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Innovator interview: Lieke Beelen, Visual Contracts

Lieke Beelen, 15 August 2019

Better legal design

Design thinking has finally found its way to legal, and innovators like Lieke Beelen are leading the charge. We caught up with Lieke to find out how design thinking can benefit your business.

Hi! 👋 Who are you?

I'm Lieke Beelen, the founder of Visual Contracts.

Great to meet you! Why did you found Visual Contracts?

I was originally an industrial design engineer. In 2014, I met a lawyer who was working on plain language, and I was freelancing on service/UX design and visual thinking. In 2015, together we applied for the Hague Innovators Prize, won the 2nd prize, and that’s how we got started with the Facebook privacy policy project (check it out here - in Dutch).  That was my first experience working 1 on 1 with a lawyer. It was extremely difficult!

So why did you persist?

While I was studying in Delft University of Technology I managed to deal with complex information while having dyslexia, and meeting the lawyer who lowered the threshold for working with legal content made me realise how big the barrier for law is to many people - and to myself. The number of people who struggle to understand or even get through legal documentation also hit me. It’s not just dyslexic people that have a hard time going through legal content - in general it is written by lawyers for lawyers.

Also later I discovered I have ADHD as well, because of all the entrepreneurship and hustle and chaos that comes with it, and I just want to make use of all my skills and background in a way that is good for society.

What were your first impressions of working with legal text?

I had a very negative impression of law (narrowed down to the complicated text documents and regulations which, as a creative, I don’t appreciate) - so that’s what influenced my first collaboration with a lawyer. I realised that with legal text, I was encountering the most extreme version of complex text you can imagine. I’m always up for a challenge, and coming from an innovation background, this seemed to be a huge opportunity.  I decided to apply all my background to start collaborating.

"There’s little conscious thought as to how people deal with legal processes, which remain stubbornly designed by lawyers and for lawyers"

What do you think is wrong with most contracts?

Contracts typically suffer from bad user experience due to:

  • Complex text
  • Poorly structured document layout 
  • Defensive content (rather than proactive)

But before we even get into the content of contracts themselves, contracts suffer from people’s perception of them - not just the document itself, but how people deal with legal issues and topics in general. 

UX is definitely underserved in this industry - in legal, everything is set up in a certain way, from the regulations right down to the culture and the approach; there’s little conscious thought as to how people deal with legal processes, which remain stubbornly designed by lawyers and for lawyers.

Preach! 🙏 What are some simple techniques to make contracts better?

The 2015 Facebook project is a good example. The tangible process was important, but it’s so much of the mindset that’s important too - that’s why I founded Visual Contracts. I focused on bringing designers and lawyers together more, to work from the user's perspective.

In the Facebook project we did research with consumers on how they deal with privacy on the internet, co-created with them, and tested earlier versions of prototypes before our last iteration. With Visual Contracts we promote the same approach and bring together lawyers and designers based on a community - and that community is growing. It’s still small but it's international, and it's enthusiastic about legal design and visual contracts. Getting people’s mindsets open to thinking about contracts in a different way is the starting point.

Then a practical first step is teaching people how to draw - coming from my industrial designer background, that was really important.

What other skills are useful when it comes to making contracts better?

In every training on Legal Design Thinking I give, I focus on giving people the hands-on experience and basic skills of visual thinking. We want to open up the creative mindset, communicate better and reveal connections in complex stories in a tangible way. Alongside that, training has to be fun too - everybody smiles and laughs during our sessions, which very much helps to bring people together. Even if people think they cannot draw, I always tell them, it is not about your aesthetic drawing skills, it is about communication and aligning your mindsets.

Aligning mindsets isn't always easy ...

Creating that mindset in the legal and business world is hard, and it goes both ways - designers are hesitant to work with lawyers too. If you’re a designer looking to set out to apply your skills and make a positive change in the world, legal is not the first thing you think of - there are so many cool things to work on, whether that’s climate change, medicine, or any number of other things. Why would a designer choose to work in legal? 

Overcoming those differences and collaborating within these different disciplines is the biggest challenge. We are trained in our respective fields, and they don’t necessarily match and can sometimes contradict the focus we bring into our work. 

How important are better-designed contracts to business?

Businesses are more and more aware of how beneficial it is if your employees are happy. More productivity and success usually follow in the end. If you create contracts that are easier to understand and bring the company values in dealing with employees through in those contracts, this can be a catalyst to driving business growth, economic growth, and employee happiness.

Challenges with regard to customers are similar to those with employees. Improving contract design can help to create transparency to generate trust, and trust is so important for customer engagement and retention.

"People worry that if their legal documents are too transparent, they'll end up giving everything away"

What are the challenges of moving towards visual design for contracts?

This is still an emerging field, and it can be a challenge to sell visual contracts. Some people can’t yet foresee the risks that might arise from them, because they'll be different to the risks that might arise from a traditional, text-dense contract. Some of that risk is in people’s heads - they’re worrying about what kind of conflicts and lawsuits will arise, wondering how a judge will rule on visual contracts, and how will s/he interpret them? Yet in reality, I’ve often heard judges promoting using more understandable (and visual) contracts.

People also worry that if their legal documents are too transparent, they'll end up giving everything away. This is because visual contracts are related to proactive and preventive lawyering, which is centred around collaboration; that’s different from the typical approach of drafting defensibly, caveating hugely and protecting risk - that’s a shift in mindset that is hard to achieve, but really valuable commercially, because it builds open communication, trust and collaboration, which is essential to innovation and success.

Can you offer some examples of visual contracts or legal design in action?

At the moment I'm working with Astrid Kohlmeier on an NDA for Airbus, with a legal design approach. That means lots of co-creation, involving and working with engineers, who've really taken up this design thinking approach. They really see not just the end result but also the whole culture change and the difference it makes in terms of awareness and ways of working together. Getting legal to think ‘let’s work with other departments’ is still a very big step. And vice versa - business teams need to realise that legal aren’t scary weird people who will just say no to stuff. Other departments need to be open-minded and make sure collaboration comes from all sides.

Finally, what are the basics to avoid if you want a visually appealing contract?

You should avoid dense text; bad structure and layout; small fonts; no differentiation between titles and paragraph, not enough white space; summarize the complex parts in infographics, or even using it as navigation; and as far as the language itself goes, avoid using too much legalese.

Thanks Lieke! 🙌

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Topics: Better legal design

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