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A resource dedicated to improving poster presentations. Part of DoctorZen.net.

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    Jessica Stanton was kind enough to send this poster, which she presented at Student Conference on Conservation Science in New York this past fall. She wrote:

    I got a ton of really positive feedback on my poster. In fact, I won a Best Poster award!

    I can see why. She made some bold design decisions here. Click to enlarge:


    I asked Jessie if she would share a bit of her design process.

    Because this species went extinct in the wild around 1900, I thought it might be neat to go with that time-period as a theme. I looked at pictures of old theatre posters and public announcements to get an idea of the font, spacing, and other details like borders and other little embellishments. I selected sepia toned colors to give it an aged look.

    For comparison,  here’s a newspaper I found by searching for “nineteenth century American newspapers”:



    Starting from a real “found” object is a good way to design something. It means you have a visual style that works, and that most other people will probably “get.” And it requires a little more active decision-making than a pre-set PowerPoint template.

    I was a little nervous about it looking too kitschy and not professional so I tried to keep the more stylized fonts to the title and section headers so that the text would still be very readable.

    If it had been me,  I would have gone much further in trying to match the nineteenth century style. I would have tried to go all the way. For instance, you don’t see sans serif typefaces very often in printing from that period. Jessie used the sans serifs for readability; I’d have used a serif typeface for more stylistic continuity. But the key thing is, she made a conscious decision about using those fonts, which is all I ever ask for.

    Colour at the time was expensive and rare in printing. I might have tried going completely monochrome, besides the background.

    The whole thing was done in PowerPoint.

    I’ve always said you can get good results in PowerPoint, if you’re willing to be very slow and very meticulous about it. A few of the issues I often complain about with PowerPoint generated posters are there, though, notably a couple of places where things to not align:


    The tables in the left hand column bother me, because they have lines that draw attention to themselves, and that they don’t line up with elements next to them. The title is less of an issue, though, I would have tried very hard to keep everything in that title box symmetrical somehow.

    The poster session was in the hall of mammals at the American Museum of Natural History, and it seemed very appropriate to present this surrounded by mounted skeletons of extinct animals rather than in some conference centre ballroom.

    A great example of how the venue affects the poster, in ways you might not expect.

    There are lots of great choices on this poster, and I think it’s lovely and different and stands out from most that I see. I just wish I could see the flip book!

    External links

    What really killed the passenger pigeon

    P.S.—I’d be lying if I wasn’t pleased by this part of Jessie’s email:

    I spent quite a bit of time looking around your site before I made my last poster for the Student Conference on Conservation Science in NY this past fall. Your advice and examples really inspired me to try and make something memorable.

    Thank you!

    Sandusky Telegram from here.

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  • 01/24/13--05:00: Saving your voice
  • NeuroPolarbear wrote:

    In the real story that inspired the movie, the little mermaid lost her voice because she presented a poster the day before.

    It doesn’t take much for some people to lose their voice, or have it severely impaired. Minor infections or stress can do it. Look at this list of things the National Institutes of Health recommends for taking care of your voice, and think of some of these in the context of a research conference:

    • Limit your intake of drinks that include alcohol or caffeine.
    • Try not to overuse your voice. Avoid speaking or singing when your voice is hoarse.
    • Get enough rest. Physical fatigue has a negative effect on voice.
    • Avoid talking in noisy places. Trying to talk above noise causes strain on the voice.

    A conference with no coffee, no booze, where everyone is well-rested and talks in quiet surroundings is not like any conference I have ever seen.

    Academics are not necessarily the chattiest people on the planet. You might be in your lab or office, dealing with a few people. But you’re probably not in a non-stop conversation from morning ’til night. But that might be exactly what you do at a conference: talk, talk, talk. It’s kind of the point, right?

    Now imagine if you lose your voice after the first day of a four or five day conference. It might be caused by doing a poster presentation, or come before your poster presentation. In any case, it’s a bigger worry with a poster than a talk, since a talk normally has a microphone, and, good or bad, usually only lasts about 15 minutes, whereas a poster can go on for hours.

    This ABC News story on laryngitis lays out some common cures for losing your voice that don’t work.

    • Drink tea with lemon and honey? Busted.
    • Slippery elm? Busted.
    • Hot toddy? Busted.
    • Whispering? Busted.


