Discovering Visual Stories

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Ten years ago, I had my first opportunity to create visual tools for litigation. It was an eminent domain case, and I got the call about six weeks before trial to help an expert witness show the story behind spreadsheets full of economic projections. At this point, I had a limited understanding of the litigation process, and understood my role was to create presentation graphics and trial exhibits. It went well, so I met with the client (Portland City Attorney) to discuss future work. They hired Fat Pencil to work on a second case, and that experience forever changed my thinking about the role of visual tools in litigation.

This lawsuit was filed against the City of Portland after a man in police custody died in the back of a squad car. I started working six months before trial to create a digital 3d model of the scene, with a goal of helping attorneys visualize what each witness (there were many) could have seen from their reported position. The idea was to use this model during trial in federal court. Each witness would be asked to look at an aerial view and indicate their position by touching a screen. This would cause an ‘x’ to show up on my screen and allow me to place a virtual camera at that spot using the correct eye height. Some witnesses had a better view of the scene than others, and this approach would provide a consistent set of graphics for jurors to evaluate witness statements.

As it turned out, the case settled the day before jury selection was scheduled to begin. However, we used that 3d model many times in the months leading up to trial to help attorneys (1) learn more details from the officers that were involved in the incident, (2) discuss case strategy with risk management and insurance company reps, and (3) develop a plan for presenting the story in court with an eye on how jurors will see it. Fat Pencil’s role in this case went far beyond design of trial exhibits. I didn’t fully understand it at the time, but after working on hundreds of cases, I’ve come to realize that this visual process of discovering the story is more valuable that whatever exhibits might ultimately get produced for trial.

Later this month, I will chair a session about visual stories for the OCDLA Winter Conference in Portland. The theme of the conference is Discovery, so I selected two cases that made early use of visual tools, and invited an attorney from each case to join a panel discussion.

The visual strategy is different for each case (video editing vs 3d modeling), but we used the same iterative design process to move from discovery to evaluation, and eventually to sharing the story. Neither case ended up going to trial, but the work we did as part of the discovery process was instrumental in realizing a favorable outcome.

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Joshua Cohen is a principal at Fat Pencil Studio