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Design as the default – legal design to move beyond privacy in 2020

Legal design combines legal expertise and design thinking methodology with the aim of producing more accessible, usable legal documents, advice and products and it is coming into its own.

December 2019

Legal design is information design, but with a legal focus. It's a step away from producing documents written "by lawyers, for lawyers" and a step towards producing documents or other solutions with the end user in mind. It's also nice for us (and our fellow lawyers) to produce documents that people might actually read voluntarily, if not always enthusiastically.

We have been banging on about legal design for a while now, and people are definitely starting to get it, so our prediction for 2020 is that legal design is finally going to get the attention it deserves.

Everyone knows how much lawyers like change (oh you don't know? OK, spoiler: it's lots, we like it lots, honest). So we are astonished (no really, we are) that not every law firm has leapt at the opportunity to be more innovative in the design of the work they are churning out. Change is a-coming though, and, as in-house legal teams and the Big Four accountancy firms are starting to take up space on the creative bandwagon, we foresee big changes to the way that legal solutions are designed and delivered.

Legal design will become the standard way to demonstrate transparency

For those of us determined to evangelise about legal design until you are all on board, privacy is an obvious place to start. If you have to demonstrate that your policies and practices are transparent and clear (as the GDPR explicitly requires) then actually being transparent and clear is probably as good a place as any to kick off.

It is intriguing then that so many privacy notices seem to have been designed to communicate exclusively with privacy lawyers. The indefatigable in consideration of the incomprehensible, as we like to think of it. We expect a lot more visually appealing privacy notices to pop up in 2020 and a few will probably go viral (well, on legal Twitter anyway).

Some imaginative organisations are already using videos and audio files to explain privacy content better. Who knows where a bit of imagination could take us? It is surely a matter of time until we acknowledge our first privacy policy delivered by puppets, in cartoon form, or perhaps through the medium of interpretive dance – this may not improve the clarity or transparency of the message but it would definitely encourage people to pay attention to it.

Cloning standards around the world will demand consistency

"What's a simple organisation, just trying to make its way in the universe, to do when clones of the GDPR keep being introduced around the world?"*

Since the GDPR came into force across the EU in May 2018, we have seen a number of other jurisdictions getting in on the privacy act. Data protection measures and bills are being introduced globally in jurisdictions as varied as Brazil, Kenya and California. India's proposed legislation would, if passed, make the GDPR look like an easy ride for business.

While there are local differences in privacy compliance, the themes of accountability, transparency and security are common threads that are crying out for standardised visual representation. That's right…we mean icons! We already have some legal symbols with universally accepted meanings (the TM, © and ® symbols for intellectual property) but in 2020 we expect to see others like the cookie symbol we see popping up in the corners of our favourite webpages, gaining similar ubiquity as an increasingly international online public expects explanations in the same, consistent terms, wherever the company whose website they are viewing happens to be based.

*This was Tamara's Star Wars joke. I don't get it but she is very proud of it so I have left it in (ed.).

A few false starts

The problem with universal norms is that they may not be as universal as we think. The building blocks of legal design are far from new; clarity, concision, and non-confusing graphics have been embraced by many lawyers for a long time. However, there are always those who want to take things a little further than the unsuspecting public might be ready for.

We predict some over-zealous 'simplifications' to legal terms will cause confusion in 2020. Will we soon see someone successfully using symbols and icons to record their last will and testament as a YouTube rap video? Or perhaps the time is ripe for an all-emoji set of terms and conditions? As we are forever reminding people though, just because most people think the 'hands pressed together' emoji is a prayer emoji does not change the fact that it is actually a high-five emoji*.

Icons and visuals are great but take it too far and things can easily go a bit Da Vinci Code. We are definitely overdue some emoji litigation though; probably without emojis in the actual pleadings. For now.

*I thought it was a thank you emoji. I am told it started out as a high-five, though – which rather proves the point. (ed.)

Shift from legal design to service design

Around the world legal design has also made a huge impact in communities previously excluded from the benefits of law and due process. In access to justice, having clear notices to tell people about their legal rights on arrest not only improves access to those rights, but also ensures that confessions and convictions are safer too. Similarly, visual contracts can mean that people with low levels of literacy have access to fairer working conditions and are less likely to be exploited.

In the UK legal market, even old school lawyers now see the benefit of applying legal design principles to advice, policies, contracts, and beyond. We have seen an embrace of the movement in consumer law, privacy law and increasingly in far more business-focused settings where the seductive promise of genuinely user-friendly templates, schedules, and order forms, can save time and stress for in-house teams lacking a desire to reinvent the contractual wheel.

But why stop there? We expect to see legal design morph into legal service design and become more integrated with the product or service being supported.

Perhaps Apple could finally persuade people to read its iTunes terms and conditions (famously longer than Hamlet) by having Taylor Swift sing extracts? Maybe white goods manufacturers could express their extended warranties though the medium of washing symbols? And when, oh when will we finally be able to indicate our consent to cookies with a selfie of us eating biscuits?

Running faster to stand still

Traditionally, law firms compare themselves to other law firms when assessing the competition. That approach has been outdated for a while but legal design methodologies might be the final nail in that coffin.

Other professional service firms are already in the legal design space and may find it easier to shake off the reliance on boilerplate terms and doing things the way they've always been done, something that lots of lawyers occasionally find hard. Aside from the relentless march of the accountants, new, tech-focused alternative legal service providers can also give traditional firms a run for their money.

In-house legal teams are getting in on the action too. Since they know their business best, it makes sense that they would embrace this opportunity to shake off that 'cost centre' vibe to be champions of the user experience instead.

So we are excited about what 2020 has to hold for legal design but we are not complacent. We know lots of brilliant people are getting involved and we couldn't be happier, because, in all seriousness, legal design isn't a fad, it's the future.

If you have any questions on this article please contact us.

Jo Joyce

Jo Joyce

Tamara Mackay-Temesy

Tamara Mackay-Temesy


Jo and Tamara (with some festive frivolity) extol the joys of and predict great things for legal design.

"While there are local differences in privacy compliance, the themes of accountability, transparency and security are common threads that are crying out for standardised visual representation."