    The one thing they do recommend is drinking lots of water. However, many of the websites I’ve seen talking about laryngitis also repeat the “eight glasses of water of daymyth, which doesn’t inspire confidence. A lot of the stuff that turns up in a quick Google search for tips on how to regain your voice looks extremely iffy.

    I did find a journal article on the subject by Hanson and Jiang in Medical Problems of Performing Artists (artists get their own journal about their medical issues?). This article talks more about the possible causes, and less about prevention. They do note that acid reflux that occurs at night can cause voice problems. This is apparently something that can happen more at night than the day, so even people who don’t suffer heartburn during the day can have problems with digestive acids if they eat late at night. Hanson and Jiang recommend not eating for two or three hours before bedtime to minimize the chance of voice problems.

    If anyone has suggestions and references for how to keep your vocal cords in good shape at a conference, and particularly peer-reviewed articles, I’d love to hear them!

    Reference

    Hanson DG, Jiang JJ. 1998. Laryngitis from reflux: prevention for the performing singer. Medical Problems of Performing Artists13(2): 51-55. https://www.sciandmed.com/mppa/journalviewer.aspx?issue=1100&article=1104

    Photo by Miikka Skaffari on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

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    New Scientist has an article about typefaces that covers issues like readability and judgment. (Registration or payment may be required to read).

    More on how to dress at conferences.

    Sometimes, we need to call out the bad stuff. Here’s one for bad figures in research papers.

    I’ve often drawn lessons from comics to make better posters. Someone took it to the next level (hat tip to Craig McLean at the International Biogeography Society meeting in Miami):


    Here’s some excellent thoughts on what makes a conference work. Hint: it has to be more than just information.

    SlideRocket did a survey is about what people like about slide presentations and how they prepare for them, but has good information that would also be relevant to posters, too. One of the things that come through is that people love examples and templates; I'll see what I can do about that in the near future.

    The “It’s not in my backyard” groan always drags, notes PZ Myers:

    So don’t belittle cons if you can’t go. These events matter. It’s where community is built, where volunteers grow to play a bigger role in the progression of our goals, where everyone gets enthusiastic about some shiny new aspect of the subject.

    And that’s absolutely why we have to do a better job of opening doors for everyone at these events. It’s the faces in the audience at the convention that will someday be leading the movement. It’s those faces that will go home afterwards and share the stories and get more people interested. And if we don’t make opportunities for participation by everyone, we will be limiting our growth.

    So please, don’t complain. Your concerns are legitimate: a con may be too expensive, too far away, too inconvenient for you. You should instead try to think of ways to get one near you that you can afford and attend…and there are more and more of these things emerging all over the place.

    New Scientist has a story about an analysis of Higgs boson gossip. I mention this because:

    Unsurprisingly, the official CERN Twitter account got the most retweets during the monitored period. Second place was less predictable, however, going to Colin Eberhardt, a software consultant who still has relatively few followers.

    Eberhardt managed to strike a nerve with one of his tweets - winning the prize for the single most-shared tweet. It read: “Possibly the biggest scientific discovery of our time, the #Higgs Boson, announced in glorious MS Comic Sans Font”, making reference to the odd choice of font used in the presentation from ATLAS, one of the two LHC experiments that discovered the Higgs.

    This next is a poster for a conference (as in advertising it), rather than a conference poster (as in given at a conference), but still, I think it’s fair game for comment.



    T. rex riding a comet having an acid trip” was my reaction. Hat tip to Alex Witze and Brian Switek for bringing that to my attention.

    Font nerds! There is a new version of the old reliable standby monospaced font, Courier. It’s called Courier Prime, and it’s free. You can download it here.

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    Last week, I attended Science Online 2013. There’s not much “online” about posters, but there was a relevant session, co-moderated by Liz Neely and Holly Bik: “Impressions Matter: balancing art & design in research and science communication.” Say design, and I’ll be there.

    Luckily, we had the awesome Perrin Ireland in the room for the event, and she live-scribed it in her distinctive style (here and here). Click to enlarge!



    The one thing that was a little frustrating to me was that there were at least two fairly distinct topics  that were mushed together. Some of the session was talking about fashion: the clothes you wear, the shoes you take to conferences. Science Online had more shoe angst than any other conference I’ve been to by a long ways. Some of the session was talking about graphics: the typefaces and colour choices and spacing decisions that you make when preparing a slide presentation or conference poster. Yes, there are some broad issues where these two things overlap, but they are different skill sets. I am almost as disinterested in my clothing choices as I am interested in my graphic choices.

