A Brief Introduction to Visual Law
To make a revolution, it is generally beneficial to go back to basics. Therefore, to understand what visual laws are and why we need them, we must first go back and ask ourselves, what is a law?
If we look in a dictionary for the definition of law, we may find that a law is defined as “a rule, usually made by a government, that is used to order the way in which a society behaves” or “a rule made by a government that states how people may and may not behave in society and in business, and that often orders particular punishments if they do not obey” (according to the Cambridge Dictionary).
To put the last touches on this definition, it is important to note that many legal systems uphold the legal principle ignorantia juris non excusat. According to said principle, a person who is unaware of a law may not avoid liability for breaching that law merely because one was unaware of its content.
Therefore, we can conclude that a law is a rule made by a government directed at the people of a society to determine how they may and may not behave, the violation of which may involve a punishment from which people cannot escape just because they are unaware of the content of the breached law.
At this point, we should ask ourselves whether, as legal actors, we are doing our best when designing and communicating laws, given that, if someone is going to be bound by any rule, it is simply fair that one knows and understands the content of that rule.
From the brief analysis we have done so far, we can conclude that, in general, we are doing something wrong in the law-making process.
The laws, intended for and binding on citizens, are designed by and for lawyers, written in legalese and poorly communicated. Basically, little effort is put into making sure people understand the legal system that binds them.
Despite this, in the event of non-compliance, the full force of the State falls on the noncompliant citizen, without empathy or mercy, nor self-criticism about the role of the State in the fact that people might not understand the same law that they are breaching.
For all these reasons, it is necessary to begin a process of change in the drafting and publication of laws, in order to make them more accessible and understandable for the people who will see their lives affected by them.
To such extent, and in the first place, it is essential to understand that the main users of the laws are citizens, not lawyers, judges, nor the public administration. Taking this idea as a starting point, we need to think of the law-making process as a human-centric design process. Better said, a citizen-centric design process.
Since people not only need to have access to the laws, but also to understand them, we must be sure that they are designed in a way that improves their understanding by the average citizen. To achieve this goal, we can learn a thing or two from plain language and information design techniques.
As we may already know, graphic design is the visual representation and organisation of ideas for a specific purpose using typography, photography, iconography, and illustration. Information design is a specific area of graphic design related to displaying information in a logical way rather than just aesthetically, so that everyone can understand it efficiently and effectively.
Plain language is writing designed to try to get the reader to understand a text as quickly, easily, and completely as possible. It is key to highlight that plain language is a legal requirement in many countries when it comes to public administration.
From these practice areas we can learn various techniques that, although they may seem natural or intuitive, are not usually considered when drafting or communicating laws.
Starting from organising the information in a logical way, grouping related topics and following a logical cognitive order, and continuing with using a table of contents and descriptive headings, we can even think of employing different typographies and colors to emphasize certain parts of the text and order the same.
Opting for a bolder choice, we could even consider including charts, graphics, diagrams, and images, to make the content of the law more understandable and relatable for the user.
Going back to the beginning, the design of visual laws shall be a citizen-centered process. Therefore, the tools to be used must match the specific user of the law. We should not have the same approach when dealing with children’s rights as when it comes to corporate law, because the users of these laws may be totally different.
To put this theory into an example, we can refer to the excellent work being done by the Center for Urban Pedagogy (the “CUP”) in New York. The CUP is conducting a project called Making Policy Public, which comprises a series of posters aimed at making information on policy truly public: accessible, meaningful, and shared. In the example we present below, the CUP collaborated with graphic novelist Danica Novgorodoff to create an accessible outreach tool to help youth navigate the maze of New York’s juvenile justice system.
“I got arrested! Now what?” a poster created by the Center for Urban Pedagogy of New York and Danica Novgorodoff, as part of the Center for Urban Pedagogy project Making Policy Public.
In conclusion, laws shall be designed interdisciplinarily in a process that shall have as its centre the citizen who is bound and benefited by said laws.
Taking on the challenge of making the law more understandable and accessible to society will result in an overall benefit: people will be more attracted to knowing the law, understanding of the law will increase, the government will save time and money spent on law explanation and in the fight against non-compliance with the law and, above all, we will make a valuable contribution to social inclusion.
Written by Amelin Jabbur. Corporate and Tech Lawyer. Expert in M&A by ISDE Madrid. Student of the Postgraduate Degree in Artificial Intelligence and Law at the University of Buenos Aires. Co-Founder of ALIL (LATAM Legal Innovation Alliance) and ALTA (Argentinian Legaltech Association). Currently, in-house lawyer of Huawei in Buenos Aires, Argentina.