Interview with Amanda Perry-Kessaris


Interview by Swastee Ranjan

For this issue, I interviewed Amanda Perry-Kessaris who is a Professor at the School of Law, University of Kent. She is a researcher with qualifications in law, economics and graphic design who has is interested in provoking and facilitating researchers to make legal their research visible and tangible in images and models. It was an absolute delight to have had this opportunity to interview her and to speak to her about her work. She is also a collaborator at the Art and Law Network and more details of her work can be found on her website at Following is an excerpt of our conversation.


S: Thank You Amanda, for interviewing with us. We are very excited to have this conversation with you and without further delay, my first question, at the very outset is, how did you get involved in this inquiry about law and visual methods?

Amanda Perry – Kessaris (APK):The substantive field of law I am interested in is the economic life of law—in the ways in which law can facilitate, prevent, create or  be irrelevant to economic life. This led me to investigate and learn about economy, sociology, ethnography and development. As I did so, it became irritating to learn that disciplines seemed to be talking at, notto, each other in particular by using their own terminologies. I began thinking about visual communication, thinking that it would allow people to share and co-develop their ideas about a common topic.

S: How did you think of law as a discipline that needed this visual intervention?

APK: It was really, almost immediately trying to find ways to let law be free, a thingthat is present in an image, in a conversation or in a room but is not defined by each person. So it’s there as a specific thing, everybody can point at it and while everyone can have a different ideas about what it is and how it functions – at least we all know that’s the thing we are talking about. It’s sort of a focal point, so it’s trying to turn the conversation inwards rather than outwards. Actually, one of the first projects I did was to take the word, law and write it in as many ways as possible, and in as many locations as possible; and that was writing in the sand or totally digital setting – it was to try and think about laws in as many ways as possible. I use that to teach law and development—just getting the students to say, ‘what do you see about law in the image?’ Sometimes they say exactly what was in my mind when I made it and sometimes they will say something completely different. My aim is to generate some thinking about law that is accessible.

S: Since you work in design, what is it about design that attracts you?

APK: What attracts me to design is what I think of as ‘structured freedom’. It’s the same thing that attracts me to law–it is the idea that you have a recognised way of doing stuff, there are certain key concepts, and certain things are pinned down and agreed about the legal system, about institutions, what they are, what the rules are. You have a design process, you have a plan, you try and execute it,  it doesn’t work- and you do it again check your work, you share your work—all of these things are something you do within a structure. Within that structure, you can be extremely free and creative. So, design processes are very amenable to adaptation to legal processes—thinking about legal processes, but also thinking about legal thought. So that need for rigour, and yet not obsessive reiteration of whatever has happened before, obsessive attention to precedent as if you are never going to do anything new, only the legislation matters. But it can’t just be wildcard splatter of paint – we are not talking ‘creativity’ in the sense of let’s go wild and use every colour. It’s got to have intention behind it. I am interested in intentional work.

Amanda making the ox-hide ingot traces.

S: In your work, is there a specific concept to design?

APK: I am interested in design-based research processes as a way of approaching law, and that includes every aspect of the legal research process—so from conceptualisation, to data gathering, to data analysis, to dissemination of ideas and reflection as well. Which in design will be called design – Discover, Develop, Define, Deliver. This is what the Design Council of this country, for example, will tell you is the crucial distinctive feature of design. What they are really talking about is an experimental, systematic, structured-yet-free process for thinking. I would say that most social scientists share that kind of way of working. It’s just that we are not very open about that, we don’t reflect on it. So the question is what is distinctive about this design based approach. Ezio Manzini uses design for social change and the point that he made which has really helped me to think this through is that designers make things visible and tangible, and they do that at every stage. So as a student of design on the MA at London College of Communication I was really struck by the fact that every single time you had a task to do, it had to have some kind of visual trace. Usually you will bring it in and share it with people. You’d stick it on the wall, and talk about it, and that meant it was a thing that existed, for a start. It was a thing that could exist with other things, it was a thing that spoken about without having to point at you as an author, and everybody could huddle around this thing, and discuss this thing. So that device I have used to completely change the way that I teach the post graduate research methods course at Kent, for example. Everything has a visual trace, everything is brought in and shared and stuck on the wall and treated as something that can be discussed and critiqued without having to address the critique to the person. So I am interested in this idea that has come out of social design, but which seems to be relevant to all types of design, that as a designer (like in many other professions) you are critical, practical and imaginative. I am particularly interested in the way the designers then really capitalise on that, leaven that, by making things visible and tangible at every stage of the research process.

S: You emphasise on objects and artefacts in your work like on the Pop-Up Museum of Legal Object, and more broadly there seems to be a specific role of objects in your work – how do you select these objects – for instance, are they a conscious choice of specific materiality, or do you encounter them? and significantly, how do you find law in it?

