Beyond "Clip Art": How Good Design Can Help Your Case
I love this cartoon. Partly because I grew up in the era of the “power ballad” and remember it like a bad dream. Even as an amateur musician, I can do nothing more than shake my head in despair as I recall those maudlin hair bands from the 1980s (think Mötley Crüe or Guns ‘n’ Roses) that generated such schmaltz. On a more comical note, I find the idea of inserting this lamentable moment in pop music history into the staid proceedings of a courtroom to be simply hilarious.
More importantly, this cartoon reflects an important truth about today’s jury trials: namely, trial attorneys have myriad tools by which they can convey their argument clearly, concisely, and persuasively. Electric guitars are not yet part of that tool set (too bad for me), but visual aids are—and they run the gamut from a seemingly spontaneous scribble on a piece of butcher paper to a precisely rendered 3D animation. In this article I would like to focus on the middle-ground between the two: two dimensional graphics, which are the bread and butter of our design work here at The Focal Point.
Consistent with our overall approach to a case, we see graphics as more than just illustrations or end products. We see the development of graphics as a process. As such, we advocate for thoughtful and tailored design decisions to help deliver the message, rather than what we call the “clip-art approach.”
The differences are often not readily apparent or easy to articulate. In fact, it’s often easier to notice when this kind of forethought is not present rather than when it is. Which brings me to the objective of this article: using a single graphic, I’ll try to shed light on some of the design rules of thumb we use at The Focal Point to make a graphic’s overall message more compelling.
First, let me introduce the graphic I’ll be using as our example. This graphic was developed for a defendant’s closing argument in an intellectual property case.
Our client was a developer and manufacturer of interactive games designed for young children. These products allegedly infringed the plaintiff’s patent. Our client argued that since the plaintiff accused both the game housings and the cartridges that are inserted into those housings, the plaintiff’s expert should test ALL of the accused devices with each of the cartridges, rather than the select few in his sample.
We designed this graphic to illustrate the oversimplified, haphazard way in which the plaintiff’s expert “cherry-picked” only a few cartridges to arrive at his conclusion that all our client’s products infringed on the plaintiff’s patent.
Design Rule of Thumb #1: Simplicity
“Anything simple always interests me.” –David Hockney
Hockney’s pearl of wisdom directly applies to the practice of creating trial graphics. Generally speaking, people (i.e., jurors) are drawn to simple and singularly powerful images over complex ones. Is this due to something in our DNA or a function of the “billboard” world in which we live? I don’t know for certain, but I do know that this tendency can and should be appropriately employed when it comes to developing trial graphics.
But here’s the rub: by definition, the truly “simple” cannot be synonymous with “quick” or “easy.” In other words, a graphic must go through a process by which it is boiled down to its essential elements—what I like to refer to as “an arrived at simplicity.” Believe it or not, countless documents, briefs, expert reports, oral arguments and creative brainstorming all played a part in the development of our bag of jelly beans. The trick is to dispose of the unnecessary and channel all of that information into a singular image.
So, what is it about the simplicity of this graphic that works? First, the side-by-side layout invites comparison. It implies an if/then or cause/effect questioning on the part of the juror. For better or worse, we live in a dualistic society that often couches itself in terms of right/wrong, black/white, yes/no, etc. Framing a graphic in this way helps facilitate comprehension by placing the juror on this familiar ground. The average juror will more willingly engage in a visual that sets up a
two-step comparison over a series of convoluted tasks.
Second, this graphic is free of what the information design guru, Edward Tufte refers to as “chart junk.” Such junk can essentially be characterized as extraneous or distracting visual elements that impede the overall message. In my opinion this graphic has no chart junk. It contains no superfluous numbers or words, no unnecessary background elements (such as watermarks, logos, or abstract swooshes) and none of the silly icons you might otherwise find on an invitation to a company picnic.
