How law school prepared me for a career in graphic design

Law design

Once upon a time I went to law school. I was in my mid-20s, I was having fun working as a paralegal, and law school seemed like the logical next step. I wasn’t sure I actually wanted to be a lawyer, but I figured that by the end of three years of law school I’d have found out something I could do with a law degree that didn’t involve clients, courts, or having to wear a suit every day.

So I went to law school. And to my amazement, I loved it. I loved law school for many reasons, but the main reason was that I found it very easy to “think like a lawyer.” I never found it easy to think like an undergraduate liberal arts major, but thinking like a lawyer not only felt as natural as breathing, but was also supremely satisfying.

Think like a lawyer? What does that mean?

Well, at least in theory, law is about math, logic, and flow charts. It’s binary. Rational. Reproducible. More than one of my law professors joked that the reason we chose law instead of medicine was because we were bad at math. That never made sense to me because so much of law is mathematical. Take, for example, the rules of intestate succession: it’s a giant flow chart. If the spouse is still alive, do this. If not, do that. Thinking like a lawyer means (in part) being able to follow a flow chart.

At the same time, the law is all about persuading others to your point of view, whether you’re a student writing a law review article, a trial lawyer writing a pleading, or a judge writing an opinion. And what are the tools of persuasion? Surely not math and logic. No, persuasion is all about the art of rhetoric, language, sending a message, telling a story. And there is nothing on earth I love as much as a good story.

The problem is, the story has to be told within the confines of the flow chart. Sure, you can argue about interpretation, you can cast the facts in this or that light, but the statute is a given, and (unless you’re a legislator) you have to accept it.

And that’s the crux of it. Thinking like a lawyer, to me, means having to go back and forth between two sides of your brain. Between the rules and the story. Between the “code” and the “art.” In fact, it’s not simply going back and forth: each side informs and is guided by the other. You have to have your feet in both camps simultaneously.

I’m sure you can see where this is headed. Graphic design, of course, also exists at the intersection of code and art. Like lawyers, graphic designers have a message to convey, a story to tell. And like lawyers, designers never start with a blank slate. There are always rules, client specifications, standards, limitations, and code that must be adhered to. Says Andy Rutledge in his recent article at A List Apart:

No component fuels creativity more than constraint. Indeed, without constraint, creativity (and design) is irrelevant. The discovery process is mostly about finding constraints, which is why we must do such a thorough job of it.

Constraints are a designer’s best friend. They’re signposts, not shackles. In a sense, constraints amount to the solution half-built. It is merely up to us to then realize the other half according to what these signposts indicate is appropriate.

He is so right. In fact, when I look back at my own work, I realize that the projects I’m proudest of started with the most constraints, and the ones that now make me cringe are those where I started with a nearly-blank slate.

The path I followed from law school to graphic design was not a straight line. There were plenty of twists and turns and even some back-tracking. In retrospect, though, it feels like a natural progression from the one to the other.