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We Have To Redesign Our Jury System. We Need Designers To Do It.

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on April 12, 2007

We need to train fresh eyes and new design thinking on our jury system. I just spent a second day on jury duty and the process of jury selection—voir dire—doesn’t work. It is supposed to produce a jury able to decide the facts of a case but it is so twisted and broken that it often doesn’t.

It’s as if you were dropped into a strange game with rules you couldn’t fathom. The main players in the game—the judge, the defense attorneys and the prosecutor— know the rules but you don’t. So defense attorneys make up strange and confusing stories and ask potential jurors “could you accept that?” You get the notion that they are testing you but you don’t know why or what for. Ditto for the prosecutor.

The whole process is alienating. Citizens are herded into a room to play a game with rules they don’t understand and can’t change. This is not acceptable.

Applying design thinking to the jury process—to the entire trial process— would greatly improve our democracy and integrate citizens back into what is supposed to be THEIR system of justice.

The best analysis of the decline of the jury system—and how it is gamed—is by my boss, Steve Adler, editor and chief of Business Week, who wrote The Jury: Trial and Error in the American Courtroom, back in 1994. When I told him I was going on jury duty, he loaned me a copy. It’s a good read and his recommendations about improving jury selection are right on.

Reader Comments

John Thackara

April 12, 2007 6:44 PM


British designer of the year Hilary Cottam analysed the experience of British jurors back in 2004:

Her design team looked at "the character of the encounters that citizens have with the state - and how they might be redesigned and improved".

The Lord Chancellor, who is ultimately responsible for the workings of the jury system, is said to have been shocked by the pictorial evidence of how badly jurors are treated in the UK system: hanging around in dark waiting rooms for hours on end, and other indignities.

I don't believe the British jury system has been redesigned as a result - or not yet, anyway. But some other government systems, which were just as as awful, have been completely revamped.
The passport application system, for example which used to be a nightmare, is now very bright and user friendly!

christopher vice

April 12, 2007 8:33 PM

We agree. Fortunately, a number of higher education programs across America are already working in partnerships with courts and citizens in communities to find solutions to these problems. Many research and design activities have resulted from an initiative launch two years ago by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities “American Democracy Project.”

For example, undergraduate communication design students at Indiana University Herron School of Art and Design working under the leadership of Assistant Professor Young Bok Hong have partnered with the Marion County Circuit and Superior Court (Indianapolis) to respond to the following challenge: “How can the entire university campus, working in the courtroom, in the community, and on campus, be engaged in efforts to improve participation in and the experience of jury service while helping college students learn about the jury system and their role as citizens in a democracy?” University students provide support services to the court system to encourage, study, celebrate, and describe jury service as an essential feature of American democracy and as a unique expression of citizenship. The core activities include Promotion and Outreach, Research and Design, and the Use of Technology. To date, Professor Hong has presented research findings and design developments at several national and international conferences.

The national “Jury Project” initiative was launched by George L. Mehaffy, Vice President for Academic Leadership and Change and director of the American Democracy Project of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU). George was inspired to challenge American educators to take on the redesign of important civic experiences after he encountered the “Touching the State” project sponsored by the Design Council UK. The AASCU American Democracy Project is sponsored in part by The New York Times.

More details here:

Thanks for shining a light on the importance of the American jury experience!

Christopher Vice
Chair, Department of Visual Communication Design
Indiana University Herron School of Art and Design
Herron's visual communication design programs are focused on preparing leaders who can proactively manage processes for change and innovation to improve the experiences of businesses, institutions, organizations, communities and individuals.

We advocate designing as a collaborative process for identifying root problems and facilitating meaningful solutions to complex issues.

We seek to harness the power of design to clarify, humanize and energize the issues that are central to life in a pluralistic society.

bruce nussbaum

April 13, 2007 3:55 AM

I can't prove it but I believe that Britain is way ahead of the US in applying design thinking to solving problems outside the business context. I know of at least two examples in transportation in the north of the country and now here in the legal system, that design principles are being used to make the experience better for people--and to make the systembetter and more efficient.

There is a huge amount of work to be done in the states in applying design to civil society.

Thanks for the comment.


Nick Durrant

April 13, 2007 11:42 AM

There was a wonderful collaboration — A2J — between law students and IIT's Institute of Design students which used design thinking to prototype new access to justice solutions. Good stuff worth Googling.

Chris Vanstone

April 16, 2007 4:19 PM

The work that John was talking about was part of a project looking at state-citizen interactions across jury service, voting and what was then the new British citizenship ceremony.

We found that on many occassions these encounters actively lowered peoples sense of citizenship . Jury service was a particular problem.

Read Linsey's story (on page 35 of the pdf ) She waited for two weeks before being dimmissed without being called. She found the whole process alienating - 'I feel like I don't matter...just another number'. It's not that Lindsey begrudged the time - she would have happily done something useful with it - even stuffing envelopes.

We concluded that not only could these experiences be made easier to navigate but that they were missing a real opportunity to maximise state-citizen participation and capitalise on goodwill and dormant motivation.

John A.

December 18, 2009 7:58 PM

how about a similar —voir dire— processes, but the potential jurors not composed of general public lay persons, but of paid specialized professional jurors, maybe even later year law students?

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