APK: I kind of forced the issue by doing this sociolegal model-making thing which was a design project for my master’s in design, so I had to whittle everything down. I decided to focus upon three types of model making – the first one was the modular, which is Lego, and the idea, here, was you could use that to explain. The second one was found, which includes things from the museum, but which can also be something you stumble upon the street. The idea with the found model-making is to use it as a generative device, so you use it to come at your existing project in different ways. And one of the main questions you ask is – ‘why am I approaching it in this way, and how else could I approach it?’ What I tend to suggest is that people just look through the catalogue and find something that seems to be relevant for some reason. I leave it as loose as that: this ‘thing’ attracts your attention in light of your current research, which is not about the object and this object strikes you as interesting in some way. When I ask people do a commentary on it, it is using this system by Jules Prown. He says to start off looking at the object itself—look at the object, look at its materiality:  what can you see in the object. So it absolutely starts with the object: looking at it, touching it (if you are allowed), turning it over and so on. And then you move out from looking at the object to thinking how would it be used; and then moving outwards from that to really speculating about what implications this things has more generally. That’s point at which people tend to then make concrete or abstract connections back to their own research project. Again the idea is to give this kind of structured-freedom where you say ok the object is the the centre right now. Not your ideas or whatever you thought your research project was about but this object from this curated collection is in the centre. And then you and whoever else is involved can walk around it and discuss it from 360 degrees with all the perspectives that you have. Its a fixed point of communication. The primary function of the materiality is that it give a focal point of conversation. In the Pop-Up Museum of Legal Objectsin Newcastle I asked people to make a physical model of the object, so that it can be in the room with other objects to each other on the mat that I made. To show that you can have a research project connected to each other. If you make an effort, you can have a shared space.

S: You mentioned about Lego in your model-making, and I am curious to know about how you came across Lego as a resource for your work?

APK: At Central Saint Martins at the University of the Arts, London, I did a short course on ‘managing stuckness’. It was with Lego and it immediately struck me that this was the most straightforward way to get people who say ‘oh I’m not creative’ to just make something. Because Lego is modular you cannot really make mistakes with it, can you? It’s not your fault that the colours are hideous, it’s not your fault that Lego people are yellow or whatever, you did not have to make choices about this stuff. I think it takes away the pressure. There are some crazy things in there. We have the Kent Law School Lego set which includes an architecture set which is plain white which is what the architects use; and then there’s the creative set which includes things like sharks that can have things in their mouth, it also has abstract things like linkages, little strings that let you connect things. It lets people do really sophisticated thinking, but whilst thinking it’s just mucking about. Often in the feedback after a Lego exercise will say, ‘it was really fun.’ But when I ask ‘did you realise anything about your research during this process’ they’ll say ‘yes, I realised that the first two parts of my project do not fit in with the third, but mostly it was just fun.’ And I think no, no that’s more than fun, you figured something out while you were building with lego. It is important to discover that your project doesn’t hang together.

Its really important to see this as something that anyone can do. The most important thing that I am trying to get across by this socio-legal model making project with its little guide is that this is not rocket science. It’s just a question of you deciding that you are going to do it, and it shouldn’t be expensive or weird. So you could ask around your law department does anyone have any Lego in the attic that they are really sick of you’d get a whole set right there for free.  There are very simple instructions and mostly what I do is listen to people explaining things, and ask them a few questions based specifically on the model that they have built—nothing to do with my knowledge about the topic. Then people have their own realisation. That’s really important to me that this is not something that you have to have special skills to be able to do. You asked me what kinds of design have influenced me and this comes from a social design kind of perspective, which is a kind of diffused design and where the point of you as a designer is to come up with systems and processes and ideas and objects that people can use to think for themselves and that they will adapt them and return them to you in a better format.

Lego session Kent Law School PhD students.

S: I can see some similarity between design and law, here, one that they are both processual and sort of build within a ‘structure’. So, I am curious to know how does one go beyond the fences – beyond the structured way?

APK: I would go back to the words of Ezio Manzini saying designers are critical and practical and, he says, creative—I use the word imaginative. I think lawyers are as well: you are critical and practical and imaginative. The practicality comes down to the fact that you are able to say, ‘this is possible and this is not possible’; the criticality is about ‘this shouldn’t be, this should be; or this is how things ought to be, and this ought not to be’. Imaginative is saying things like ‘what if we did this, what if we did that, what if we did something else?’. And I think those three things are mutually constitutive, and they are equally important in their own right. If you are just practical then you’ll never come up with creative connections to build in, for example, legislation. Likewise if you are just constantly critical then that’s great but now what? Likewise if you are just wildly imaginative all the time, that’s no good either. So you need all three. I think the idea of being somebody who is willing to step forward break the mould say it differently, but bring it back to real world, is something that really connects –is very distinctive—both of designers and of lawyers. It just really resonated with me to see that description of designas a lawyer – and think yes, exactly, I don’t want to be a totla revolutionary in terms of throwing things away, I want to be you know radical in terms of returning to roots, looking at roots, turning them over, and maybe seeing if you can prune things and change things in that way.

