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Legal Design Thinking

Legal Design Thinking

By Erika Ly, The Legal Forecast


There is immense curiosity in the concept of ‘design thinking’ in the innovation literature. Yet, for a phrase so ubiquitous, it is often misunderstood by lawyers. In practice, design thinking can be a useful framework for learning and change when it is undertaken with an understanding of its goals. However, if hastily implemented with an incomplete understanding of its principles, design thinking risks losing its long-standing credibility. This article aims to furnish a short introduction to design thinking to demystify the concept for those in the legal profession and concludes with a brief observation on its value to the legal profession.


While it is true that creativity is seminal to design, design is a comprehensive notion that spans beyond the artistic and creative professions. The word ‘design’ first appeared in the Oxford Dictionary in 1588 and was defined as ‘a plan or scheme devised by a person for something that is to be realized.’ As distinguished from art, eminent architect Christopher Alexander defines design as a rational process that displays ‘new physical order [and] organization, form, in response to function.’[1] It is a general concept that canvasses the planning of interactions between people and technology, or products which serve as platforms for experiences or service offerings.


The notion of design as ‘a way of thinking’ can be traced back to Herbert Simon’s book, The Sciences of The Artificial,[2] and the development of such methods originated in the engineering schools of the 1960s and 1970s, who sought to apply scientific methods to problem solving.[3] Cybernetics and computational systems were an additional source of inspiration for the founding fathers of design thinking, such as John Christopher Jones and D.G. Thornley, who looked to model analytical processes of systemised creativity.[4]


Since then, multiple models and methods have emerged and design process methodologies are well-covered elsewhere;[5] that said, the accepted methodology of design thinking can be stated to be: Problem/frame – empathise/interpret – ideate/concept – produce/develop – evaluate/feedback. Taking a design-thinking approach means learning to inhabit and adopt a creative, interdisciplinary, collaborative and experimental mindset.[6]


Importantly, design focuses on humans rather than on organisations. It situates the user – us, as humans – at the heart of everything. Where design thinking has immense value as a cognitive framework for lawyers is that it draws on a skill that is underappreciated in legal education: empathy. This is the crucial differentiator between good and great design thinkers, and the crucial differentiator between lawyers and design thinkers.


Ultimately, design thinking for lawyers as a method for innovation, provides an opportunity for lawyers to play with creative thinking, learn new mindsets and methodologies, gain exposure to interdisciplinary solutions, and refocuses what is important – that is, putting the human back into the law.





[1] Alexander, Christopher, Notes on the Synthesis of Form (Harvard University Press, 1964).

[2] Simon, Herbert, Sciences of the Artificial (MIT Press, 1968).

[3] Swann, Cal, ‘Action Research and the Practice of Design’ (2002) 18 MIT Design Issues, 49, 50.

[4] Engholm, Ida and Karen Lisa, ‘Design thinking between rationalism and romanticism’ (2017) Artifact, 4, E1.1, E.11; see also Jones, Christopher J. and D.G. Thornley (eds.) Conference on Design Methods. (Pergamon Press, 1963).

[5] See Cross, Nigel, ‘A History of Design Methodology’ in Marc de Vries et al. (eds.) Design Methodology and Relationships with Science, (Kluwer, 1993), 15-27; Hall, Arthur, A Methodology for Systems Engineering (Van Nostrand, 1962); Archer, Leonard, Systematic Method for Designers (The Design Council, 1965); Jones, Christopher, Design Methods (John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 1970); Broadbent, George ‘The Development of Design Methods’ (1979) 13 Design Methods and Theories 41; Rittel, Horst. ‘The State of the Art in Design Methods’ (1973) 7 Design Methods and Theories 143

[6] Hagan, Margaret, ‘Design Thinking and Law: A Perfect Match,’ (2014) Law Practice Today. Available at:­archives/2014/january14/design­thinking­and­law.html