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

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  • 06/11/15--11:22: Critique: Shape perception
  • Today’s contribution comes from Arvid Herwig, and is shown with his permission. Click to enlarge!


    My first reaction to this poster was incredibly positive. It’s an interesting mix of the bold and the restrained. The dark red bands surrounding each section are very large and visually dominant. Yet there are so few of them, and they are placed so precisely, that they don’t feel overwhelming. The muted background also helps calm the overall design.

    To give an idea of how important those colour choices are, here’s a quick and dirty replacement of the brick red of the lines with a straight red, and the light gray grid with straight white:



    Suddenly, the warmth is gone and you have a look that has all the appeal of a traffic sign.

    The logos are corralled down in the corners, making them unobtrusive.

    I’m impressed by how well the images and text fit within the section borders. Circles and triangles are not easy shapes to fit text or graphs into, but there is little wasted space here. The text and images follow the contours of the shapes very nicely.

    The one problem I had was when I started to read it. I immediately read it the wrong way. I went from 1 across to 3, instead of from 1 down to 2. It seems that a major challenge for this poster is how to signal that it should be read in columns, not rows.

    The first cue,spacing of the sections, tries to guide me. Section 1 and 2 are closer to each other than 1 and 3.

    Part of the problem may be the labelling. The callout for “01 Introduction” is about the same distance, or maybe even a little closer, to “03 Methods” as it is to “02 Objective”.

    Second, the labels for 01 and 03 point in the same direction. This provides a subtle cue that the two sections may be related to each other. I tried this alternate, making the headings for the first two sections match, attempting to strengthen the link between those two.


    While I’m not sure this makeover works yet, I think the theory is sound. If you can get the reader to go down in the first instance, the rest falls into place.

    Overall, some quite lovely work here.

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  • 06/18/15--14:46: #SciFund poster class links
  • We’re in the thick of the #SciFund poster class now! One of the fun things for me about being involved is that we’re doing stuff that I haven’t covered in this blog.

    In particular, Anthony Salvagno has written a lot about how to use Adobe Illustrator to make a poster. I had not used Illustrator before I started working on this class. It is powerful, but not simple. Anthony’s tips and suggestions are just the thing if you have been curious about using Illustrator for making posters.

    You can download Illustrator and use the full version for free for 30 days.

    I’m going to collect all the #SciFund poster class links here for archival purposes. As I post this, just two are up, but I will add the next three weeks as the become available.

    #SciFund poster class links

    Week 1: Focusing on message and getting started with Adobe Illustrator
    Week 2: Developing a draft and building your wireframe with Illustrator

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  • 06/25/15--05:00: Link roundup for June 2015
  • The self-declared contender for the best poster. Not just academic poster, no.


    Yes, that tap at the bottom? It works.


    Coverage of this poster can be found here, here, and here. Probably other places, too. Hat tip to Jeffrey Bemis.

    Back to science now, with a blog post about posters for Twitter.

    This week on Twitter, I came across an image that was a hybrid between a science poster and an infographic. ... The simplicity of a tweetable poster makes it easy to highlight a project’s impact or identify solutions, and by sharing them on Twitter, the reach of these posters goes far beyond that of the traditional posters you find at conferences.

    A reminder from Max Roser about why you should not use pie charts:


    You will know the name from your font dropdown menus on your computer, all the way at the end: Zapf. An obituary of type designer Hermann Zapf is unexpectedly rich. Hat tip to Zach Seward and Amanda Krauss.

    A poster! Hat tip to figshare.

    A great look at science photographer Felise Frankel.

    Frankel’s goal is to capture scientifically honest photographs that, in her words, “frankly, makes you want to look at it.” Since her first image ran on the cover of Science in 1992, her images have landed on some 30 journal covers.

    While posters are generally static, there’s a lot to think about in this interview about turning nanoscale bioloical processes into movies:

    In promoting the biomedical animations I should avoid overstating how accurately I have depicted the reality of the molecular world. It is vastly messier, random and crowded, and it’s physical nature is unimaginably alien to our normal perception of the world around us.

    The Sociobiology blog has a post describing how to organize a fab small meeting. This particular meeting emphasized talks over posters, but I include it here anyway, since I am always hopeful conference organizers are lurking here.



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  • 07/02/15--05:00: Critique: Galaxy quest
  • This week’s poster comes from Chelsea Sharon, and is shown with her kind permission. Click to enlarge!