S: Since, you do have a background in law and you chose to study and learn design – how did you challenge design as a discipline?

APK: I’m very much in favour of people being trainedin other disciplines, not doing it on the fly, seeing their discipline through the eyes of another. One thing I found really interesting as a lawyer, or as a social scientist,  coming into design is that at the same time as other lawyers and the social scientists are discovering design and visual communication; so designers are discovering they have research tools that can be applied to social problems. That is fraught with danger. As you know, lawyers took a long time to understand methodology in any way at all, and they are still very sketchy in places about having proper methodology courses. But designers understand design methods, but they don’t understand social science methods. So you have them talking about doing things like ethnography as if it’s just ping! you know, you just go out there and do it. When clearly, it’s a skill, it’s a proper discipline. Also design courses may not have an ethics forms and yet they may be much more interventionist in what they are thinking about doing with people; and design students want to research intense topics that have a lot of scientific research around them, but their knowledge of them isn’t necessarily complete. So, as visual communications become more powerful, more prevalent, and designers have greater role in how you understand things, you really want your designers to be fully educated or be working absolutely, properly in tandem with people who are educated about those sorts of systems of thought as well.

S: Who are your inspirations for your work?

APK: There’s somebody called Ruben Pater, who wrote a book called Politics of Design which I loved because it started off by saying that design speak is dominated by what happens in Europe and America when, of course, design happens everywhere, so that was crucial.  He also did this amazing piece of design that inspired the way I did my foldable little guide to model making : the  Drone Survival Guide, a downloadable thing that would allow you as a person to identify what kind of drone it is, what are its possibilities – it was a critical piece of design but also a functional piece of design—multilingual and downloadable for free; but also available as a nice version on aluminium backed paper which was reflective so you can distort the drone’s ability to see you as well. So, it was very clever but also very thoughtful, critical, realistic, connected and aware of the global perspective of design.

There’s another piece, called ‘Meme Wars’ which was written by AdBusters’ Kalle Lasn, which tries to destroy and re-construct neoclassical economics using predominantly visual methods. It is a really interesting book because it engages visually with the specifics of economics, and it does so with precision. It is a really effective piece of design, something which economist would see and look at and say I feel, I see it, I understand it.

And another book is ‘Dekho’by Co-Design, India which is kind of a celebration of Indian designers. First of all, the book cover is just beautiful and so exciting, because it really connects to art work and craft work that is indigenous to subcontinent. In there are some really interesting examples of people who are trying to use design first to just be Indian but also to challenge things like history of India and the future of India. One of things I liked most in there was a project a woman runs in an institute in Rajasthan, I think, where she does rural development work with a lot of stuff on health and education, and so on. One of things she does is for people to draw their own version of thing—so let’s say she is making a piece of information design to explain, for example, Panchayati Raj, she would get the people from the village concerned whom she was working with to draw all the elements. So instead of using her drawing of a ‘city cow’, she has a ‘rural cow’—a cow as seen through the eyes of the villagers. All of this ends up going in infographics. She designs the relationship between elements on the page, but the villager have produced those elements. It is much more possible when you use visual methods, with this kind of collaboration to happen – if she had asked them to describe the things in words, they either would have to use their words especially in a country like India, which has so many languages and regional dialects.

S: How do you think of the relationship between art and design?

APK: I think design is a branch of the arts. The idea of Art as a thing, I find tricky. I can think of the arts as a multiple, as a thing which has lots of bits to it. It’s like saying just ‘law’ – I always think about approaching law.

S: So what you are doing currently and where do you see it going forward?

APK: I finished my design course in November and I trying to transition from student way of thinking about, it to a more sophisticated way of thinking about it. I am writing an article about design-driven sociolegal research methods, using the model making design project as an example. I think my next step is to widen it out. At the moment, I have only looked at the design-driven sociolegal research in terms of model making. My next thing would be to say how can you take a design-driven approach to socio legal research in a broader sense, so model making plus—making things visible and tangible but what else; and linking it up to the idea of prototyping and experimenting, which are not only central to design but are also very much on the up in the field of Law and Development in the World Bank, United National Development Programme and so on.

S: And finally, Who inspires you for your work?

APK: I think it’s every time I speak to somebody else about their research that are they excited about that is nothing to do with design, and I start thinking about ways of solving problems in their work. So when I am working with PhD students, or with workshop participants, I think I feel the most free intellectually are when they present something that they are excited about and then together through conversation we can figure out ways for them to come at it differently. I think it’s easier to be imaginative with other people’s work in many ways. A lot of what I’m trying to do with this idea of making things visible and tangible is to give people that experience of their own work; so you make it strange to yourself, make it a bit unfamiliar so that you can see it again in a new light.




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