Contract design for lawyers 101

Hey lawyers, we’ve got a problem. Our clients hate our contracts

Last week over coffee, my friend asked me to look at the lease for her new apartment. Her eyes said it all: help, I don’t understand.

You’re a lawyer. Has this happened to you? The lease contract was standard legal contract design: the typical mountain of legal words, tiny font, no white space and unpleasant looking. No wonder my friend didn’t want to read it.

Contract design is the way we structure and present information for our users. It determines if they understand and feel empowered by the information or are overwhelmed and more confused than when they started.

We’re exploring how contract design works, the benefits for our users and how you and your legal team can get started.

If you want to know more about contract design, check out our Contract Design School where you can learn everything you need to know about contract design: simplification, visualization and serve your clients the way you’ve always wanted to.

It’s time to redesign our contracts

We know the timing is good. Lawyers have been writing contracts the same way for centuries, so we have room for improvement, right?

Imagine if we created documents to educate and empower users, and allow (dare I say encourage) innovation, creativity and commercial and other relationships to flourish. And no gigantic mountain of words.

Contract design misconceptions

Contract design is about the intentional and purposeful presentation of information to make legal documents easier to understand.

It requires us to understand the user, show empathy and produce meaningful outcomes our users can act upon with certainty.

This means we often:

  • change the layout
  • change the words
  • change the look of the document
  • add illustrations and graphics

But they are only parts of contract redesign. It’s not plain English and it’s not pretty pictures.


The Ultimate Starter Kit for Contract Design

Get this free checklist and start creating contracts your customers want to use!

The clever lawyers already understand contract redesign is necessary

Just like my friend with her apartment lease, people are frustrated by the complexity, the brain overload, and the legal jargon. It’s exhausting.

So we avoid the legal department, the stress and the headache. And the lawyers who will survive the transformation to future law know this.

They are using contract design to reconnect with their users and motivate them to engage with their documents. They want users to see the value because they get solutions and contracts they understand.

Where to start with contract design

In her research on contract design, the pioneer information designer and researcher Stefania Passera explains how we humans bring our prior experiences with contracts (and the law) to our next interaction, so it’s important when we design contracts intended to be user-friendly, they look and feel different to other contracts. We understand information when it is ordered with different font sizes, white space, bullet points and interestingly, we tend to find things more usable when they are presented with a visually appealing aesthetic.

So our options are open, and the solutions are limitless. Every contract has its issues, and our users are different.

Another goldmine for contract design research is Rob Waller’s work at The Simplification Centre. He, together with his colleagues, makes a strong case backed with data for the value of clear writing and visual design. Contract users ignore anything that they cannot understand, and they won’t comply with what they don’t understand.

The most important goal is a document designed in a way the user will most easily understand.

When designing contracts we consider (this is not exhaustive):

  • Information architecture
    • Is the contract easy to navigate
    • Layered content
  • Contract structure
    • Is the order of content designed for the user (most important content first)
    • Skimmable headings to support strategic reading
    • Summaries
  • Contract language
    • Simplification of long paragraphs and sentences
    • Are the words relatable to the user, the clearest word to convey a message
  • Layout and visualizations
    • Information display
    • White space
    • Tables and diagrams
    • Icons signalling important “must-read sections” and creating consistency

Contract creation process (could document automation be an option)? Is this contract a simple, everyday transactional document requiring minimal or zero lawyers input? Maybe designing an automated solution is best.

Sounds like a lot of work – what are the benefits?

  • Your contracts are reimagined from the user’s point of view, making the information clearer, easier to navigate, and use
  • People are also able to close the contracts faster and make sure that all contract benefits are realised
  • Ultimately contracts that are well designed improve efficiency and reduce costly risks
  • Lawyers regain their street cred
  • Stefania Passera noted design solutions incorporating visual display of information, like layout, typography and iconic language (that gave clues about what words mean) along with a logical layout made contract clauses easier to read.

By opening our minds to new ways of presenting information, we can make dramatic transformative change.

How to get started with contract design

1. Define the user

Remember, you are redesigning the document for your user. Like you, they have their struggles, needs, fears and dreams, and your solution should address these issues. Always keep your user front of mind.

For example, your user may have a young family, their own business and has negotiated a deal that could change their lives significantly. They are worried about time and getting the deal closed quickly.

2. Analyse your document – understand the problems with the document

  • Gather data, talk to people
  • Document the findings
  • Work the data to get insights
  • A customer journey map could be useful here

3. Come up with ideas to improve

  • Structure
  • Language
  • Layout
  • Visual presentation

4. Make prototype (early, ugly & often)

  • Put your designer hat on
  • Work with the concept level first, forget details and finishing touches
  • Prototyping is about making it early, ugly and often
  • Make your idea tangible, allow testing and feedback from users
  • The process is iterative (trial and error), improve as you go
  • You are not going for the perfect solution from the start

Example of a prototype:

5. Test

  • With real users, even though it feels scary
  • “Show and tell” is the most effective way to get feedback

6. Implement and start using

  • Make sure you implement the new design
  • In legal design, we walk the talk
  • Remember the iterative process, learn and then improve

Where to now

The way we present contracts to our users can profoundly affect their experience and outcomes. The days of standard-issue contracts are gone. Considered visual presentation of text immediately improves comprehension and accessibility to our users. When we plan a logical structure with visual signposts it helps make our documents clear, empowering and most of all easily readable. (Our users will read them. How cool, right?)

If you and your legal team are still using the same, stodgy contract precedents day after day, you’re right to worry about surviving future law and staying relevant.

I can help. Grab some information on our practical, ready to implement contract design training or request more information on our contract design training.


Passera, Stefania (2015). Beyond the wall of text. How information design can make contracts user-friendly.

Robert Waller, Jenny Waller, Helena Haapio, Gary Crag and Sandi Morrisseau (2016). Cooperation through clarity: designing simplified contracts.


The Ultimate Starter Kit for Contract Design

Get this free checklist and start creating contracts your customers want to use!