Format follows content

Posted on Thursday, June 27, 2013, by Noric Dilanchian

ipad-for-lawyersWe are emerging from an era when law was exclusively recorded in text. We are used to law makers, educators, lecturers and practitioners communicating law to us normally only verbally or with text.

Video, the art form of the 20th century, has hardly made a dent in law beyond some use in litigation proceedings. The fixation on text has filtered and shaped generations of thinking about law. Text dominates the way that law is recorded, communicated, presented and taught in institutions, in practice and in continuing professional education.

The communication formats of even earlier centuries, for example photography and graphics, have only in recent decades made regular appearances in court decisions. Even then what we mostly see is copies of graphics as submitted evidence in court decisions. Ignored is the ability of visual layouts to categorise, index or frame legislation and court decisions and guide legal work in finessed IT-enabled legal business processes or workflow.

Allied with text is the lecture or verbal mode of delivery in legal arenas. Both dominate to varying degrees at law school campuses, in parliaments making statutory law, courts making common law, people in their work environments applying the law and conference rooms providing text-only content in slide-driven continuing legal education.

Yet in parallel, the recording, learning, communication and delivery of law is changing.

Legal information seeking the attention of readers today at work, at home or commuting, is in competition with audio-visual distractions emanating from their IT-enabled tablets, cell phones, and soon glasses and other devices.

The transition towards communication that is not just traditional text is very noticeable in digital media where law and its use is aided by new functionality, eg hyperlinks in legislation, online deal rooms, interactivity used in online legal dispute resolution, and business negotiations in real time using one-to-many network connections across geographic divides (eg by using instant messaging services such as Skype or FaceTime).

The transition is very gradual and peaceful. No street protests by black letter lawyers have taken place in response to the five examples of transition below.

  1. New business law textbooks have introduced graphical frameworks to illustrate legal concepts formerly recorded only in words.[1]
  2. Law has been presented in cartoon formats for teenagers in Australia and New Zealand.[2]
  3. Learning and resources for compliance with law is provided via online software from law firm, multinational legal publishers and niche private company vendors, eg for human resources and trade practices law compliance.
  4. Law students in the United States are set assignments to communicate law in audio-visual formats[3].
  5. In the syllabus for Legal Information Engineering and Technology at Michigan State University law students study topics such as artificial intelligence and quantitative methods for lawyers.[4] Law practice technology is also taught in nine other law schools in the United States.

For this transition a useful principle Annexium has adopted is format follows content. It emerges from recognising that technology is liberating expression beyond the limits of alpha-numeric code, ie text and numbers. Yet in new media the format should follow the content. This needs explanation.

A great deal can be lost in translation when a traditional, text-based, legal monograph is transitioned to digital media.[5] Facsimile copies from one media to another do not always translate well, eg for lengthy non-fiction books. There are real benefits to hardcopy print, especially for readers who are not skilled users of IT.

While ebooks and online continuing legal education have their benefits, they do not preserve all the advantages of print books and live seminars. In a live environment there’s much more learned than is written in the presenter’s seminar paper. Ears and eyes pick up on audience responses in a live presentation rarely picked up by cameras and microphones. Online seminars loose the intensity of sensory information, for examples when sound and movement by fellow attendees signals that the lecturer has just communicated a noteworthy point.

Staying with continuing professional education, here are three examples illustrating additional weaknesses in endeavours to date to translate into digital media offline learning experiences.

  • A dominant or at least very common approach of Learner Management Systems and online course platforms involves a focus on one or more content media, even if they say they are agnostic about media. Each seems to depend on and handle well only a few formats (eg text editing, slide presentations or video) but not all in combination.
  • Presentations fixated on a deck of slides lead to “death by PowerPoint” whether they are presented live or online. Slide decks work well for a narrative which builds slide by slide, with a clear plot and chronology. Slide decks are less suitable for content requiring presentation of multiple or nuanced perspectives, except in very experienced hands where images, text and any oral delivery are tightly integrated.
  • Online videos with no editing (eg no cutaways, text overlays or inserted graphics) don’t reward repeated viewing for deeper understanding. Their knowledge is not layered. Yet re-reading is what we commonly do with great legal texts. Layering adds value.

These weaknesses involve failures in pedagogy and instructional design by legal content authors, designers, editors, publishers and practitioners, among others. In adopting the format follows content information design principle, Annexium's products seek information design excellence. What's needed is effective transition from offline artefacts, practices, habits and approaches to discover what’s possible for legal content and communication in online and mobile contexts.

A digital facsimile of a seminar paper can be good enough to meet needs. We accept at Annexium that this will rarely be the case for ebooks, courses and webinars. They benefit from content diversity, combining for example edited and integrated - text, visualisations, video and appropriate hyperlinks.

There is a great deal of room for improvement and invention for law in digital media to reach great heights. Failure to reinvent for digital media whittles away many of the benefits of going digital.

Tiresome comparisons are made of the relative advantages or disadvantages of print versus digital formats. There are more interesting issues to address. Such as asking these questions - "How should a given item of content be presented in digital format?" or “What layout or mode of information presentation best suits users for a given item of content?”. The format follows content rule is not just about offline versus online. It’s also about pedagogy and providing readers with multiple perspectives on content.

As media students have long been taught, each new mode of communication initially mimics its predecessor, reinvention takes time. Cinema initially mimicked theatre, sound recordings initially mimicked performances on stage, television was initially radio with pictures, optical discs such as CD-ROMs and later the web were recordings of alpha-numeric data, then they became audio-visual and now they are interactive multimedia at a higher level than before.

In this still early phase of elearning and continuing professional education online, it is not common to see effective integration of online functionality which can be very powerful when used in combination, eg user feedback or comments, user profiles to see peers who share interest in the topic interesting, social media to share experiences, forums for Q&As with authors and users, glossaries and archives of references.

Format follows content. This simple and powerful rule resonates today for content creators, publishers and users alike. The rule emerges from the dictum that form follows function. When format does not follow content, we have non-optimum results, or worse.


[1] See for example Daniel Khoury and Yvonne Yamouni, Understanding Contract Law, 8th Edition (Pearson Australia, Sydney, 2011).

[2] Streetwise Comics entry in PowerHouse Museum.

[3] See for example, Digital Lawyering, a course offered at Vermont Law School in partnership with the Law Lab.


[5] See further Kane Hsieh “Why do we keep making ebooks like paper books”, 5 April 2013 at


Post a Comment

* Indicates a required field.



Captcha Image