As you may know or not, I’ve embarked in my new legal tech enterprise. I’ve founded Wildcat and, out of many, I’ve started running the Wildcat blog. And I’ll bother you to death with posting and reposting from one account to the other.
Proud to mention that our first guest was Anna Ronkainen, that I guess you know very well.
Wildcat will be a legal database on UK legislation, made for humans who are not lawyers. A project to empower artists, musicians, creatives, freelancers. They need to know the law, but they don’t know how to look for the law. They don’t have a lawyer’s shaped brain (luckily). The database will be free. Law must be free. Sign up here!
On the other hand, the Wildcat blog (you are there!) is a place to discuss on music, art and law. A kind of high level - abstract discussion. I’m so sure there are links between law, music, art and language. I’m so sure they follow the same patterns. I’m so sure if we discover these patterns we can build something new, take the law towards new directions, untangle it from the byzantine riddle it became. It’s my journey, I don’t know where it’ll take me, but if you’re smart and felt something similar, you’re warmly invited to contribute, here.
The Vignelli canon.
(first series of analogies, between law and the NY map, here)
In 2012 designer Massimo Vignelli knew enough about himself and his art to write a short book aimed at young designers, “with the hope of improving their design skills”. That was the Canon, a short, powerful piece of literature. A fascinating philosophical read.
Vignelli divided the Canon into two parts, the Intangibles and the Tangibles.
Intangibles: these are the principles which should inspire designers’ work: Intellectual elegance, Visual power, Equity, Timelessness etc.
Tangibles: the tangibles are more detailed, down to earth, guidelines: grid, paper sizes, typefaces and so on. Even here, Vignelli never goes too much into detail.
I read the Vignelli’s Canon in a day. Being made of rules, you would expect a bored lawyer like me to fall asleep after a few pages. Quite the contrary. The thing is, the Canon is a beautiful read.
It’s a read on principles, not on rules.
The Canon tells you where to go, but doesn’t bother telling you how, why and when. It leaves you free while setting the main direction. And I think it is like that because it is a distilled of years of practice, not of theoretical speculations.
A little diversion now.
”How did you find teaching students the guitar given that you were self-taught?”
"I wasn’t really that good at it [laughs]. I didn’t have lessons so I found it kind of hard to tell people how to do it, really. It does make you realise that certain things can be learned but there’s a basic instinct for what sounds good and what works that can’t really be taught."
(from the Escapism of Anna Calvi, Spook Magazine)
Like native speakers, self taught musicians know little or nothing about grammar of music while they’re still able to compose beautifully complicated pieces. They learn by practicing, by listening and with a innate instinct for what is good and what is not.
Back to Vignelli now.
The old guy set the principles, not the rules. Exactly as any self taught musician, as any writer, he learned along the years what to do and what to avoid and toward the end he was able to distill his practice into principles, broad, large principles: but not into rules. It would have been impossible and useless to set the rules for making good design. First, because they’re partially time and context dependent and secondly because…they can’t be known in advance. There’s a basic instinct for what sounds good and what works that can’t really be taught.
Now the analogy. Short and sweet.
Wouldn’t be great to do the same for have a legal system which sets the guidelines without bothering with all the details?
Is there a basic instinct for good and bad which doesn’t need to be taught? We just sense it, and that’s it. But if we try to put it into rules we just become clumsy and rigid. Can we curtail all the rules, and just focus on principles and good practices? I don’t know.
p.s. I was also wondering how canon, which comes from the Greek and means law, rule, came to mean also, in music, a contrapuntal composition. I’m not sure of what this means.
However, I know that language, being a natural product of some kind of mass intelligence, helps bear connections between things. Connections between laws and music, remember? I’m so sure there’s so much to explore there.
Great designer Massimo Vignelli passed away a couple of weeks ago. An expected outburst of cleverly written obituaries has followed.
They provided food for thought for a couple of posts, not too clever I admit, on links between law and design. This is the first.
The NY subway map.
