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LEGAL VISUALISATION PROJECT – TENANTS’ RIGHTS

Michael Doherty and Chelsea Cully

This blog post describes the development of a project to use graphic design principles and techniques to produce a visually engaging guide to tenants’ rights.

Inspirations

The project drew on a number of sources of inspiration. Michael Doherty had created OpenLawMap, the world’s first jurisdiction-wide geographical map of legal places, in 2012. This allows users to mark places of legal significance on an online map, to blog about them, and include pictures of the location. It invites users to explore the role of ‘place’ in legal developments (an aspect which is rarely considered) and allows people to see the physical and visual context of important legal events (rather simply textual representations of these events). He developed a legal history walking trail based on OpenLawMap as an induction tool. This model has been adopted by a number of other UK law schools and the overall project won the Routledge / Association of Law Teachers ‘Teaching Law with Technology Prize’ 2015. It led him to explore the wider range of non-textual ways of communicating legal information.

 

There are a number of other legal visualisers, to use Emily Allbon’s phrase [1], working in the UK. These include Amanda Perry Kessaris who works at the interface of law and design and whose projects include the Pop Up Museum of Legal Objects [2], the Graphic Justice Research Alliance which promotes research on comics and notions of justice [3], and RightsInfo, which aims to develop understanding of human rights issues through accessible online resources [4].

The more direct inspirations for this project though came from the US where there are developing practices of using graphic design projects to promote social justice and the public understanding of legal rights.  These include NuLawLab at Northeastern University [5], and Margaret Hagan at Legal Design Lab at Stanford [6].

Benefits of design

Hagan has argued the general benefits of design thinking; that it can ‘center our work on real, lived human problems’ and that ‘Design is concerned not so much with the means by which new legal processes may be carried out, but rather with the experience of the humans who will be using these processes’ [7].

MD blog post image 2

The Center for Urban Pedagogy funds advocacy groups to work with artists and designers to address these real, lived human problems. A key example is the ‘Vendor Power’ poster produced by Candy Chang to summarise and explain the New York street vendor code. This illustrates the strengths of a design approach;

  • a majority of New York City street vendors have English as a second language,
  • the legal code is in detailed and dense legalese,
  • infractions of the code are common.

Rather than using the resources of pro-bono advice groups to try to resolve infractions when they occur (what is negatively described in environmental law as an ‘end of pipe’ solution), the aim of the poster is to reduce infractions in the first place. Important features of this are;

  • the prioritisation of the most common infractions,
  • the reduction of text and use of visual representations of the regulatory regime,
  • the provision of text in multiple languages and
  • the physical production of advice posters and delivery to the target audience of street vendors. [8]

The Tenants’ Rights Visualisation Project

When I sought to apply some of this design thinking to a UK legal context, I realised that I would need to work with a graphic designer. I am fortunate to work at an institution that has a vibrant undergraduate research culture and applied for an undergraduate research intern to work on the project for 10 weeks. I was even more fortunate that Chelsea Cully applied. Chelsea is a second year BA Graphic Design student and she quickly grasped the aims and nature of the project.

Our next step was to select a topic for legal visualisation. We chose tenants’ rights because it appeared to be the most common issue presenting at law clinics, based on consultation with the Lancashire Law School Clinic and research on Essex and Swansea law clinics by Richard Owen [9]. This also suited the aims of the project because student tenants in shared housing represent an appropriate target audience – we could design the information for them and have a good chance of delivering that information into their hands.

We scoped out the key problems facing tenants by speaking to the Law Clinic and UCLan Student Accommodation Office. Chelsea was also able to give me some of the lived experience of student tenants in 2017. This consultation produced a host of issues, including;

  • Contract commitment – that students were not understanding the nature of a commitment to a (typically) 42-week contract.
  • Damage and repair – it was sometimes a struggle to get landlords to adhere to their legal commitments to make repairs in a timely fashion.
  • Tenant’s noise / litter nuisance – tenants failing to understand their responsibilities sometimes led to conflict with the landlord and neighbours.
  • Privacy – this was an issue that did not arise in Law Clinic referrals but from the student ‘lived experience’ insights. Tenants have a right in law to privacy vis-à-vis their landlord, and in practice this is a right that is sometimes breached, but it is not the sort of issue that a student would necessarily seek legal advice on.

