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Why Are Graphics So Compelling in the Courtroom?

Stanford psychologist Amos Tversky and others have proposed that learners rely on mentally efficient strategies when evaluating new information.  It is believed these mental shortcuts allow people to make decisions quickly – a necessity in a fast-paced world – but sometimes at the cost of accuracy in decision-making1 (you can read more about how this phenomenon, known as heuristics, impacts the jury here).  Minimizing this risk is key during trial, and one should use the most efficient and clear communication methods possible.  Graphics can help jurors information process more quickly and accurately, by helping them picture the events/concepts more clearly.

Due to the variety of personal experiences and biases that may affect how each juror independently evaluates information, graphics and animation can be exceptionally useful in cases where complex information needs to be presented and/or clarified.  This complexity can come in many forms, such as a technical mechanism, an expansive timeline of events, or a series of interrelationships between the agents in a large system.  So long as your case involves concepts that fall into at least one of these three categories below, graphics will most likely prove very useful to helping jurors understand the concepts more clearly.2

  • Systems impacted by simultaneous influences (such as the moving parts of a machine).
  • Change over time (such as a device failure or construction accident).
  • Systems not visible to the naked eye (because they are far away, underground, microscopic, abstract concepts, historical events, or otherwise unable to be brought into the courtroom).

Advantages of Using Graphics in the Courtroom

Besides providing “eye candy” that will keep jurors engaged during trial, graphics can perform a number of instructional feats that reduce the mental effort required for jurors to properly integrate new information. The most important advantages include:

  1. Explicitly show moving parts and evolving processes;
  2. Explicitly show changing views of objects and environments;
  3. Control spatial relationships between objects of varying sizes and distances;
  4. Speed up and slow down time;
  5. Draw focus to the most relevant information among the “noise”;
  6. Highlight the key steps in a sequence;
  7. Organize information into a comprehensible hierarchy; and/or
  8. Use symbols to communicate complex and abstract concepts efficiently.

Below are practical examples (created by our own animation team) of how each one is accomplished:

1. Show moving parts and evolving processes.

Animation can explicitly show a jury the movement of parts in a system, such as in this clip below from a tutorial about automotive mold pouring.

Animation can also show how a process evolves over time, such as in this accident reconstruction below.

The primary advantage of these explicit depictions is that they do not require jurors to “mentally animate” between still images or struggle to form a picture of systems from verbal descriptions alone, leading to faster and more thorough understanding.


2. Changing views.

Animation can show changing views of structures for easier comprehension, as depicted with the gas turbine below. Again the goal is to allow jurors to understand concepts without having to perform the complex task of mental animation.

3. Control spatial relationships.

Visuals give you control over spatial relationships for ease of presentation, like bringing vast distances or microscopic structures into easy view. In the graphic below, we examine how asbestos fibers enter the lungs.



4. Control time.

When using animation, you can also distort temporal relationships, like speeding up or slowing down time to allow observation of otherwise difficult-to-see events. In the graphic below, we slow the oscillation of an electric toothbrush to allow jurors to understand the important details.

5. Focus on the most relevant information.

Graphics, whether multiple stills or moving animation, are very good at adding or removing information as it becomes more or less relevant to the point at hand, and they can omit irrelevant detail. Below, a site photo provides real-life context but then gives way to an examination of the specific machinery in question.



6. Highlight key steps within a sequence.

People tend to visualize a continuous action as a step-by-step sequence of discrete events. Graphics effectively highlight the key steps in a sequence and provide opportunity for further analysis. Below, the events that led to an insurance dispute are revealed one at a time to recreate a narrative timeline for the jury.


7. Organize levels of information.

Graphics can effectively organize levels of detail into a hierarchical structure, and if you’re using graphics that change over time, you can move seamlessly between these levels. Below is a large data set of important events over a long period of time; in order to help jurors process the information, there are multiple levels of hierarchical organization that can be accessed one at a time.


8. Use symbols to efficiently communicate.

Symbols are highly efficient ways to communicate concepts. They can encapsulate complex ideas, help us interpret the unfamiliar, and depict change over time. Below, we use symbols to depict individuals, organizations, and money flow in a way that can be digested more easily than with words alone.


The abilities of graphics in these examples illustrate some of the ways you can efficiently and clearly educate the jury and minimize decision-making errors that may result from heuristic behavior. Remember, with such tools at your disposal, you are able to reach jurors at two very important levels:

  • At an intellectual level by presenting new information, and then clarifying this information so it can be understood with minimal cognitive effort; and
  • At an emotional level by being attention-gaining, aesthetically pleasing, and motivating.3

It is worth noting that the use of graphics does not automatically increase learning outcomes for the jury. Researchers have found many of the reasons that graphics of various designs do (and do not) help in the educational process. A discussion of this cognitive research, and how it informs the design of trial graphics, can be found here.



By: Shannon Gilley – Senior Designer/Animator





1Tversky, Amos, and Daniel Kahneman. “Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases.” Science 185, no. 4157, 1124-131.
2Weiss, Renée E, Dave S Knowlton, and Gary R Morrison. “Principles for Using Animation in Computer-based Instruction: Theoretical Heuristics for Effective Design.” Computers in Human Behavior: 465-77.

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