What On Earth is Design?

An Introduction for Legal Professionals

David JF Gross
Legal Mindset
Published in
6 min readFeb 7, 2020


As discussed in a recent article by Harvard Law School’s The Practice, legal design has become a big deal. We at Faegre Drinker are excited to use legal design with our clients through design thinking and visual advocacy. In working with clients, however, we have found that anyone interested in legal design can benefit from a brief overview of design itself.

Hence, this article.

Take a minute to think about some of the products, services, and places you’ve encountered in the past 24 hours. If you sat on a chair, wore shoes, drove in a car, bought a cup of coffee, visited a hospital, walked in the park, or otherwise did anything that involved objects, businesses, or public spaces, then you experienced the world of design. It’s everywhere.

So what is design? In their famous Q & A with Madame. L. Amic at an exhibition in Paris in 1972, Charles and Ray Eames explained that “One could describe design as a plan for arranging elements to accomplish a particular purpose.” Often, the “particular purpose” represents a problem that needs a solution. Design, in other words, solves problems.

Faegre Drinker trial lawyer David Gross at a design seminar in Minnesota

Design is Meaningful

Barry Katz of Stanford d.school notes the word “design” contains the word “sign,” as do other words, such as “significance,” “signature,” “signal,” or “designate.” All these “sign” words suggest the creation of something meaningful. A well-designed solution, therefore, has particular meaning and significance.

Design sees itself as much more than a commercial enterprise. As a method of problem-solving, design reflects a noble purpose. Gareth Williams notes:

What connects all designers — whether they are designing an office chair, a bicycle suitable for carrying cargo, a dress for the Paris catwalk or the next generation of electric vehicle — is the belief that design can make a tangible improvement to the world in which we live.

Design is Based on Users

Design does not start and end at a drawing board or a computer screen. Design instead focuses on the needs of humans — the users of products, services, and spaces. The “user experience” is the focus of all design research. As Tim Brown of IDEO explains, an innovative design “is powered by a thorough understanding, through direct observation, of what people want and need in their lives and what they like or dislike about the way particular products are made, packaged, marketed, sold, and supported.” In a sense, the user, as opposed to the designer(s), calls the shots in any good design project.

One of the break-throughs in the design world occurred when engineers began designing products based on the measurements, tendencies, and needs of humans (the “users” of products). In his seminal work, Henry Dreyfuss introduced “Joe” and “Josephine” and explained:

Our job is to make Joe and Josephine compatible with their environment. The process is known as human engineering. From the mountainous data we assembled, sifted, and translated, we filled the gaps between human behavior and machine design. We have collected detailed measurements of heads and of all the extremities and of thighs and forearms and shoulders and every other conceivable part of the body; we are familiar with the amount of pressure the average foot can comfortably exert on a pedal; we know how hard a hand can effectively squeeze; the reach of an arm — for we must know how far buttons and levers can be placed away from the central controls of a machine; size of earphones, telephone operators’ headsets, helmets for the armed services, binoculars — all are determined by our information on head sizes. From these facts we arrived at this maxim — the most efficient machine is the one that is built around a person.

Designers refer to this focus on the user as “ergonomics” or “human-centered design” because the user (the human) is the central focus of the entire design process. By putting the user first, Gareth Williams notes, “ergonomics influences the design of tools, kitchen appliances, furniture, interior design, and even social spaces.”

Design Embraces Constraints

Let’s return to Charles and Ray Eames and their famous Q & A from the Paris exhibition. Here is what they said about the presence of constraints in design:

Q. Does the creation of Design admit constraint?

A. Design depends largely on constraints.

Q. What constraints?

A. The sum of all constraints. Here is one of the few effective keys to the Design problem: the ability of the Designer to recognize as many constraints as possible; his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints. Constraints of price, of size, of strength, of balance, of surface, of time, and so forth. Each problem has its own peculiar list.

Designers welcome constraints, and they design solutions to problems within these constraints.

The Design Trifecta

Design teams need to keep three goals in mind at all times — desirability, feasibility, and viability. These goals raise a number of interrelated questions, such as:

· What is the need we are trying to fulfill?

· Do we have the technology to create the solution?

· Will the solution benefit our business or organization?

Tim Brown of IDEO sums it up: Design Thinking is “a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs [desirability] with what is technologically feasible [feasibility] and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity [viability].”

Note that the above discussion of Design Thinking stays away from the popular understanding of design — “make it look pretty.” A good design may indeed make a product, service, or space “look pretty,” but “looking pretty” is not particularly high on the priority list for most design projects. Design is all about the user’s needs, which could include the desire for an attractive product, but often include a wide variety of other needs and desires.

Who is a Designer?

Faegre Drinker trial lawyer Kate Razavi leading a design sprint at the Stanford d.school

You don’t need to attend design school to engage in design activities. Barry Katz notes that “everyone is a designer who changes existing conditions into desirable ones.” As long as you know how to identify the users of any given product or service, you can learn about their needs, identify your constraints, and design a solution that meets one of those needs while remaining within the constraints.

“Good Design”

An introduction to design wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Dieter Rams’s Ten Principles of Good Design.

Here they are:

1. Good design is innovative.

2. Good design makes a product useful.

3. Good design is aesthetic.

4. Good design makes a product understandable.

5. Good design is honest.

6. Good design is unobtrusive.

7. Good design is long-lasting.

8. Good design is thorough down to the last detail.

9. Good design is environmentally friendly.

10. Good design is as little design as possible.

One could apply this latter principle (and book title) — “As Little Design as Possible” — to many fields of design, including, for example, data graphics. Edward R. Tufte discourages the use of “overbusy gridlines,” “excess ticks,” and other forms of “chartjunk”.

Design Museum

The Design Museum in London

Finally, if you want to see examples of amazing design work, you can attend the Museum of Arts and Design in New York or the Design Museum in London. This latter museum has a fascinating history and includes multiple exhibits that explain the design process and highlight impressive and meaningful contributions to the field of design.

The Faegre Drinker Design Lab is an official partner of Stanford d.school’s Legal Design Lab. Special thanks to Margaret Hagan for all her support.

Faegre Drinker Design Lab



David JF Gross
Legal Mindset

I'm a life-long student who also loves to teach anything and everything.

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