Joshua Cohen is a Principal at Fat Pencil Studio
When telling a story, you start at the beginning, proceed to the middle and end with the end. So simple, right? Unfortunately, most cases are built around more than three pertinent events. Several things might have happened in the beginning, which led to dozens of events in the middle, and by the time you get to the end, you’ve lost your audience because they are confused and overwhelmed. What to do? Make a timeline!
At their best, timelines are simple, compelling visuals that everyone can understand. At their worst (and, sadly, this is common), they end up as a missed opportunity: little more than a hard-to-read chronological index of facts. With a simple story, you don’t need a visual aid (like the one above) to help you tell it. But when a story is complex, few people have the insider knowledge or the patience required to follow every single event. A good timeline guides your audience through key events, and supports their cumulative understanding of the details you choose to present.
Besides acting as a road map for your audience, the timeline has another important function. It’s the process of creating the timeline that helps you find the essential narrative of your story and share it with others. It’s not enough to simply take a list of events and “make it look pretty”—that misses the point. Crafting an effective timeline is a visual thinking exercise that invites organization, editing, and highlighting. The iterations required to go from an initial list of events to a final timeline results in a better story, and going through that process turns you into a better story teller.
People often ask me if I can recommend some software for creating timelines. The answer depends on what you are hoping to achieve. Timeline software is pretty good at generating lots of text boxes and sometimes a few images, connected by leader lines to a time bar. If that’s what you are looking for, checkout Visio, TimeMap, or Tiki-Toki to create a decent-looking horizontal timeline.
However, when it comes to communicating the hierarchy and relationships essential to your story, timeline software doesn’t provide many options. Nor does it provide useful feedback on which facts are of primary importance to your story. Most people add too many events, and the timeline software is happy to oblige. A lower tech, but effective way to begin work on a timeline is to create a series of cards (one per event) and arrange them on a bulletin board. You can collaborate with your team to narrow down the number of facts needed, and then move on to design a presentation. A series of PowerPoint slides can work well.
Suppose you want to move beyond a basic presentation of the facts to explain a chronology in a truly memorable way. Every case is different, but there are three factors that I like to consider when designing a timeline:
1. Context. Could a map or diagram be used to show proximity or physical movement? In this series, a clock and various icons are shown over a scrolling map to track events surrounding a train injury.
2. Category. Would sorting events by color or separating into groups help explain how events are related? Here, a "day planner" design is used to sort activity logs for two police officers.
3. Cluster. Is a “zoom window” needed to examine closely spaced events while still maintaining their position on a larger timeline? Compare the two slides below to see how a monthly calendar can be used to narrate a cluster of medical events.
At Fat Pencil Studio, we rely on a range of timeline creation tools—including mapping, illustration, page layout and presentation software—to arrive at a design that is custom-tailored to your story. For the finished product we typically deliver digital slides for presentation and a physical poster board that can be used for reference later in the hearing. This combination is an excellent way to introduce the story and then build on it, using compelling graphics to anchor persuasive connections.