Better with image

The Lawyer's Journal spotlighted legal design, with a great interview with Maurits.
Nathalie Gloudemans Voogd
min. reading time

Visual tools in the legal profession are on the rise. Legal design creates order in the warren of words.

By Nathalie Gloudemans-Voogd

It was out of control, the case lawyer Maurits Fornier (32) was working on at Freshfields a few years ago. So he decided to create a large outline drawing and submit it as a litigation document. Fornier is experienced in graphic design. As a high school student, he created Web sites for local retailers. 'Look, it's about this and not all these other issues,' he told the judge using the illustration. The opposing party, caught off guard by the record, did not address it and thumped out a pleading of his own. After ten minutes, the judge interrupted him, "All right, but where in Master Fornier's drawing are we now?

At that point, Fornier knew he wanted to continue with the combination of image and law. Now, through his own limited liability company as a lawyer/legal designer, Fornier is hired by his peers to make difficult issues visually clear. He recently converted a large framework agreement into an A3 poster. Provisions relevant to employees in the workplace he explained with a single sentence, pictures and colors. He also created a visual roadmap for a major international restructuring. Each step was given a checkbox field as a playful element.'For the lawyers, tax specialists and notaries involved, a big part of their work was coordinating who had done what and still had to do what. This was an easy guide. Their weekly telephone meetings became much shorter as a result.'


Legal design, the use of visual aids in the legal profession, is on the rise. For example, relatives of the accidentally murdered DJ Djordy Latumahina were allowed to show a film about his life during their victim impact statement. According to attorney Richard Korver, it was the first time the court had allowed such a thing. Since this year, Advocatie has awarded the Gouden Zandloper for "Best Infographic. Several law firms now have designers in their ranks. At De Brauw, the team of designers now consists of three designers and three assistants. But anyone who thinks legal design is just about illustrations with text because it looks nice is wrong. Legal design goes further than that, explains Fornier. 'I help lawyers with their thinking process. Much of lawyers' work involves gathering information, organizing it, thinking about tone and audience. Using visual tools works very well for that.'

Law firms, governments and large corporations are increasingly calling in the help of legal design consultant at Getting the picture Mariska van Zelst-de Wit (39). She too hears misunderstandings about legal design. Oh, visualizing, that's about drawing, I can't do that, I often hear. But that's not necessary at all. It's about the techniques you use when listing and analyzing information. Then you start talking about communicating. Then you can include whether you want to do that in a visual way.'

Getting the picture, for example, had been asked to create an animation for a session. 'That was at the client's request. The dispute was about non-performance of a contract. We made an animation about the unforeseen circumstances that prevented the contract from being fulfilled and what the consequences were for the contract. In the end, that animation was never shown because it was settled. Still, it was not in vain. The lawyers told us that the creation process brought a lot of efficiency: rap had the legal arguments in front of them. That made the case quicker to assess and there were fewer misunderstandings.'

Visual glasses

Houthoff said it had the first legal design consultant in the Dutch legal profession: Sarah van Hecke (35). 'We aim to go a step further than just looking at formatting,' says the communication scientist specializing in attitude and behavior. At her previous jobs, Van Hecke immersed herself in the functioning of the brain and how people process information. Her role at Houthoff evolved organically: from being responsible for the content of all presentations to legal design adviser. "Supply and demand grew together.

Now Van Hecke is involved in an increasing number of files from the beginning, in both advisory work and litigation. 'I am neither a lawyer nor a designer; I look at graphic design differently and ask different questions about legal strategy. By looking from different perspectives, you get a surprising solution.' Working with the legal team, Van Hecke determines what it takes to get the message across properly and then starts the design process with the designers employed by Houthoff.

Whereas Van Hecke acts as a liaison between lawyers and designers, Kim Raad (41) of Stibbe sits directly at the table with lawyers as a designer herself. "I often join right at the beginning. Or I look at cases that have been running for some time. Have we tried everything?" is then the main question. Lawyers also call on my help with complex advice. I'm going to ask stupid questions now, I joke. As a designer, I look at information primarily through visual glasses and ask for clarification on what I don't understand but find visually significant. This puts parts of the process in a different light.'

Raad, previously one of Volkskrant's infographic designers, designed a visual schematic representation of a complicated manufacturing process for an administrative law case. The client won the case partly because of that image. Raad used it to win the infographic Gouden Zandloper for Stibbe.

Visual Culture

Legal design is a new field, so everyone is still searching, notes Raad. 'There is also no success rate yet. It's not like you win a case if you use visual aids.'Yet many clients ask for them themselves. 'People from the business world no longer find images in legal documents so strange,' observes Fornier. 'But the legal world is traditional; it's slow in that. Lawyers are text-focused people. An icon is already a thing.'

'A few years ago, the fear was that the use of images in legal documents was unprofessional or even childish,' says Van Zelst-de Wit. 'We are really past that now. We live in a visual culture. From other sectors and from everyday life, we are used to images. The use of images in the legal sector is allowed. And perhaps it should be. The world is becoming increasingly complex. If you want people to understand you almost have to use visual means.

