Upgrading to Elegant

In conjunction with the release of his latest autobiography, The Fry Chronicles, Stephen Fry has produced a rather unique interactive iPhone app titled myFry. What really catches your attention about it is the app’s navigation system:

When I first saw it, I was immediately struck by its beauty. Its functionality, however, remained something of a mystery to me. The designer of the app, Stefanie Posavec, writes:

The app functions as a ‘visual index’ of key theme tags within the book, which have been divided into 4 major groups: People, Subjects, Emotions, and Fryisms (metaphors, similes, word play, and other interesting elements in Fry’s writing). The book has been written in a style that is suited to splitting the text into separate ‘moments’ in Fry’s life.

After watching Fry’s video demonstration of the navigation system, the representation seemed obvious, and its extension to legal publishing even more so [fn 1].

As legal publishing struggles with the debate to end print and embrace ePub and apps, a type of syncretism will be necessary to reimagine all of this information we are creating. In other words, it shouldn’t just be a matter of taking text, converting it, and republishing it digitally. Like myFry, legal publishers have an opportunity to embrace information designers to help us discover new ways of interacting with and understanding the law. We shouldn’t leave the job solely to focus groups (mainly lawyers) and computer programmers.

To get a sense of what good information design can do, some examples of data visualization that I like right now include David McCandless and Stefanie Posavec’s “Left vs. Right,” Mike Wirth’s “How Our Laws Are Made,” a winning project in this year’s Design for America contest, Mark Luckie’s “Your Guide to the United States Senate Floor Procedures,” and Fastcase’s data visualization work with case law search results. It’s my understanding that WestlawNext was supposed to be integrating some type of date-range histogram as well for case research.

I suspect for some legal publishers it will be easy to dismiss the benefits (whether potential or real) of information design or data visualization as being either too Nolo [fn 2] or too expensive [fn 3] for experimentation. After all, the kind of people that would find Terry Colon’s well known legal immigration illustration useful are decidedly not lawyers and we don’t need to spend a lot of money to figure that out. Just give them what they want (electronic, search, portability) and don’t try to get creative about it. 

In the 90s, we were challenged to overcome our bias with media distinctions and become cyberliterate, that is, to understand how to use electronic and nonelectronic technologies to manage information effectively. Fifteen years or so later, we find ourselves thinking again about the future of legal content and media [fn 4], except now we are less concerned about information management than we are about understanding and making sense of everything we’ve found. To accomplish this, we’re going to have to start ignoring some boundaries.

So I say, welcome designers. Now, can you please show us something new?


1. Okay, perhaps not completely obvious. But a clicky-wheel imbued with color (representing data volume) combined with a broad legal taxonomy (e.g., pleadings, post-trial motions, mediation and arbitration) suggests that legal information—particularly analytical material—is ripe for a different type of navigational system. Particularly one that might allow us to access content in a way that brings greater order to the nonlinear aspects of the information. Or not. But that’s really the issue, for me anyway. [back]

2. This is a synonym for self-help publications. [back]

3. For these publishers, I would suggest trying out some of the more well-known crowdsourcing design sites on the Internets or contacting a local design school to see about sponsoring a class project. [back]

4. Actually, I think a lot of publishers are just thinking about how to preserve margins, distribution platforms, and DRM. Maybe XML and metadata too, but more on that margins thing. [back]

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