Visual literacy for lawyers

Walking down the street, I wonder idly, “And what does Lab Clegal do best?” But mostly because I am a pedestrian. Also because I am a designer, and thus more curious about the world than many, keeping my eyes open for design, both good and bad.

Likely vehicular traffic would miss this sign altogether:

law services signage

legal shingle

This firm’s identity fails to visually communicate what transpires at this place of business. I draw closer, and a miniscule tagline placed beneath the kerning-challenged wordmark and logo tells me “technology in legal support.”

Then I am still more curious, wondering if perhaps this firm provided CGI services for trial lawyers for whom I sat on a mock jury in preparation for their courtroom appearance. Breaking the first rule of presentation, they began their opening arguments by apologizing for their visuals. Never, never, never apologize for your visuals. Either get your shit together in advance, or do your best to bluff your way through it. In grad school, I once began a presentation of my work by referencing this rule, explaining, “I am not going to apologize for these images, which will be difficult for you to see. I am deliberately making work that is challenging for projected screen media. This work is about technology and loss, tactile in addition to being visual, or what is called haptic vision.” Then I passed around letterpress printed samples so the audience could touch the impression of type into paper, an experience of image that escapes our twenty-first century technology, before continuing with my verbal and visual presentation.

As one of those rare citizens who has always wanted but has yet to enjoy the experience of sitting on a jury, I was particularly intrigued by the lawyers’ narrative about an apartment fire that resulted in two deaths and plaintiffs who suffered horrific injuries, a case involving complex issues of identity – race, nationality, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic class – trauma, and the human body, all subjects of my graduate research.

After first assuring us that the quality of their visuals would be vastly improved before trial, one of the lawyers fiddled for quite some time with a television screen and a remote control device. These enabled him to interact with computerized graphics intended to depict the layout of the apartment complex, swooping over the parking lot and adjacent buildings, with both asphalt and rooftops represented in shades of grey so close in value that the resulting visuals communicated little to the patiently waiting jury audience beyond a somewhat nauseating motion. Further, the ability to fly across a parking lot did little to visually communicate the details of the case, as most of the events occurred within the apartments themselves or off the back deck, from which the plaintiffs jumped to escape a raging inferno.

The second lawyer then melodramatically announced that their case was about two women. If your goal is to persuade your audience to empathize with the suffering of women, probably best to avoid visual aesthetics similar to a video game where the object is to murder prostitutes and run old ladies off the road. The emphasis on women as victims was complicated by the fact that at least one of the deceased was a man and further contradicted by the two white male lawyers unblinkingly asserting that one of their clients emigrated from the East to the West for its more egalitarian opportunities for women. As I have written elsewhere, if the choice is between being asked to wear a burka or a tube top, I prefer the former, but I wonder if we might one day imagine a society where women have at least a third option, and are not presumed to make the more appealing victim?

As the lawyers proceeded through a battery of questions for their “jury,” the importance of graphic design also pertained to this case, when the question arose as to whether or not apartment owners should be required to provide fire prevention systems in more languages than English, and the larger issue, should we, as an egalitarian, global society, provide street and way-finding signage in multiple languages particularly in multilingual urban areas like Seattle? Two years into the Great Recession, from the second row of the jury box, a white male sneered, “Oh, sure, and provide jobs for a bunch of graphic designers.”

Jobs for graphic designers, printers, production and construction workers, urban planners, legislators – and the list goes on and on – soon it begins to sound as if we might jumpstart an entire economy, all for the goal of creating a safer, more sustainable society. Would white men risk sacrificing really all that much of their privilege?

Visual literacy again arose as a legal problem when one of the lawyers queried for our familiarity with anatomy, to my response that, as a figure painter, I know quite a bit about anatomy. Whereupon the lawyer revealed his ignorance of art, art history and its relationship to medicine, unfamiliarity with contemporary global economic social crises, and asserted his socioeconomic arrogance by assuming that his temporary jury must be uneducated, rolling his eyes and condescendingly clarifying that he meant if any of us had worked in medical facilities or taken an anatomy class in college. Privately remembering my last visit to a gynecologist who seemed unfamiliar with the tilt of the human female pelvis, aloud I responded, “Well, I’ve taught figure structure at the college level. Does that count?”

