Beyond Clip Art, Part 1: Design Rule of Thumb: Simplicity

In this 3-part series, using a 2-dimensional graphic from an intellectual property case as an example, Guy Grogan, Senior Trial Consulting Advisor at IMS, describes 3 Graphic Design Rules. In Part 1, we examine Design Rule of Thumb: SIMPLICITY

Courtroom cartoon

I love this cartoon because I get the joke. I grew up in the era of “power ballads.” Although I can’t stand this 1980’s music genre, I still find the idea of an attorney offering this sorry form of pop music into the staid proceedings of a courtroom funny.

I know as an open-minded musician I am supposed to appreciate all music forms, but I don’t. I am also a graphic designer for the legal services firm IMS Consulting & Expert Services. Poor design, or what we call the “clip art approach” to design, irks me just as much as when I hear the schmaltz hair bands used to put out. Courtroom design should be more than pretty pictures; it should serve to convey trial attorneys’ arguments clearly, concisely, and persuasively.

Despite its absurdity, this cartoon reflects an important truth about today’s jury trials, namely, trial attorneys have a myriad of tools by which to convey their arguments. Electric guitars have not yet become a part of that tool set (too bad for me), but visual aids are—and they can run the gamut from spontaneous scribbles on a piece of butcher paper to precisely rendered 3D animations.

Two dimensional graphics fall somewhere in the middle of this continuum. I will limit the focus of this article to two dimensional graphics, as they constitute the bread and butter of most trial designers’ workloads. Using a graphic from one of our previous cases, I will describe the principles that are at work in effective legal graphics.

The graphic shown below was developed for our defendant client’s closing argument in an intellectual property case. While the illustration might appear as mere eye candy, especially because it features jelly beans, it is much more than that. This graphic provided jurors a better understanding of case issues and swayed them to adopt our side’s viewpoint.

Our client was a developer and manufacturer of interactive games that were designed for young children. These products allegedly infringed the plaintiff’s patent. Our client argued that, since the plaintiff accused infringement as per both the game housings and the cartridges that were inserted into those housings, the plaintiff’s expert should test each and every accused device using each and every one of the cartridges, rather than simply test a select few cartridges.

We argued that the plaintiff’s expert “cherry-picked” for testing only a few cartridges. The expert then conveniently arrived at the sweeping conclusion that all of our client’s products infringed the plaintiff’s patent. We designed this graphic to illustrate the concept that it is improper to generalize based on a few pieces of evidence.

The First Design Rule of Thumb: 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 are drawn to simple and singularly powerful images over complex ones. Is this propensity due to something in our DNA or is it a function of the “billboard” world in which we live? I don’t know for certain, but I do know that when designers are devising their trial graphics (link to trial graphic page), they should pay heed to peoples’ preference for simplicity.

But here’s the rub: The process of creating a truly simple graphic is rarely quick or easy. Ironically, the process can be quite complex and time consuming. Boiling a graphic down to its essential elements requires use of a lot of cognitive energy, and designers at IMS often sigh with relief when a graphic finally “arrives at simplicity.” Believe it or not, it took review of countless documents, briefs, expert reports, and oral arguments, as well as a lot of creative brainstorming before we arrived at our bag of jelly beans. The trick was to dispose of unnecessary elements and to use a singular image that transmitted only crucial information.

So, what is it about the simplicity of this graphic that works? First, the side-by-side layout invites comparison. For better or worse, human minds often view ideas in terms of right and wrong, black and white, yes and no, etc. Generally, the average juror will be more persuaded by visuals that set up a two-step comparison rather than those that present a series of convoluted concepts. This graphic inspired the jurors in our case to engage in an if/then or cause/effect process of thought. Because this graphic portrayed in dichotomous terms our concept concerning faulty generalizations, it invited jurors to employ a thought process that was familiar to them. This simple graphic enabled them to easily conclude it was inappropriate for the plaintiff to make sweeping generalizations about the defendant’s products.

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 find on, say, an email birthday invitation.

Continue reading the series, more about STYLE in Part 2 and CONTRAST in Part 3.

The cartoon in this article is reprinted with permission from The New Yorker.