    The other frustrating this was that Better Posters didn’t make it on the “favourite resources” on the live scribe board. ;) (Just kidding, Perrin!)

    You can get a recap of the session through the Storify below or here. Unfortunately, Twitter was hiccuping at the time, so the Storify is a bit slim compared to others.


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    This poster was made by Michael Barton, and was originally posted here. It’s used with his permission, and you can click to enlarge:


    Michael wrote about this poster:

    I never enjoyed making posters that look the same as a 100 others. Something that reflects your personality is much better.

    This poster is successful in looking different, and it does so by looking like something we all recognize: comics. Michael made it with a program called Comic Life.

    This poster is a good example of the power of pastiche.

    I remember Genevieve Gorder using this technique on Trading Spaces. She would pick some found object that was in the house already; dishes, decorations, object d’art, or what have you. If you had some sort of object that you liked, you know that the styles, and particularly the colours, just worked together. This took a lot of guesswork out of designing a room. You would design by matching instead of starting from scratch.

    We’ve recently had another example of the power of using found objects here on the blog: a poster on passenger pigeons that was inspired by nineteenth century advertising. Like Michael’s poster, it was successful in part because it evoked a format that people are already familiar with.

    Looking at Michael’s comic inspired theme,  there are a few things that work very well. He uses a typeface that looks like comic lettering (all caps, imitates hand lettering), but it is not Comic Sans. He’s got round word balloons, with pointers calling out the relevant data. The blue boxes are reminiscent of narration panels. The black lines around each panel are utterly right, because they are so characteristic of comics. (And I say this as someone who normally hates boxes on posters.)

    My suggestion for improvement would be to reduce the number of overlapping elements. If you look at comic panels, the word balloons generally attach to the edges of panels, not overlap them.

    The large number of overlapping lines makes the poster much more visually complicated than it needs to be.

    Similarly, I would have toned down on the number of angles the boxes take. Column one is split by a quite severe angle, about 45°, rising to the right. Column two is divided by shallower angles, closer to horizontal, but rising in both directions. And most, but not all, of the blue header boxes rise to the right at yet a different angle. In many classic comics, the energy of the art overshadows that the layout of comic panels is often based on simple, non-overlapping rectangles (Jack Kirby here):


    That said, artists didn’t always follow their straightedges so closely (Kirby again):


    But even in this crazy layout, notice that the word balloons never overlap the panel edges.

    The one inexcusable error is the letters touching the balloon in the “4. Methods” section of the center column. A comic letterer that made that mistake would not be asked back to do another issue.

    If you are going for “found object” design, the lesson is simple: you have to commit to using the qualities of that design. The more you do so, the more successful your design will be.

    Related posts

    Critique: How a pigeon went extinct

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    The last few weeks on the blog, I’ve been talking about the power of using found objects to inspire design. This week, Bronwyn Carlisle provides us with another excellent example. It won third prize in the conference it was shown. You can click to enlarge:


    Bronwyn’s commentary (slightly edited):

    It was a horrible poster to have to design. The main problem was that monstrous table. It had to be there (it was the result), and it had to be legible. I had to use a narrow font to make it fit, and I rearranged the table itself to make it less confusing. Everything else had to fit around the table. But it was the last part of the poster, so it had to go at the end. I also had short wide tables that needed to fit in panels 2 & 3, along with taller, narrower, graphs. In general, it was a nightmare jigsaw.

    I sympathize. Tall posters in portrait format are always difficult. The “nightmare jigsaw” problem was not quite beat in the layout. The lack of clear columns create a jagged split dividing the poster.


    Unfortunately, this is problem that I don’t know how to fix quickly. One possibility would be to go back to the graphing software and redraw the graphs on the right hand side to make them fit the proportions of their space more closely. Making them wider would at least make the right edges align, enhancing the sense that there is an underlying grid.

    A second issue I have is one where I do have a suggestion. As regular readers know, I’m not a fan of boxes. Here, the big, thick black lines that form the box in the upper right feels particularly heavy handed. Given that this poster overall has a light, almost airy touch to it, the box does not mesh with the rest of the poster.