At that moment, I decided to stop helping a visually illiterate lawyer whose aggressive questioning tactics seemed better suited to cross examination of hostile witnesses than to voir dire, literally translated from the French meaning to see, to say. By the time the lawyers got around to asking if anyone on the jury might have experience with trauma, I did not bother to raise my hand. Granted, their case pertained more to emergency room, physical trauma, whereas my research delves into psychological trauma, but I welcome discussion from physicians, neuroscientists, or psychologists ready to define a hard-edged border between the physical and the psychological, with trauma structured by memory, repression, and repetition.

Fourth generation television and second generation Internet and now mobile device visual communicators desire to see as much as to say, even in a field as traditionally logocentric as the law, as evidenced by the movement forward of twelve bodies as one when the lawyers reached the point in their exhaustive oral communication where they finally revealed a likeness of their most physically devastated client. Only to be disappointed by a dark, murky print of a low-resolution image increased beyond its original pixel capacity and rendered further illegible by insertion into a plastic sleeve of the type commonly stocked by office supply stores. Whereupon the mock jury collapsed back into our seats with a collective sigh.

Image matters.

All communication is visual.

Even a voice on the telephone conjures image in the mind’s eye, just as music or scent triggers memory, and memorable human experience is visual.

When we begin to consider the severity of the world’s problems, and how many of those problems are communication problems – is not war the ultimate lack of communication? – then we begin to imagine the responsibility of visual communications and the importance of visual literacy.

More recently my research has been examining the correlation between trauma, visual illiteracy, and aggressive narcissism, and I return to my walk down the street to illustrate my hypothesis. Here the identity of this firm has shifted, with inconsistencies of layout, logo, and even in its naming convention, between its street shingle and this sign in the window, which is nearly invisible, even to an audience standing on the sidewalk just a few feet away:

legal services window signage

abc legal window signage

That glare is not a residue of digital reproduction, but also exists in the analogue world, exacerbating visibility problems already inherent in the decision to place an analogous green against a blue of the same intensity, and of course the naming, graphic, and typographic selection further obscure business communication. Compare, for example, the sign inside the window against the reflected signage of the motel across the street, where the typography clearly communicates the business identity despite a portion of the word lost to the glare from the sun; we know the motel is not a mother or a mothball thanks to the large scale, generously kerned, bright red slab serif juxtaposed against the much paler blue of the sky, combined with the architectural form of the building, which might otherwise visually communicate an apartment complex.

Not surprisingly, this firm’s visual illiteracy extends from print to web media, where a tagline proclaims they are, “a technology firm masquerading as a legal service!” (Exclamation retained from the original.) At first glance, I wonder if their site was hijacked by a competitor, not a good sign for a business claiming to provide technology services for lawyers.

legal services web communications

abc legal screenshot

Returns from a quick Google search no longer surprise me to unmask this business as one run by a man grown from a childhood traumatized by poverty, neglect, mental illness, and drug addiction, according to a decade-old in-depth feature report from a San Francisco newspaper, whose earlier failed business, an online gaming venture, would have capitalized on addictive behavior and whose current success as a process server depends on failures of communication, when conflict becomes a matter of law. Still more aggressively, his current business practice threatens the business of process serving itself, as with so many areas that now employ technology where human beings used to get the job done.

You can see why he favors colors on the cool range of the spectrum, having learned his lesson about the use of warmer hues during his earlier attempts to art direct two engineers, a bit like the blind leading the deaf. Unfortunately, there is still that analogous problem as well as problems with the rest of the visual elements and principles of design, or visual illiteracy, in this communications solution.

Ironically, I may fall into this firm’s target market. I was bewildered by their business name choice, until a recent visit to the district court clerk, who declined to give out the names of process servers, and instead referred me to the Yellow Pages.

Yellow Pages?

Do they still print those?

The reign of Google and the non-linear narrative of our postmodern technology have made obsolete alphacentric naming conventions, making this choice all the more peculiar for a business boasting its technology services.

This is what I do. I walk around this city and take pictures of graphic design that you can’t see.

Maybe it is time for another look at identity?

Perhaps I can help.

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4 thoughts on “Visual literacy for lawyers

  1. Pingback: Design problem: poverty « journal6other

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  3. Pingback: Design, Technology, Insert Psychology, and Law | journal6other

  4. Pingback: One person denied access to law school because of the absolute inability to pay for the LSAT | journal6other

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