less emotionally scarred. Only this time I truly enjoyed walking around. It amazed me how much more open and curious people were towards legal design and especially designers. Of course, not everyone shared this newfound interest, but the tides are changing and there is no denying it.

Designers are not lawyers or lawmakers and they will never be in that same category (the same goes for lawyers being designers). However, I am convinced that designers can play an important part in making the law understandable. If the law can’t be understood by the people, who it was designed to protect, then that law doesn’t fulfil its purpose and is clearly broken.

This should be fixed, and we can fix it together. Let’s work together and help people understand their rights and stop complaining about something being weird. Stop telling people that this is not the way we used to do this, or that it the law is boring.

For the lawyers reading this, working with designers will help you shed your dusty old image. And for the designers reading this, if you really want to contribute to a better society? Then join these guys.

Jeroen van Diesen
Legal Designer/Art Director Visual Contracts