    My suggestion is to use a box implied by colour, rather than one described by thick lines. I used the eyedropper tool to grab the colour of the “antique” image of the animal just to the left of the box, drew a new rectangle with that colour, and put the text on top.


    One benefit of this is that by tying the text box and the figure together with the same colour, it binds the top into a single row. The thick-lined box pulls away from the rest, and enhances the split between the left and the right.

    Bronwyn continues:

    You will notice that I departed from custom and put the authors at the very top. Personally, I really like it.

    This works fine. Even though the authors are at the top, there is still a clear sense of hierarchy. The authors’ names and affiliation are small compared to the title, so the title is clearly the most important thing. Also, this brings the title a bit closer to eye level, which is also beneficial.

    I think if I were to do it again, I’d put that bottom banner (containing the “punchline”) in the middle of the poster, above the interpretation section. It makes a nice bottom frame where it is, but is a bit too low for its importance.

    Finally, the inspiration for this poster came from... jewellery store advertising emails!


    And the moral of this story is: Design is everywhere, so inspiration is everywhere.


    Additional: After I posted this, I got another email from Bronwyn with her own redesign. Click to enlarge:


    Moving the banner to the middle of the poster turns out to solve several problems. It clearly clearly defines the reading order: go in rows. It also fixes the “break” running like a river through the vertical in the earlier version. Yes, there is still a box, but it is nowhere near as distracting as in the previous version, perhaps because the box is now in proximity to the two black bands above and below it, rather than out on its own.

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    On Quora, a great question and answer: can anyone recognize the difference between good design and bad design?

    Tired of “lorem ipsum” for quick layouts? Blokk is the typeface for you.

    I salute Alexis Rudd’s graphic talent, earned by photoshopping video game characters:


    Who says all that time spent photoshopping Final Fantasy VII characters in high school was a waste? BAM! SCIENCE!
    See, it doesn’t matter how you learn graphic skills. They will reward you sooner or later.

    The AAAS / Science magazine awards for “visualization challenge” includes a poster category. This year’s winner triumphed, I think, because of the interesting question (“How can owls turn their heads around so far?”) combined with the craft necessary to make very good anatomical drawings.


    Seth Godin on things we want from conferences:

    Open, generous and connected(.) Isn't that what we seek from a co-worker, boss, friend or even a fellow conference attendee? ... Paradoxically, the fancier the conference, the more fabled the people around the table, the less likely you are to find these attributes.

    If your at a desktop, this colour picker might not work for you. But if you have a touchscreen enabled, oh my, this is fun! Hat tip to Simon Bostock.

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  • 03/01/13--05:00: Fourth birthday
  • Four solid years of poster advice! Hooray!

    Photo by jonlarge on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

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  • 03/07/13--14:47: More than marketing
  • I gave a presentation about conference posters today. I talked about many of the tips that I often talk about on this blog: the importance of an entry point, using grids for layout, the advantages of Microsoft Publisher, and no effin’ Comic Sans.

    At the end, someone commented that my presentation was all about marketing. It was true that I repeatedly reminded students that nobody has to stop and read their posters.

    I said, “It’s about beauty. It’s about elegance. What is the highest compliment that a mathematician can pay to a mathematical proof? That it is elegant. Yes, it’s true that I am assuming that your science is sound. But it isn’t worth a damn if nobody reads it.”

    I also had a little l’esprit de l’escalier on what a well-designed poster says about its creator. It shows that you understand what is important. A poster almost always demands you leave stuff out, which means you have to make decisions about what to include, exclude, and emphasize. Thus, you can only arrive at a beautiful, well-made poster if you have a deep understanding of the research you are presenting on it.

    A well-made poster shows mastery of the material, not just tricks to grab attention.

    It’s a little surprising to me that while this blog has been going for four years, this is only the second time I’ve given a talk about posters. And I also caught myself saying, “Let anarchy reign!” for a second time (regarding requests to include needless logos or abstracts).

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    Today’s poster comes from Triet Nguyen, who will be a grad student starting this fall. Click to enlarge...



    When I first looked at this, I noticed that the poster switches from an up-down reading order (left column) to a left-right reading order (right two thirds). It’s particularly puzzling given that the wide rows are divided into twos, which could be rearranged into columns with little difficulty. Here’s a quick and dirty redo:


    This is not ideal, because in the original poster, the top row is taller than the bottom one. Consequently, my version of the left column has more white space than the new middle column. The columns are uneven, too. Those could be fixed with little adjustments to proportions. This would take time, because this is a poster with a lot of individual pieces.

