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The Advantage Blog

  • Laura L. Dominic


Updated: Jul 14, 2023

Among the requests for demonstrative exhibits, timelines rank among the most frequent. This makes sense given that most of the stories attorneys tell are chronological. Timelines are a great tool for laying out the facts of a case in a linear fashion. But I see many missed opportunities when timelines are laid out in the typical fashion – a text event connected to a time bar with a line (called a “flag”). Often there are so many timeline entries that the landscape becomes overloaded with “flags” and the story gets lost. When creating a timeline, think about a design strategy to help show the visual story beyond the text entries. Here are four suggestions.

Above the Line/Below the Line

Timelines are typically built with the time bar in the middle of the page, and the entries plotted above and below the line. Rather than arbitrarily plotting the entries this way, think about how you can use the space strategically by plotting certain categories of entries above and certain categories of entries below the time bar. Consider the following examples:

  1. At tale of two parties: When telling a story about two companies, the space above the timeline can be dedicated to the events associated with the plaintiff company, and the space below is dedicated to the actions of the defense company. The respective space above and below the line can have a different background color to further denote the separation between the companies.

  2. Hidden information: The above the line/below the line design strategy is particularly useful when you are trying to tell the story of “what we didn’t know.” In this case, the hidden information can be plotted below the line, perhaps against a grey background. In a trade secret case, for example, the open communication between the two companies can be placed above the line, while all of the steps to steal the trade secret are placed below. In a tobacco case, we created a timeline that contrasted what the tobacco companies were telling the public about the safety of cigarettes as entries above the line, with the secret files the tobacco companies had about the dangers of smoking as entries below the line.

Color change

Many cases have what I like to call an “ah-ha” moment: the day the plaintiff’s life changed as a result of the accident, the event that caused the stock price to crash, or the moment the contract was breached. The events that happen before and after these seminal dates need to be seen in different contexts. Using a color change on the timeline to denote the difference in time or context can be very helpful for jurors. In a personal injury case, we created a very effective timeline using this technique. The entries on the left half of the board were on a blue background with a watermark of a basketball, tennis racket, and bicycle. The entries told the story of the typical teenager whose time was spent playing sports and engaging in other physical activities. The background and watermark changed after the accident. The color black with a watermark of the caduceus (the symbol of medicine) served as the background for the entries on the right half of the board, which told the contrasting story of surgeries, physical therapy, and medical appointments. -This helped drive home the argument that the accident caused a dramatic change in the plaintiff’s life.

Categorized Entries

A simple way to ease the amount of information on a timeline is to determine if the events fall into meaningful categories. For example, in a timeline showing the year-long contract negotiation, the events might be categorized into “phone calls,” “letters,” “meetings,” “emails,” and “contract drafts.” Entries can be denoted by color – phone calls are in blue text, emails are green, meetings are purple, etc. Or each text entry can be paired with a corresponding icon. In a case where we were telling the story of a “doctor shopping” plaintiff, we gave each doctor a different color. When all of the entries were plotted, one did not need to read the text to get the sense that this plaintiff visited over a dozen different doctors each a handful of times. The sea of colors spoke for itself. In the tobacco case mentioned earlier, we coded each entry below the line with an icon symbolizing either hidden research results, promotion of a false controversy, what the tobacco companies knew about cancer, or what the tobacco companies knew about addiction.

Interactive Timeline

Timelines are often produced on large boards, sometimes as big as 4’x8’. A physical board provides a functional and strategic advantage. Using a physical board functionally allows the attorney to stand in front of the jury and point to the storyline as it is being told. Also, a large board provides more “real estate” than most PowerPoint slides can handle. Strategically, a physical board remains front and center for a longer period of time than a fleeting document flashed on screen. Static boards often remain on the easel long after they have been used, giving the jury longer access to the information. But certain storylines require more than a single static board can accommodate. This is when an interactive timeline can be beneficial. Take for example a construction defect timeline. You want to show the three phases of the construction project: each of the change orders, the correspondence between the parties, and the work of the various subcontractors. There is simply too much information to include on a single board, even using the color or icon categorization described above. Instead, you could create a “base timeline” on a PowerPoint slide (or another digital medium such as Prezi or BEEDOCS 3D timelines) that has a background color designation for each of the three phases and 5-10 key events that provide the overarching context of the case without getting lost in detail. You can then “zoom in” on the detail of a particular event or time period and focus on the detail. This is done by clicking on an embedded hyperlink that brings up a separate timeline of the events within a specified timeframe. Maybe you could zoom in on a timeline of the change orders in Phase 1, or the timeline of shoddy work by the subcontractors in Phase 2. After walking through the detail, you return to the base timeline to reset the context.

Timelines are a great aid in the presentation of many cases. But they should tell a story beyond chronologically plotting events to elevate the persuasiveness and memorability of the graphic. The four suggestions in this blog only begin to scratch the surface of the many design strategies geared toward building a visually compelling timeline. Think beyond the linear layout in your next trial and contact a graphics or jury consultant to help you create the best possible timeline for your case.

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