“Designerly ways can help”
In Doing Sociolegal Research in Design Mode, Amanda Perry-Kessaris challenges sociolegal scholars to draw upon design methodologies to explore sociolegal issues. Rather than assuming this requires additional disciplinary training in a design field, Perry-Kessaris proposes that Socio-Legal researchers can adopt ‘designerly ways’ of approaching the ‘wicked problems’ they tend to tackle. Perry-Kessaris claims that Socio-Legal researchers working ‘in design mode’ are better equipped to explore the messy, indeterminate, and emergent nature of social research generally, and Socio-Legal research more particularly.
Through experimenting, modelling, making, testing, prototyping, visualising, assembling, and collaging, designers seek connections and solutions, Perry-Kessaris argues, by working to understand problems in ways that are at their core both pragmatic and material, visual and tangible. Design involves working iteratively on a problem, often in collaboration with others, towards seeking alternative realities that are potentially transformative. ‘Designerly ways can help’ (p.14) the Socio-Legal scholar as they allow for uncertainty and incomplete information; during design processes, gaps are filled in a provisional way through best guess speculation and propositions for later testing and refinement. Design-based modes of working therefore can be productive for the Socio-Legal scholar, Perry-Kessaris contends, as they facilitate abductive modes of reasoning — drawing probable conclusions from incomplete information — commensurate to the flashes of insight that can occur in qualitative social research during data analysis. Real and abstract constraints are imposed and released by designers in a deliberate and generative manner to facilitate the imaginative realm often required to solve complex problems or to innovate. By working in design mode, relationships and tensions can be better visualised, embodied and critically explored with others, thereby offering new understandings and perspectives that working in text alone may never reveal.
Perry-Kessaris’ main argument, as summarised above, is pursued in three distinct modes over five chapters in this Routledge Focus short-form publication. Spanning two chapters, the first section lays out the rationale for the argument. In the first chapter the author focuses on how the nature of Socio-Legal challenges naturally lend themselves to design approaches for their exploration and resolution. In the second, design approaches are presented as ‘enabling ecosystems’. Here the author demonstrates the utility of design practices to Socio-Legal research by focussing on the ways in which design materialises and visualises concepts or problems, thereby generating new spaces in which ideas and solutions might be discussed with the communities involved (or ‘end-users’ in design parlance). The act of making ideas visible and tangible, it is contended, increases the possibility of their translation across divides.
The second section, covering two chapters, demonstrates the above approaches in action through several case studies. Chapter three looks at the previous work of the author to provide an in-depth example of how a Socio-Legal scholar can conduct their research in design-mode through low-tech modelling. Chapter four then explores the work of expert designers tackling Socio-Legal issues. Here the well-regarded work of Eyal Weizman and colleagues is highlighted, and their development of ‘forensic architecture’, where architectural spatialisations help create robust material evidence for future prosecutions. This is followed by an examination of the work of various performance artists where embodiment and materiality help question Socio-Legal norms towards speculating how new relationships between law and its subjects might be productively redrawn.
In the final chapter ‘Entering Design Mode’ the work ‘closes with an opening’ (p.27) by offering fifteen ‘design briefs’ that encourage the reader to apply design approaches to developing their own research projects. While many of the briefs rely upon exploring multimedia content online to fully engage with them, most are likely to provide the reader with interesting prompts to explore their research through a new lens. In this way, the book offers a practical way for those without any design training into designerly ways of thinking and researching, and I imagine would be a useful addition to the library of those who wish to do so. The book may well prove equally useful for designers themselves. As a design educator, I found it a good reminder of the ways in which research processes might be more meaningfully introduced to design students if explored through the tools, working methods, and processes with which they are already familiar. Indeed, I am keen now to explore the just released co-edited collection Perry-Kessaris has produced with Emily Allbon — Design in Legal Education, also with Routledge (2022) — to explore these strategies further.
There are, however, a few criticisms that could be levelled at the work. Most significant are the lack of strong concluding sections to tie the various threads together, and, perhaps most surprising given the topic, that images could be better deployed in service of the argument. Despite these reservations, the book is doing something important, is timely, and worth reading. This is due in part to the author building productively on the work of recent design theorists and sociologists, mirroring the material and spatial turns of the social sciences, and Socio-Legal scholars’ increasing forays into geography, architecture, the visual arts, and graphic design. In providing the reader with a tidy summary of the past several decades of design scholarship, it may also be viewed as an important new addition to the well-established literature upon which it draws, focusing as it does on the value in, and nature of, design-thinking for solving complex problems. Similarly, its arguments relate to an emergent architectural discourse (see Peggy Deamer, Flora Samuel, and Gerard Reinmuth) that shifts the valuation of the contributions made by architects away from the artefacts (the drawings, models, and specifications) they produce, to the more important spatial-based problem-solving skills that lie behind their production. It is a practical guide for the design novice and in marrying the disciplines of design and the Socio-Legal in a new and accessible way, Perry-Kessaris has created a particularly valuable resource for Socio-Legal scholars wishing to refresh their methodological repertoire.