    Notwithstanding all of that, one tall and two wides is actually fine! My preference for columns is mainly a stylistic choice, and the reading order here is not confusing. The use of panels clarifies the reading order, and I like that the panels are done with a little subtlety. The panels are shaped by white space against a coloured background, and not by hard black lines around each panel.

    Within each panel, there are a lot of individual parts, as noted above. A stronger use of alignment would certainly help bring a greater sense of order to the poster. In the example below, I’ve put down a few lines along the edge of one object. In general, that line crosses through several objects on the page


    I’m not a fan of university logos in general, particularly not in the prime real estate of the upper left corner. I suggest flipping it with the title: title left, logo right. Perhaps like this:




    Given that the title is not centered on the page in either version, however, there’s no reason to center the author list and institution under the title. Left aligning might be stronger, especially in my redesign above.

    Some of the typography is a little awkward, particularly the bullet lists. The bullets look too close to the text. Hanging indents would emphasize the bullets more. The numbered list in the left column suffers because the text varies in how far it is from the numbers.

    Similarly, bold or italics are usually better solutions for emphasis than underlining.

    The figures have a lot of fine detail, and I’m not sure how visible that will be from a distance. For instance, the fine gridlines in the figure on the bottom left are probably just going to make the figure look muddy when seen at a distance rather than as distinct lines. I’m not sure what can be done, apart from constantly asking, “Can I take this out? Can I make this bigger?”

    Related posts

    The epic logo post
    Poster real estate
    Learning from Cosmo

    External links

    Forgotten wisdom (Part One)

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  • 03/21/13--05:00: Critique: Mozzie genes
  • Today’s poster is courtesy of Brantley Hall. Click to enlarge...


    Brantly writes that this poster was partially inspired by twoothers that have been featured here, both of which featured circles. He writes:

    I liked the two recent posters that had a circular layout, I couldn’t get it to work for my content. Instead, I made a series of golden rectangles with slight compromises for the border around the squares. A rectangular section for the title would ruin the golden rectangles, so I drew sections of a golden spiral in the two biggest sections for the title and authors.

    The spiral is ambitious. It gives the poster a distinct look, but the order imposed by the spiral is so strong that is works against normal reading order. When I first glanced at it, the arc of blue and gold lead me to jump straight from the Introduction to the Results, skipping over the lower left corner. Brantley confirmed in email to me that the poster is meant to be read as two columns. However, the lower right is the least important for a general audience, and is mainly there for bioinformatics experts.

    Looking at it from a distance, I’m worried people would be drawn to the right side instead of the left, like so:


    Everything else about this poster is very nice. There’s not too much material. The colours are well chosen. Blue and gold predominate, and they are a classic colour combination, used over and over again. The pointy edges of the text don’t come too close to the curves and threaten to “pop” them.

    You can also see his poster on Prezi.

    Related posts

    Critique: Italian cemeteries
    Critique: Bison dung fungus

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  • 03/28/13--05:00: Link roundup for March 2013
  • Karl Fast manages to neatly summarize my approach to posters on this blog (hat tip to Julie Dirksen):

    Design is not about right and wrong, or even good and bad. It's about better or worse. It's about a spectrum and improvement.

    Girls Are Geeks has an nice introduction to typography, including a list of resources, starting points, and ways to learn. I love how Dawn describes “typography fandom.”

    So it’s really no surprise that I grew into the typography fandom. And now you can get excited about it too!

    Indeed, in her “about” page, Dawn says one of her geekouts is, “Good use of white space in logos.”

    Colin Purrington looks at word count in posters. I particular love that it has a “kids these days” comment. Now, everyone get off Colin’s lawn.

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    One of the best websites for conference poster advice was created by Colin Purrington. At the end of last month, he tweeted:

    I accuse company of plagiarizing. They respond by suing me. Retweet if you think they are bullies.

    I will let Colin pick up the story from there on his own blog.

    Of course, the (poster advice) page is on the Internet so people plagiarize me. ... I got the ultimate response, from The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research, Inc. in Georgia (I’ll paraphrase): ”No, we won’t comply…and instead we will accuse you of plagiarizing us.”

