by Preeta Dhar and Soumya Menon
In 2019, we facilitated the final year pre-thesis projects of the Information Arts and Information Design Practices (IAIDP) programme at the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology. Between the two of us - we were one lawyer and one designer - we offered an experimental project space on law and design, broadly titled ‘Design for Governance’. We wanted the students to work in settings with a grounded and contextualized understanding of law and governance. In this post, we share our experience and reflections on this project.
Setting the context
The core idea around which we framed the project space was to critically examine the lived reality of legal frameworks and state institutions in particular contexts. The perspective of ‘governance’, in this sense, was the day-to-day interaction of citizens with the state. The project space was fairly open-ended in terms of the scope and outcome - broadly, we examined the role of design to enable an empowered, informed and continuous engagement of citizens with the state.
We worked closely with three project partners on specific issues - we worked with the Aapti Institute on public delivery of government benefits, the Alternative Law Forum and the Bengaluru Bus Prayanikara Vedike on urban mobility, and the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy on access to laws and legal systems. The project partners were fundamental to this project. They helped us to identify potential project areas, provided guidance and expertise, and connected us to other people. Following several rounds of conversation, and a significant amount of planning, we opened the project space to the students.
Introducing law and design
Understandably, legal issues can be intimidating. Legal training is highly disciplinary, and legal practice (conventionally) even more so. State institutions are, intentionally or unintentionally, often opaque and exclusionary. As evident by the increasing traction of the idea of law and design, there is a significant potential of design methods in unpacking the experience of legal systems and making legal processes accessible.
The challenges, however, were not insignificant. As facilitators of the project space, we knew we were working with a limited time and several constraints. We had to briefly familiarise the students with the structures and processes of law and governance. We started off by simulated scenarios and interactive exercises to play out how the executive, legislature and judiciary interact at different levels of decision-making. We also had exercises around framing wicked problems, to accommodate the complexities of governance and policy processes. The engagements were structured so as to facilitate practical engagements for the students to work with design processes in real world contexts with multiple stakeholders wherever possible.
Law and design projects
After a couple of weeks of orientation, the students were introduced to the project contexts and allocated their project partners. Within their project contexts, the students framed their project scope.
There were, broadly, three approaches across project contexts. First, some of the projects were framed from the perspective of specific groups of users, for instance the experience of transgender communities, women or people with disabilities in accessing public transport. A second approach was around a particular service that was open to a more general community, like courts, ration shops, or integrated citizen service centres (in our context, Bangalore One centres). The final type of projects concerned making legal issues and processes accessible, for instance issues around rented accommodation or domestic violence.
The very diverse range of topics and approaches also meant very different applications of design methods and outputs. Broadly, the structure allowed for the students to work with different design processes to navigate complex situations. They explored different connections through mapping processes and resources in order to identify opportunities for potential design collaborations. At the heart of all the projects, we emphasised the importance of immersive and participatory research as much as possible. The students explored a range of initial ideas in order to define potential key areas of work. They explored design methods and tools for undertaking and documenting their research and synthesised their findings before proceeding to develop prototypes. The emphasis was for the students to work with iterative design processes and field-test their prototypes whenever feasible to enable the perspectives garnered from different stakeholders to inform their design outcomes. We include notes from two student projects below:
Ananya Parekh on her insights while mapping the perspectives of different users during the course of her project:
Over the four months of pre-thesis, I looked at how digitization affects user access to food at ration shops. Newspaper headlines, academic papers and journals only amplified the significant gap between words on paper and their translation in practice. And that’s how I began spending my days at the ration shop – mostly closed, sometimes open. Initially, I sat there and watched, much like everyone else watched me. Slowly, we began conversing. They expressed their struggles, or happiness on finally taking home the grain they’d been coming daily to receive. Sometimes, it was a sick word of irritation, or a bicker about the lady who broke the line. Listening to their stories made a one-line policy become a complicated tangle that just seemed to make the person it was built for get lost in it.
Visual representation of factors affecting access to public services (created by Ananya Parekh in partnership with the Aapti Institute)
Rashika Goyal’s reflections while developing an interface for litigants to navigate the court system:
As a design practitioner who believes that we have come a long way in terms of providing good experiences to people in most aspects of life, I realised that court systems in India are quite complex for a layman to understand. We do have a long way to go until we can have much more user friendly/ litigant friendly processes in courts. Until then, I feel it is important for litigants to understand and know the basics of court processes. The studio “Design for Governance” helped me to discover this unexplored area of applications of design in litigation. The studio was focused more towards designing for “informing” citizens about various processes, governance issues/policy issues etc. and I felt that design and more specifically prototyping and testing part of the design process could be used to rethink various government systems themselves. But, of course, for this we need more decision makers to understand the importance of designing while keeping users of the system in mind, and the value of prototyping -> testing -> redesigning -> implementing.
Screenshot of platform developed to navigate the court system (created by Rashika Goyal in partnership with the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy)
The experience of working in this space was possible in the extremely encouraging environment of the Srishti community. We have to acknowledge the course leaders of the IAIDP programme, Srivi Kalyan and Murali Krishna, for their encouragement and constant support. We also thank the other facilitators who offered support, guidance, feedback and reviews at different stages. We cannot overemphasise the role of the project partners in providing their time, guidance and resources. And finally, the cohort who worked on their individual projects. It has been genuinely inspiring for us to explore the possibilities of law and design.
In hindsight, we know that much of what we were able to explore were possible in a world before Covid. The kind of observations, interviews, mapping and participatory research that were at the heart of most of the processes would not have been possible with the constraints that have become a reality in these last months. However, we realise now more than ever, the importance of legal systems and governance institutions to be accessible and useful for the people. These times of crisis and vulnerability highlight the systemic flaws and the unequal access to public institutions. Design has a very important role in bridging the gaps between citizens and the state, to enable efficient services and create just and inclusive institutions.
[Note: The students have consented to have their reflections included for publication in the blogpost]
Preeta Dhar is currently a doctoral candidate at SOAS University of London. She is a lawyer by training and has worked as a researcher and educator in areas of policy and governance.
Soumya Menon is part-time faculty at the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology. She is a children’s book illustrator and has worked with NGOs in the educational sector.