Some issues that caused fewer disputes such as deposits, and health and safety regulations (fire, gas, electrical safety) were included because they are so important.

The design process and format

Once we had our topic and prioritised list of issues we could start on the graphic design process, including ideas boards, colour schemes, and image banks. This was a challenging brief. We had to summarise a range of legal rights and responsibilities in a way that balanced text and visuals in the most effective way to communicate important information. In the words of Ambrose and Harris we had to make ‘that which is difficult to understand understandable, and that which is uninteresting, engaging’ [10].

Chelsea wanted the urban design of the poster to reflect the types of vernacular architecture of the streets close to the university campus that housed much of this shared accommodation – typically redbrick terraces. I wanted the characters in the poster to move beyond generic figures and look like 21st century undergraduate students. Chelsea explains ‘I sketched and painted houses by hand and used my drawings as a reference for the digital development of this work. The interior of the pamphlet was done in much the same way but with close ups of rooms and different utensils.’ We took our design structure from the Center for Urban Pedagogy, i.e. a fold out poster, but tweaked to make it A3 size which suited the design (and our printing budget better).

MD blog post image 3The process of developing a visual guide to a legal area was a different experience for me from more traditional legal research projects, though the process of summarising complex legal issues and considering how to communicate them in the clearest and most engaging way does cohere with my approaches to teaching and text-book writing.

  • User-centred design – we were not producing a summary of a code, or in this case a bundle of disparate Acts and Regulations. The temptation would have been to take the structure of the law (or even the way it is summarised in Government guides) as the template. We decided we had to approach the design thematically and think about the best way to visually organise the material. This meant that we had a mix of text and infographics in the panel on contract obligations and grouped a range of safety and good practice issues together in our kitchen panel (electrical safety; heat sensor; waste and recycling).
  • Visual representation – the text remains an important part of communicating legal information but at each stage we asked ourselves – how could this be represented visually? What is the right balance between text and images?
  • MD blog post image 4Distribution – I am hopeful of obtaining external funding to further test and refine the poster before distribution. Even in the absence of this, we will print the poster and work with the Accommodation Office to distribute it to the almost 2000 students currently in University accommodation and to more students through the annual Accommodation Fair.

It was enormously gratifying to be able to present this process and poster to colleagues at the Association of Law Teachers conference at Keele, March 2018, and to win the Stan Marsh Prize for Best Conference Poster.

Conclusion

 

This has been a fascinating process for me as a legal academic;

  • It is interdisciplinary in a new and exciting way.
  • It provides different ways of thinking about legal communication.
  • Perhaps most importantly it seeks to have real world impact by delivering accessible information into the hands of people who need it.

The poster could be used with very little amendment by other university law clinics and accommodation offices. With some re-design it could be usefully adopted by local authorities, advice centres, and even by housing association or lettings agents. We hope that the project so far is merely the first step.

Michael Doherty is a Principal Lecturer in Law at Lancashire Law School. His main interests are in Public Law and in legal education, in non-standard ways of communicating legal information and in public legal education.

Chelsea Cully is currently working as a graphic designer in Liverpool on a sandwich year as part of her BA Graphic Design course.

References

[1] E Allbon, ‘Seeing is believing: We are all converging’ [2016] Law Teacher 44

[2] A Perry Kessaris, The Legal Treasure Project https://legaltreasure.wordpress.com/collections/pop-up-museum-of-legal-objects-2017/

[3] Graphic Justice Research Alliance, https://graphicjustice.wordpress.com/about/

[4] RightsInfo, https://rightsinfo.org/about/

[5] NuLawLab, http://www.nulawlab.org/about

[6] Legal Design Lab, http://www.legaltechdesign.com/

[7] Margaret Hagan, Law by Design http://www.lawbydesign.co/en/home/

[8] Center for Urban Pedagogy, Vendor Power http://welcometocup.org/Projects/MakingPolicyPublic/VendorPower

[9] R Owen, ‘Law Zone: Digital mapping of unmet legal need’ (Association of Law Teachers Conference 2017, Portsmouth).

[10] G Ambrose and P Harris, The Fundamentals of Graphic Design (AVA Academia, 2009)

Vendor Power image © Center for Urban Pedagogy

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