    Retraction Watch is also covering the story, with this editorial comment:

    (W)e’re troubled by the heavy-handed approach here. Setting aside the question of who has true ownership of the words and ideas, is it really necessary to involve the services of an expensive attorney, who probably billed his client some bucks simply to ignore our two voice mail messages, to work this thing out?

    For the record, while it can be hard to find, this blog has a Creative Commons license. Use anything here you want as long as you give me credit, and don’t sell it.

    Update: Purrington has no heard feelings, and wants to become the company’s next CEO.

    External links

    The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research, Inc.
    Plagiarism spat over scientific poster prep advice escalates to legal threats

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  • 04/11/13--05:00: De-cluttering
  • “Cluttered.”


    This is one of the most common problems with academic posters. “Clutter is a failure of design,” as Nancy Duarte wrote in Slide:ology. The good news is that you don’t have to know that much about design to fix this problem. All you need is one guiding principle.

    Take out the trash.


    Whether in a room or on a poster, trash stinks. Trash is the excess, the non-essential, the old stuff past its prime. Clutter is often just an accumulation of trash that people haven’t categorized as trash yet.

    In a poster, trash is the long blocks of text nobody’s going to read. The institutional logos. The abstract. The 3-D perspective effects in your bar graphs. The nested boxes around every individual piece of the poster.

    The art of cleaning is about making decisions about what you need and what you don’t. Once you think hard about what is essential, cleaning up your poster becomes much easier.

    And as the caption to the picture above says, “If you have the right attitude, even taking out the trash is fun.”

    Top picture from here; second photo by Ed Yourdon on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

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    Today’s poster comes from Justin Ducote, who was kind enough to give me permission to show this poster. Click to enlarge:


    Justin made with a PowerPoint template, and sent me the original file. This made it easy to do a fast makeover. I opened up the file, shuddered a bit at the vast amount of text, and went at it with two major goals in mind.

    1. Fewer words.
    2. Bigger words.

    It was easy to hit those goals. First, I removed the abstract (goal #1). Remember what abstracts were created to do: to summarize an article when you couldn’t read the rest of the article. Abstracts make no sense when the “rest of the article” is on the same piece of paper.

    The abstract was chewing up a fifth of the poster. Removing that abstract gave lots of room to maneuver on the left side of the poster. I made the head shots as big as I could, as they’re the most recognizable and attractive graphic on the poster.


    Originally, the headings measured 25 points in size and the main text was 23 points: almost indistinguishable in size. I made the headings 44% bigger (goal #2), increasing them from from 25 point to 36 points. Similarly, the main text got 21% bigger, moving from 23 to 28 points.

    Having said goal #2 was to make words bigger, it might seem contradictory at first that I made some of the print smaller. I shrunk references and figure legends by 22%, down to 18 points from 23.  This allowed the main text to fit, and it created a visual hierarchy. Instead of two text sizes that were almost the same size, there are three text sizes that are all distinctly different, clearly signalling their relative importance.

    The right side of the poster required only a little more finessing. I reduced the contact information, and cut out one phrase in the Discussion to make the text fit.

    I rearranged the title and the logos. The logo bookends were forcing the title to be off-centered. Given the logos were so different in proportion, the simplest solution was to embrace the asymmetry and put the title on the left. I could make the title bigger by removing the logos entirely, but I wanted to work with the original style as much as I can.

    The University of California logo is obviously informing the colour palette of the poster, so I thought, “Why not just go all the way with it?” Originally, the scatterplots on the right had the only red on the poster. The revision uses blue and gold, like the rest of the poster.

    Additional:Radical_Rave on Twitter offers some more suggestions.

    Related posts

    The epic logo post
    Abstract abolition!

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  • 04/21/13--07:30: Critique: antifungal drugs
  • The call came out on Twitter:

    presenter wants feedback on layout of poster. Thoughts?

    The tweet contained a link to this picture (click to enlarge):


    The image size prevents a more detailed critique, but I sent back links to four posts here on the blog.

    Abstract abolition: I put this one first, because just days before, I had done a critique where the main pathway to improving the poster was getting rid of the abstract. The abstract here is chewing up about 10% of the main text for no good purpose.

    The epic logo post: The institutional logos make me cringe. These huge slab serif logos bookending the title completely overpowers the title, which is barely readable in the photo. The logo should never, never more important than the title.

