What is Legal Design?

by | Aug 21, 2020 | Blog

You’ll no doubt have heard about “legal design” by now – it’s a topic which is very much in vogue in the legal sphere at the moment. 

But, what is legal design? 

We’ll cover the basics, need-to-knows and also show you that it might not be as novel as it first seems. All you need to do is build on what you’re already doing to start adding real value to your users.

What is design?

Most lawyers would struggle to articulate what “design” is. We might associate it with a nice piece of art, furniture or clothing. More likely than not, we think it involves making things “look good”.

Although making things look good is often a by-product of the design process, design fundamentally involves creating solutions for people. With the user at its heart, design is about functionality, usability and communication. The same could be said about law, which is why applying design principles to law has so much potential to disrupt and improve the delivery of legal services.

Take, for example, the humble “Stop” sign. At first blush, you might not think this been “designed”. Looking again though, you’ll notice that its shape, its alarmist red colour and stark white typography are all designed to communicate something to you (that being, “you need to stop right now!”).

The point here is that “design” is everywhere and plays an important role in our everyday lives. Appreciating this, we, as lawyers, can start to use design as part of our working practices to improve experiences for our end-users.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a design-led, human-centered, creative approach to problem-solving. Unlike scientific and engineering approaches, which address problems from the perspective of whether or not they are technically solvable, design thinking addresses problems from the user’s perspective, working out what the user’s needs are in order to devise viable solutions.

Design thinking has its roots in the ‘60s, where engineers were encouraged to think more like designers and approach their problems more creatively. In the 80s and 90s, design thinking was taken up by big business and finally (and better late than never) it’s finding its feet in the legal world.

Let’s look at a couple of examples of design thinking in action to bring this to life.

We’ll start with Oral B. A few years ago, Oral B set out to create a better user experience for their electric toothbrush. Various ideas to improve the toothbrush were suggested, including adding music or tracking brushing performance. When they actually asked their users, Oral B discovered that the two main pain points for users were forgetting to buy replacement heads and poor battery life. As a result, Oral B ended up launching the toothbrush with replacement heads and improved charging capabilities. The result? Increased sales and happy customers. Had Oral B not taken a design thinking approach, they would have wasted huge amounts of time and money manufacturing and marketing a product that ultimately disappointed its customers.


Another example is Google and its role in revolutionising the “No Internet” page. Google recognised that their users were frustrated when they lost their connection. Although this was not something Google was directly responsible for, through user research, they found that their user base viewed Google and the internet as being synonymous. So they took it upon themselves to directly address their users’ frustration by introducing a crudely-designed dinosaur game which could be played without the internet. In doing this, Google helped their users transform their frustration into enjoyment and distraction.

Google also helped itself – this was a huge PR piece for the company, with a number of mainstream media outlets running stories on it. The game also receives over 270 million plays a month (which is ridiculous!).


No Internet Dinosaur Game Google Chrome

Google also helped itself – this was a huge PR piece for the company, with a number of mainstream media outlets running stories on it. The game also receives over 270 million plays a month (which is ridiculous!).

Design thinking methodology

So, how do you do “design thinking”? Design thinking methodology comprises of five stages:

Empathise – this involves stepping into your users shoes to really empathise with them, understanding who they are and what they need. 

Define (the problem) – having empathised with your user, you need to state your user’s problem. This requires you to craft a problem statement. For example, imagine you are drafting a legal opinion for the GC of a tech scale-up who is yet to hire a legal team. You discover from the empathy stage that they are extremely time poor and need advice to be as simple to consume as possible. Your problem statement then might be, “how might we craft a legal opinion that is concise, easy to read and straightforward to use?”. 

Ideate – based on what you have learned from the previous two phases, you then generate ideas to solve the problem you have identified – they can be as mundane or innovative as you like.

Prototype – this phase involves experimenting with your ideas, creating simple, scaled-down versions of your ideas in order to find the best possible solution to the problem you have defined. 

Test – having found the best solution you can and prototyped it out, you then need to test it with users and get their feedback.

The driving principle here is “fail fast, fail often”: by prototyping and testing, you avoid wasting time and money on building solutions that aren’t necessarily fit for purpose. If something doesn’t work, you continue to build, test and iterate until you find the right solution for your users.

What is legal design?

Final thoughts

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