It’s widely accepted that visuals in the courtroom are a powerful storytelling device. We prefer to say that they can be powerful. The actual efficacy of any trial graphic, in fact, hinges on an understanding of how people learn from multimedia presentations. Our clients often ask us why animations and graphics are so persuasive in the courtroom. The answer rests in understanding the psychology behind their effectiveness.
Why Are Visuals Effective?
Much of this understanding revolves around the Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning, developed by renowned University of California, Santa Barbara, psychology professor Dr. Richard Mayer. Dr. Mayer notes three human cognitive realities that should drive visual design decisions1:
1. Dual channels: Learners possess separate channels for processing auditory/verbal material and visual/pictorial material.
2. Limited capacity: Each channel can process a limited amount of material at a time.
3. Generative processing: Meaningful learning occurs when learners engage in appropriate cognitive processing, such as:
a. Selecting relevant words and pictures for further processing
b. Organizing selected words into a verbal model and organizing selected images into a pictorial model
c. Integrating verbal and pictorial models with each other and with prior knowledge
The main takeaway from these cognitive realities is that improperly designed graphics can overload jurors’ cognitive systems, causing them to become overwhelmed and disengaged. To ensure this doesn’t happen, the most effective designs are guided by a body of scientifically proven learning principles. A sampling of these tenets follows.
What Are the Key Visual Learning Principles?
Modes of Representation
Demonstratives should harness three modes of representation: language, picture and movement. Language, both written and spoken, is processed by a juror’s verbal channel. Images, both still and moving, are processed by the pictorial channel. When these modes are used in proper balance (alongside other important design principles), multimedia demonstratives engage the learner’s information processing system appropriately and promote meaningful learning.
Note below an animation demonstrating the repair of a torn ligament. This exhibit utilizes the three modes of representation by providing visuals of the requisite structures, movement of the parts and how they change over time and on-screen text to identify parts and clarify concepts (an oral explanation would also accompany this animation in the courtroom).
The mere act of including these three modes, however, does not guarantee the jury is better positioned to reach the desired conclusion. There are many other design principles to follow in order to ease the mental effort required for generative processing.
Congruence and Coherence Principles
One such guideline, developed by researchers at Stanford University, is the “Congruence Principle.” In short, it dictates that educational material should look and behave like the picture we want the learner to form in his or her mind.2 For that reason, the anatomical structures shown above are carefully modeled and textured to resemble their real-life counterparts.
Equally important, however, is Dr. Mayer’s “Coherence Principle,” which states that people learn better when extraneous animation or narration elements are excluded rather than included.3 Hence, the exhibit above excludes any body parts not essential to the learner’s comprehension of the topic at hand, and the visual surface treatment is simplified somewhat to produce visual clarity of the structures.
While these two principles may seem intuitive on the surface, finding the appropriate balance between literal representation and readability requires a keen understanding of the subject matter and the target audience.
Temporal Contiguity Principle
Other ideologies may seem less intuitive but are proven to be equally true. For example, one might logically assume that explaining a concept to a learner, and then showing it to him or her, would ease the demands on the processing system by allowing them to take in one type of information at a time. This is not the case. Mayer’s “Temporal Contiguity Principle” states that people learn better when corresponding animation and narration are presented simultaneously rather than successively.4 A successive style of presentation requires the learner to hold a portion of the information in “working memory” while taking in new information later; this puts extraneous load on the learner’s cognitive systems. This phenomenon is a primary reason attorneys should provide spoken narration during the presentation of graphics in the courtroom.
Another example of these various concepts at work can be seen below in a patent dispute demonstrative. The relevant parts of an electric toothbrush design are introduced with simplified visual representation. On-screen text helps with identification, and movement of the parts (slowed down to ease comprehension) allows jurors to visualize concepts of machine behavior without having to rely on their imaginations.
Implemented effectively, the concepts discussed above are a major step toward turning your demonstratives into powerful courtroom tools. Overloading jurors will render the best-intentioned graphic ineffective. There are many intriguing possibilities that stem from the ability to ornament your courtroom presentation with wisely designed graphics and animation. Let us help you make your graphics the most effective teaching tools that connect with jurors, optimizing them for human cognitive capacity.
1Mayer, Richard E. Learning From Animation: Research Implications for Design. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 30-48.
2Tversky, Barbara, Julie Morrison, and Mereille Betrancourt. “Animation: can it facilitate?” International Journal of Human-Computer Studies 57: 247-62.
3Mayer. Learning From Animation. 30-48.
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