    The data prison: Dense tables are the enemy of attracting viewers. I continue to be surprised by the fact that nobody seems to notice how journals lay out tables, with only a few horizontal lines.

    Should your first presentation be a poster?: I provided this as an example of the problem of too much text. (I could have also used this post.)

    As a bloggy bonus link, I add:

    Boxism: This particular poster isn't bad, because at least the boxes are only one set deep. Boxes around just the columns would be an improvement over every single item on the poster.

    And I don’t know what that bar over the three righthand columns is doing.

    That said, it appears the reading order is clear, and I also like the consistent colour scheme.

    Hat tip to Biochem Belle for bringing this to my attention.

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  • 04/25/13--05:00: Link roundup for April 2013
  • Hat tip to Matt Thompson for spotting this comic:


    An interview with Amanda Cox on data visualization. Cox is the graphics designer for the New York Times, which has a reputation for fine graphics. Lots of very interesting ideas here. For instance:

    The ability to ask good questions is really what we start with. I come from a statistics background, and I’m finding statistics students’ portfolios are crazy weak compared to the computer science students, even though they’re playing with the same problems. I think it’s because comp sci students are encouraged to play, whereas stats majors it’s, “here’s your rule book, now make things.”

    Don’t do this. Logo fails. Each one makes an interesting study: can you figure out why they failed?

    Seth Godin talks about rules for public things. To sum up, with my comments in parentheses:

    1. The more often a device is used by first-time users, the more standardized the interface should be. (Most academics at a conference are early career researchers.)
    2. Who gets left out is the most important question. (No poster is meant for everyone. Also, think about people with less than perfect vision.)
    3. The best interface is no interface.

    The Scholarly Kitchen has an interview with Michael Bierut about type. It includes this bit about science:

    Q: The Higgs Boson — perhaps the most important scientific discovery of the past 50 years — was announced via a PowerPoint deck that used the Comic Sans typeface extensively. Why do you think the scientists chose this? Was it a wise choice?
    A: Well, as I understand it, the scientists at CERN were actually surprised that people commented on this. Reportedly Fabiola Gianotti, the coordinator of the CERN program to find the Higgs Boson, was asked why she had selected Comic Sans. She simply said, “Because I like it.”

    Dennis Eckmeier provides a nice examination of the shortcomings of the standard bar graph.

    Elizabeth J. Petro tweeted how to put a poster away (snipped):

    Just observed an incredibly clever poster rolling method: leave one side attached to board while rolling; then detach.

    Oh, and while I have talked about the usefulness of QR codes here on the blog, even I have to admit this post kind of has a point:


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  • 05/02/13--05:00: Lessons from Samurai Jack
  • The animated television show Samurai Jack (created by Gennedy Tartakovsky) won rave reviews for its bold, distinctive designs. A key element to the show’s look was the extensive use of colour holds (at least, that’s what I’ve heard it called in comics). See if you can spot the difference. Here’s Jack:


    Now compare Jack to a previous Tartakovsky project, The Powerpuff Girls. What’s different?


    Here’s an explanation of colour holds (my emphasis):

    “Overlays” or “color holds” (where there is no black outline or the outline is in a specific colour) are done on a separate sheet of acetate or vellum overlaying the original art. This is usually done by the penciler or inker as a special effect – simulating invisibility or colours in a fire or explosion.

    Now back to Jack. The only place you see black lines is to delineate his eyes and a couple of other facial features.


    Early in the “making of” clip below, creator Tartakovsky talks about the design, saying:


    If you look at cartoons, every character has a black outline around them. For us, we took the line completely off, so if it’s a white robe, you just see the white shape, you see no linework around it.

    I seem to remember a longer version of this interview where Tartakovsky said this style, with no lines around objects, was something you saw a lot in kid’s books. And this gave that kind of artwork a real charm.

    Here’s a clip that shows the astonishing design and graphics sensibilities the creative team brought to the show. It takes about a minute for the ball to get rolling, but when it does...


    Note that this amazing action sequence depends on characters not having lines around them.

    I thought about this when I received this request for feedback from Svetoslava Antonova-Baumann (as always, click for a closer look). She wrote:

    Before coming across your blog last week, I hadn’t made a single poster in my life. Armed with your advice, I managed to produce my first specimen today.