Design Rule of Thumb #2: Style
“Looking good and dressing well is a necessity. Having a purpose in life is not.” –Oscar Wilde
In the context of this article, I would like to revise Mr. Wilde’s typically offbeat remark to read: “For a trial graphic, looking good, dressing well, and having a purpose are equally necessary.” The concept of style is often hard to define, as it is replete with subjectivity. Obviously, in the context of a trial graphic, style is not what’s on the cover of GQ magazine. In fact, even as I write this, I am aware that it is slightly incongruous to mention style in the context of courtrooms, one of the few remaining venues in our culture still commanding reverence and decorum.
When we discuss style with our clients we’re partly referring to the “look and feel” of the visual tools in development for a case. For example, we sometimes loosely characterize the graphics as being “realistic and technical” or, at the other end of the spectrum, “iconic or abstracted” as in the following examples, respectively:
But when we here at the Focal Point talk about style, we’re also talking about a conscious design decision that, combined with content, optimizes messaging. Style also creates a visual impression of continuity, cohesiveness, and consistency. Perhaps most importantly, style creates an impression of preparedness, which can only enhance the credibility of the presenting attorney. Of course the possibilities are endless when it comes to choosing a style. So how did we consciously choose the style being used in our example?
As mentioned, the accused products in this case happened to be children’s educational toys (readers who, like me, grew up in the 80s may appreciate the fact that the Speak and Spell™ was prior art in this case). Some of the physical products we were working with were quite fragile and old, some existed only in the form of low resolution photos. Additionally, many of the infringement issues in the case centered on the physical planes and shapes of the games’ housings and the distances between them. As such, we decided to create highly realistic depictions to give the graphics a tactile and dimensional quality that would allow the jurors to see the planar differences, as shown below. It also allowed us the greatest amount of flexibility in terms of working with the images in subsequent graphics—showing different angles, points of contact, etc. Here are some examples:
To maintain consistency, we used the same style, or “look and feel” on all our graphics for the case. And that’s why, in the sample graphic, the hands, brown bag, and jelly beans are so life-like. The skillful way in which these are rendered draws the juror in and invites attention and comprehension. A more crude
illustration would have created a visual distraction and impede the overall content.
Design Rule of Thumb #3: Contrast (aka “Polarities”)
“Contrast is the meaning of life.” –John Clapp, Professor of Illustration at San Jose State University*
When dealing with contrast, we really are referring to the notion of “polarities,” of which contrast is an important component. Polarities can be technically defined as the possession or manifestation of two opposing attributes, tendencies, or principles. We recognize polarities visually when the content of a graphic “pops.” Whether we realize it or not, we regularly see these principals at work in the world around us (e.g., road signage, television sportscasts, billboards, etc.).
At The Focal Point, we typically look at polarities through the lens of the following principles: contrast (value and color); font readability; eye strain; and icon recognition. While I won’t go into great detail on each of these, I would like to touch on two specific examples that are working in our jelly bean graphic.
With respect to contrast, notice how the dark green background works as a neutral stage that allows the other visual elements to move into the foreground. Further, the hands and brown bag are fairly subdued in value (the relative lightness or darkness of a color) making the key contextual elements (i.e., the jelly beans) the visual center of the graphic.
Even with good contrast, readability is an ever-present challenge in our work. This is due primarily to environmental factors in the court room that are often beyond our control, such as overhead lighting, windows, quality of the available technology, distance between the screen and the jury, etc. What we have found is that optimizing readability is as much about adjusting text size as is it about maximizing contrast. For example, in our sample graphic, we chose to set the dark text on a light background in order to achieve a high level of contrast and therefore increase the readability of the text.
As you can see, developing a successful trial graphic is anything but arbitrary. It is a process that requires creativity, forethought, and skillful design. Not every graphic can or even needs to be a masterpiece, but hopefully, with these rules of thumb, your next graphic will go beyond a quick dip into Microsoft’s clip art library and convey your argument that much more convincingly.
*Special thanks to Aaron Stienstra, one of The Focal Point’s senior graphic designers, for sharing this quote.
The cartoon in this article is reprinted with permission from The New Yorker.
Appeared in Focal Point Press
August 19, 2011