The message comes across better because the structure is immediately clear, experts say of image use. 'Language has to be linearized: you have to convert the characters into expressions letter by letter, line by line. That takes time,' says Paul van den Hoven, professor of Language and Communication at Utrecht University. 'With images, you can immediately show the structure. A good, verbal lawyer does the same thing, by the way. But it's even easier with images, especially if a good graphic designer helps you do that.' Tom Barkhuysen, professor of constitutional and administrative law at Leiden University and a lawyer at Stibbe, recently saw a comic strip as a pleading in a Danish lawsuit. 'The issue was clear at a glance. Because you have everything in front of you, you also start listening better.'

Images also allow you to zoom in and out better without losing the overview, says former corporate lawyer Van Zelst-de Wit. That's almost impossible with text. Also important for lawyers: with images you can better map information layers.' Moreover, research from the University of California shows that people remember eighty percent of what they see, ten percent of what they hear and twenty percent of what they read, according to Van Zelst-de Wit.

Visual literacy

So image use has potentially positive effects. Still, it is good to keep a critical eye on images. Images can cause misunderstandings just as much as language, says Professor Van den Hoven. "There is a wonderful naivety about the use of images in the legal world. With all communication, you try to highlight a certain world in symbols. That symbol world has a certain structure and is highly suggestive. If a lawyer states in a PowerPoint presentation that a problem has four parts, then it seems as if the problem has four parts. But no, someone suggested it that way.

Although pictures help to mimic reality, according to Van den Hoven, images drive a certain interpretation and evaluation. This is just as true with words. We build up all kinds of connotations; you have to be alert to that in a good speaker, too. Lawyers say they are better trained in that, but I don't believe that. I think it is more likely that lawyers feel more comfortable with text than with images. Van den Hoven advocates more "visual literacy" among lawyers: learning to deal critically with visual texts.

More attention should also be paid to images and visual literacy in law school, Barkhuysen believes. "Actually, it is very strange that clients increasingly demand visual means, current students are growing up in a visual culture, but that law school is still almost exclusively about written language. Barkhuysen made a call in late 2017 in the NJB for more visuals in studies. According to the lawyer, a three-pronged approach is needed: skills to learn to think in images, technical skills to create images and visual literacy, being critical of what you see.

Professional legal education could also use more attention to this topic, the Stibbe lawyer believes. Meanwhile, he is working with other legal design ambassadors on a conference on the subject, scheduled for January 2019. "There we will present what is already happening, discuss what we can improve and conclude with an action plan.

Because that the future lies with more use of images in the legal profession, experts agree. Text will not disappear any time soon. 'Visual means will remain supplementary and will not replace text,' says Raad of Stibbe. 'You have to keep nuancing and you do that with words.'

Van Hecke expects visualization to increase significantly in the coming years. "It will soon be used in almost every case. Already there are Houthoff partners who engage Van Hecke in eight out of ten cases. 'You can wonder if it is always necessary,' says Van Hecke. Van Zelst-de Wit agrees:'The most important question is: what does your target group need? You deploy images strategically. If a judge has no affinity with image, for example, I wouldn't use it.'

Fornier also thinks that within five to 10 years, all lawyers will work like him. 'Companies today expect more from a lawyer than a piece of writing. From them comes the driving force; they want to be served in a certain way. Clients are not waiting for a toppled bookcase of advice.'

Five tips from Mariska van Zelst-de Wit

1. Reading Tip. 'A great book to start with is The Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam. Dan Roam shows you how to effectively make problems visible and concrete with images.'
2. Break through your fixed thinking patterns. Approach a problem from a completely different angle. Turn a question around, look for a metaphor, draw your problem.'
3.Generate as many ideas as possible. 'Creative thinkers see all their ideas as possibilities and opportunities. The more unique and original ideas you generate, the more likely the best solution is among them.'
4.Make your thoughts visual. 'The more you practice creative and visual thinking, the more you train your brain to think differently. That way you can smoothly alternate your analytical thinking skills with creative thinking.'
5.Your brain can be trained. 'The more you practice creative and visual thinking, the more you train your brain to think differently. The more active your brain becomes in that, the more creative you become as well. So you can smoothly alternate your analytical thinking skills with creative thinking.'

Looking critically

In 1991, Rodney King is stopped by police in Los Angeles for traffic violations. In the process, he is punched and kicked long and hard by the officers. A passerby films the incident. It comes to a criminal case against the officers. The prosecution thinks it is enough to show the footage.

'The defense brought down the prosecution rock hard,' says Professor of Language and Communication Paul van den Hoven. 'Footage shows an officer hitting, King lifting his arm, another officer hitting and King trying to roll away. The defense made of that that King was aggressive and the officers struck in self-defense. That roll was said to be a "Folsom Roll," a military tactic to knock someone under. It was absurd and, in fact, everyone knew it. But if there was a possible reading that cast doubt, the officers did not belong to be convicted. Indeed, the men were initially acquitted.In his book Kijk zelf maar (Sdu, 2011), Van den Hoven illustrates with this case that it can be wise to address the interpretation on which image directs itself.

Image / Martijn Gijsbertsen & Maurits Fornier

This article appeared in AB 2018-04. The entire edition is available here to view.

Share this article
About the author
Share this article