    My first thought was, “Oh no, not boxes again.” Lines around every section! I went Samurai Jack on this, erasing the first, most obvious, set of black lines around the boxes:


    Just that one change immediately lifts and lightens the poster. Next, I eliminated the horizontal dividers within the columns:


    Then I thought, “Maybe we can get rid of some more black outlines in the flowchart in the center.”


    But I will add lines back in, in this case, to create an explicit X axis in the graphs at right, while taking out the horizontal gridlines:


    Then I went about removing the white box around the institutional logo, and resizing and moving the author’s picture so that they both sit at a more comfortable distance from the title.


    And a final, small move to the last “Conclusions and future work” section heading, again moving it away from the text.


    Differences in colour alone can do the job of dividing spaces just fine. Black lines are almost always gratuitous.

    I sent this last version to Svetoslava, who replied:

    I really like the new version without the black frames. It feels somewhat “fresher”.

    Samurai means “to serve.” I live to serve.

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    Today’s poster comes from reader Chris Skedgel, and is shown with permission (click to enlarge):


    Chris wrote:

    I recognise that it is heavy on text, and although I appreciate your advice to think of a poster as a business card rather than a condensed manuscript, I am loathe to hang a poster that I believe doesn’t sufficiently explain what I'm doing or my results. My compromise was to use a font large enough to be read at a distance, with some whitespace to avoid the dreaded “wall of text.”

    The tension between completeness and readability is very real. Some of the earliest posts on the blog were about the decision to “writing down everything” and “write very little.” It takes a lot of practice (and ruthlessness) to cut, and cut, and cut, and say the most important stuff in the fewest words. Academics don't always get the most practice at being concise. Usually, comprehensiveness is valued more than concision.

    Chris continues:

    I also know your thoughts on logos, but I stuck with the institutional template rather than rock the boat. It does crowd out the title a bit, but I also think it looks sharp.

    This is one case where I actually like the logo. First, that the white box bleeds off the page. That makes it clear that it’s a deliberate design element, not slapdash addition. Second, there's a single logo, rather than the usual bookends. No duplication. The logo makes its point once, and is done with it.

    Here’s a makeover, with some mild chances to the text.


    First, the underlined text went away. You almost never see underlines in professionally typeset text. Bold or italics do the job. When I showed this, Chris replied, “I see your point about underlining – it does look a lot cleaner now.”

    Speaking of emphasis, I removed the bold from the Conclusions, and the "read more". The less bold, the more punch the remaining bold has. When everything is emphasized, nothing is.

    The title, authors, and institutions looked far too crowded; I opened up some space between them. Because the logo was offset and only on one side, centering the title in the remaining space at top made little sense because it didn’t line up with anything below it. The difference is not huge, though. Likewise, I removed the shadowing from the title, but I don’t mind it with the shadowing. Just trying alternate looks.

    Personally, I find the font for the main text to be a little fussy and doesn’t read terribly well from a distance. It does have a bit of personality, so I didn’t change it, not wanting to mess with the poster’s style too much.

    I tweaked the placement of the uni logo very slightly to align with the edge of the main text box.

    One thing I could not do with the file Chris sent me, but would like to, would be to make the font in the graphs the same as the rest of the poster.

    Update: At the suggestion of Mike Taylor in the comments, here is a version of the poster without the frame:



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  • 05/16/13--05:00: Undo the underline
  • Next time you’re reading a book – or, indeed, any professionally typeset publication, whether it be a journal or a magazine or a newspaper – look for something. Look for underlined text. You know, like this.

    I pulled a dozen different books off my bookshelf while writing this post. I opened them up at random, to a different two page spread. I scanned the pages. The number of underlines I saw was zero.

    Yet I see people underlining stuff on posters all the time. There are two reasons for this.

    1. Underlining is the quickest and easiest way to emphasize text in handwriting. But everyone makes conference posters with computers, where other formatting tools are are available as air.
    2. The silly little underline button is visible in a prominent place on every piece of basic office software. It sits there, tempting you to press it. “Come on, baby. You’ve pressed pressed bold. You pressed italic. Why can’t you press me, too?”


    Pro typesetters normally use italics for emphasis, particularly for long texts. You also see bold used for emphasis, but less often. Bold text is good for posters, however, because it is more recognizable when skimming text. An underline crosses and obscures the shape of descending letters, like g, j, and q, making the text harder to read.

    Underlining is one of those little signs that scream “Amateur!” once you recognize it. Just don’t touch it.

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