Everyone cited the well known map of the NY subway, for which Vignelli was equally venerated and criticized. The complete story of that map is here, in an excellent piece by Paul Goldenberger. The short story is that the map designed by Vignelli was iconic, beautiful and minimal.
“Out with the complicated tangle of geographically accurate train routes. No more messy angles. Instead, train lines would run at 45 and 90 angles only. Each line was represented by a color. Each stop represented by a dot. What could be simpler?”
And Vignelli’s map was so beautiful and minimal that New Yorkers hated it. Why? Apparently the map didn’t respect the relative position of the stations, nor the proportions of the real city. If you wonder what it can entail, Michael Bierut articulates more on this.
"What if, for whatever reason, you wanted to get out at 59th Street and take a walk on a crisp fall evening? Imagine your surprise when you found yourself hiking for hours on a route that looked like it would take minutes on Vignelli’s map."
Right, but then why people in, say, London, never complained about the Henry Beck subway map, which is as minimal as the one drafted by Vignelli?
I frankly don’t know, but Beirut has an answer: London streets are so tangled, that the subway map, although disrespectful of relative distances, comes in handy to navigate it. Whereas, in NY, “Vignelli’s system logical system came into conflict with another, equally logical system”, the orthogonal grid of streets and avenues which evenly divides the city. New Yorkers could only be disappointed and confused by another geometric grid overimposed on the “orderly geometric grid of their streets”.
Never mind that Vignelli’s map was clearly much better than all the maps which came before, and you can see for yourself here.
This made me think about law and legal systems. Laws can never function separately from the society on which they are imposed. They work well if they make life simpler; they are not to be enacted if society goes on perfectly well without them. This is true also of legal architecture. Codes worked well for some time at least in XIX century continental Europe. They wouldn’t work in English Common law system, as they are clearly outdated to cope with XXI century continental Europe as well.
Trying to explain the Vignelli NY subway map Alice Rawsthorn said
"Here, the two maps illustrate the complexity of design’s relationship to the truth. In principle, we cannot be expected to trust anything that is not truthful, yet many of the greatest design feats have set out to deceive us, albeit for good reason. Just as the symbols and characters on your computer screen were designed to disguise the unfathomable mathematical coding of its programs, designers have devised maps to help us to make sense of befuddling terrain or transport networks. Londoners are willing to suspend disbelief when they see Beck’s “diagram,” because it is in their interest to accept its inaccuracies as expedient design ploys, while the New Yorkers who attacked Mr. Vignelli’s map felt deeply skeptical about it. Why would anyone want to redesign such an easily navigable city?"
That is, maps are simplifications that help us make sense of the reality, although we’re always aware they are simplifications (like we know that a stylized design is not the real thing). Law is simplification as well, in the measure it is abstraction. We know that two cases differ in details but we feel should be treated equally, or we feel they should not. The measure of abstraction should always keep society and culture in consideration. Never too abstract, never too detailed. That’s not an easy thing, like it’s not easy to write good pop music, good literature and make good design. All these things are good when they resonate with people. Same must be true for the law.
But in the end, why do people use a subway map to navigate the city in the first place, when a subway map is meant for the subway?
Well, I do it all the time. I carry the tiny London tube map (no, I don’t have a smartphone), and get lost, realize why I got lost (it takes me some time), then blame myself for using the tube map as a real map. And then I keep on doing it. You can’t blame it on people if they use something the way you didn’t expect they could.
Bierut said “As designers, we often fail to understand how people will actually use our work.”
And this is true for laws too. People use design, as they use laws, which are design tools for society. People come first, design and coherence come second. This makes me think of the Italian system (sorry, I’m Italian), where some years ago the Courts denied the validity of the lease back agreement, a totally new figure for our legal system, only because it didn’t respect the internal coherence of the Civil Code (drafted, hey, in 1942)- where, to have a valid agreeement, you must always have a cause (consideration), and that cause must be pre-determined by the legislator.
But what if people already entered lease back agreements? How could you deny the reality of that? Silly and pretentious, isn’t it, to say they were not valid, just because they didn’t fit a frame of mind of 60 years before.
