You can’t take a picture that shows the action of organic polymers in solution, or reactions that break them down. But you can make a sketch, then illustrate and animate it—this one is done completely in powerpoint.

You can’t take a picture that shows the action of organic polymers in solution, or reactions that break them down. But you can make a sketch, then illustrate and animate it—this one is done completely in powerpoint.

They say that "to a hammer, everything looks like a nail." As an artist and graphic designer, I can relate to that - my first response to any complicated problem is to draw a picture of it. Not a bad start, but graphics don't give you the answer to everything, any more than graphics can get up on their legs and win your case for you. There are important benefits to including graphics in the preparation and presentation of your case, though, and I examine some of the main ones here.

1. Show things that you can't videotape or take a picture of

Many times clients have asked me to put together a computer model of a factory or manufacturing process, and my response is always to ask if we can get in and take pictures and videotape. A few hours with a digital camera can capture most facilities and many processes better than costly modeling and animation. There are instances, however, when you just can't take a picture of damaged property or events concealed inside closed vessels or deep in a rock formation. Diagrams and illustration can be invaluable to explain how these complicated things work.

Whether they are biologic events or electronic circuits, the process of developing diagrams or illustrations to explain them is a collaboration among the artist, you and your experts to clarify while retaining accuracy. That collaboration begins with establishing what you're going to say - what the testimony will be, and what evidence you'll rely on - the focus should be on the essential few points you need to prove.

I sometimes hear clients say, "this is a financial case, there's nothing to make a picture of" and I respectfully beg to differ. Financial cases can be a rich source of imagery - and often involve complex abstract ideas (like commodity futures contracts or the time value of money) that are tough to explain without diagrams and illustrations.

Even in a financial or contract case, I like to use photographs to give authentic context for graphic illustrations, so that as much of the content as possible is collected, not created.

2. Present evidence in its most powerful context

A key challenge for the designer of trial exhibits is to "get out of the way" of the evidence - to stop creating things and channel that energy toward presenting the evidence powerfully. I confess that it has taken me years to learn this and I still struggle with it. Success is a clear and memorable presentation that proves something important, and ironically, a failed effort could be more beautiful.

 In this case, an opposing expert points to a dramatic change in crude oil prices as evidence of a “structural change” that would trigger a renegotiation under the disputed MFN supply contract.

In this case, an opposing expert points to a dramatic change in crude oil prices as evidence of a “structural change” that would trigger a renegotiation under the disputed MFN supply contract.

Sitting through many a mock trial and seeing the outcomes of many real ones, it's clear to me that jurors have a fine appreciation for the beauty of quantitative proof. Charts and graphs can be the best evidence, especially when the other side uses them to attempt to mislead. Exposing that lie creates a great moment in court, so it's well worth putting some creative effort into "capturing the flag."

Another way a consultant can help is by acting as fresh eyes on the documents and deposition testimony. After months or years' exposure, passages that you think are powerful might be too subtle for Joe Sixpack over here, and evidence you think is too obvious may make the whole thing click for me - most importantly, keep only the strongest, make the call-outs great big and put them in logical order.

A timeline is a terrible idea for one or two cases out of a hundred, and a great idea for the rest. I really like to link chronological events with effects, like the rising price of soy bean futures, increasing debt load or lives saved, etc., to create a centerpiece exhibit that you keep coming back to. Timelines can be used interactively on screen, but it's hard to beat a good one on a big foam board.

3. Help in some unexpected ways

The process of creating a trial presentation is more inquiry than execution. The act of putting pen to paper, or image on screen, forces discipline and attention to detail. The process directly confronts case folklore, and reveals strengths and weaknesses you literally wouldn't see without the effort. When you graph the data, it tells its story.

 r x h describes a cylinder, but it can’t begin to describe the object shown in the illustration. Mock juries I’ve observed have overwhelmingly approved of detailed computer illustration, appreciating the quality of the product and rejecting suggestions that it might be “too slick.”

r x h describes a cylinder, but it can’t begin to describe the object shown in the illustration. Mock juries I’ve observed have overwhelmingly approved of detailed computer illustration, appreciating the quality of the product and rejecting suggestions that it might be “too slick.”

Also, drawing a picture of something requires a greater understanding of the subject - whether it's a bowl of fruit or a factory fire -than just talking about it. Once you have visualized your case, you will understand it better and more thoroughly than you could have any other way.

So how do I know what really good graphics are?

I tend to geek-out on this subject. I've been giving it particular thought in recent months, and have developed some criteria you can apply that are, if not exactly objective, at least not purely subjective. We're going to get into those in some detail in our next article. Meanwhile, I would value your feedback on this one. Please forward your comments to dwinter@chicagowinter.com

Thank you,
Dan Winter

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