Law is a product for the users. The users should always come first.
So, did I tell you I’m working on a new project? Legal innovation, of course. For turning the law into something incredibly beautiful.
It’s called Wildcat and here there’s a short introduction.
Keep on reading.
Caveat: this is a 5 minutes read. I wish I could have written a much shorter marketing-like post to launch this new project, but I couldn’t. Oh well, if you really want something shorter, look at this. If you want a full theoretical explanation of what Wildcat is going to be, hold on instead.
First thing first:
And now the background.
When I studied law (in Italy it takes 5 years now, 5 looong years which look very much alike) I learned two things.
First, I learned to think like a lawyer. I like to repeat it: lawyers don’t think like you. They don’t only learn legal concepts and legal terms which you are not aware of. They learn a brand-new frame of mind, they are dragged in a totally new world (kind of a dry one). You are able to see things through the lawyer’s lenses from now on. That is: you look at a car accident and think: that’s a tort. You argue with your landlord and think in terms of ‘I have the right to’ rather than ‘I want to’, ‘I ask you to’. Enthusiastic friends come to you to talk about their new projects and you dampen them saying that some things are not allowed under the law.
Second, I learned that law was, in the end, damnly boring. No Cicero, no Perry Mason, no passionate closing statements there. Just boredom. There’s a part of boredom in every thing you study I guess, at least when you study it the continental way, trying to squeeze concepts in your head, rather than working with them. But studying law, oh god.
The same two aspects that I learned so well, frame of mind and boredom, contribute a good deal to alienate the law from the people.
There would be a good deal to tell here, but let’s go back to Wildcat.
Humans, not lawyers, look for legal information. They do it on the internet too, and they use public legal databases as legislation.gov.uk.
When they are on legal databases, they don’t always find what they need. One of the reasons is that they don’t know what to look for and how to do it. They have a problem, a very concrete one: but they can’t just do as they were on google. They can’t type “can I plant a tree in my garden?” or “how do I license my pictures to a client?”. They need to frame it using legal words and legal concepts, which is not easy and not obvious for someone who doesn’t think like a lawyer.
This is an issue I hope to overcome with Wildcat: a legal database for humans, not lawyers.
To see how it looks like, you need to wait for the beta to get ready. For now I can tell you I’m going start from the UK and I’m going to address normal people, especially freelancers, creatives, musicians. The reason why (apart from the marketing strategy bla bla) will appear clear as you keep reading.
So let’s come to the second issue: people perceive law and lawyers as something boring: the less they deal with them the happier they are. They’re not to blame. I wonder if there’s a way to make the law more enjoyable, like it was music, like it was literature, like it was cinema.
I’m sure there are some common patterns that law and music share (John Sheridan, btw, thinks the same). To understand these patterns and to make the law more fascinating will be the target of the Wildcat blog.
This is much more challenging. I guess you will excuse me if the posts will look random in their immature attempt to connect law to music, to art, to cinema, or at least to the intellectual fascination of brain teasers and paradoxes.
I know there’s a way to make law interesting, to make it charming, to make it beautiful, and to bring it back to people in a natural way. Help me find it.
And when I say normal people, I mean non lawyers.
But also lawyers are invited to fill in this short survey.
I’m working on my new startup project.
In my dream world, it’s gonna be a legal database aimed at normal people, not lawyers. But before I need to find out if normal people are interested in a legal database, which sounds like the most boring thing on Earth.
So help me please find out.
Survey is short enough and if you share it with your friends I promise to build something very cool.
A few months ago I probably dragged you into an experiment I called What’s on a lawyer’s mind. I wanted to understand if lawyers use different categories from non lawyers. I also wanted to create a taxonomy for Peppercorn's website. (the taxonomy is not yet there).
The results and a superficial and bored analysis are finally here. I hope it will make your afternoon much better.
Joking apart, a great thanks goes to Stephane Cottin who helped us organize the French version of the experiment, and get us a lot of users.