    Chelsea writes:

    I feel like hardly anyone ever has useful design critiques for me, and I’ve certainly settled into a specific template.

    I would try to calm down some of the type in the title and headings by removing outlines and underline. The title is particularly busy, with the title and the authors’ names and the authors’ institutions each getting a different combination of colour and outline: red with white outline, white with blue outline, blue with white outline. The outline of the authors’ names is making those two lines come perilously close together, touching in several places:


    While the photo is reasonably subdued, it contributes to the overall feel of clutter. 

    I’m not a fan of author photos on posters, but this one could be incorporated more smoothly. The picture breaks the symmetry of the title, and again contributes to the crowded feel. If you’re going to have a non-symmetrical layout, own it, by not centering the text. My revision might look something like this:


    (You’ll have to image the background image of the radio telescope array.)

    One other little point in the title bar is that Fabian
    Walter’s name gets broken across two lines (as I have imitated in this paragraph). Where to put line breaks in text can be a tricky business, but it’s probably best not to break up an author’s first and last names if possible.

    Travelling down to the main body of the poster, the underline on the headings could be removed.

    The bullets are not bringing anything to the table. Bullets are effective for calling out short lists in larger blocks of text. Here, they fall victim to the Syndrome syndrome:



    The amount of text is intimidating, and makes me wonder if some cutthroat editing might be in order.

    Having most of the the main text all in the center of the poster helps provide a thread for the reader to follow through. Having the figures on the sides of that central column meas the reader has to weave back and forth between the text and the figures, but it isn’t too confusing. Maybe there could be few signals to link the text and the figure: some emphasis with bolding, and perhaps even a hint of colour?


    Finally, those big heavy blue lines separating each block? Let’s see what happens if we remove those:

    The poster seems to hold up fine without them.

    Related posts

    Mug shot

    External links

    Run ragged

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    When you’re laying out your poster, instead of typing in the title you put in your abstract, put this:


    “No one has to read this crap.”

    Frame grab from this interview with Ed Yong. Ed has this posted above his desk as advice for freelancers, but the advice is equally appropriate for poster makers.

    Nobody owes your their time at a conference. Nobody has to stop at your poster. Nobody has to talk to you.

    Let that harsh realization guide your editing and design to make something that another person, who is not you, who is not invested in the project, wants to read.

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    Melissa WilsonSayres found this poster by Louise Brousseau and colleagues at this year’s Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution conference:


    Yes, that’s a bra in the background. The authors made their poster into a boob joke.

    The reaction to this on Twitter was not positive. Comments ranged from “shocked” to “mind boggling” to “poor choices all around” to “what where they thinking” to “speechless” to “great way to get people to miss the point of your poster.”

    Okay. There is much to discuss here, and I’m not sure I’ll get to it all. There are a lot of things to talk about, I know, with everyday sexism and gender roles and appropriate behaviour in a professional setting and more.

    I’m not one to talk about this. I am not about to cast the first stone on using knickers in design. I did, after all, write an entire post about lessons from lingerie. But this poster... that wasn’t what I meant.

    Putting aside all that, this is a poorly designed poster, both conceptually and graphically. Let’s go back to a basic principle:
     
    The design of a conference poster should be in the service of what the audience wants to know. Here, the design is in the service of a joke.


    For instance, Andrea Kirkwood noted:

    The background is overemphasized to the detriment of the data.

    Bad at Being Human had the most memorable critique:

    The combination of the title style and the background comes across as the textual form of motorboarding.

    I completely agree with this. It’s not just that there’s a bra as a background image, but the authors squeeze the title of the text down into the cleavage to emphasize this.

    It’s not just the bra that’s the problem, either. There is a lot of room to improve in almost every aspect of the poster. Roberto Marquez added:

    Plus 3D plots (why does anyone even consider...?)

    The title is well below eye level, and will be blocked by anyone standing in front of the poster.

    The typefaces seem to be chosen to be “feminine,” but they are hard to read. I cannot make out the text of the introduction in the photo, for example, even at the highest magnification. The swishy text might have made for a good heading, but is a horrible choice for the majority of the text.

    Here’s what I would have done.

    When I do poster makeover, I try to not to destroy the spirit of what the authors wanted. The title indicates that wanted something a little sexy. I am not opposed to making something sexy. Appealing to our sexual side can be a powerful way to communicate, if you can get past the inherent craziness and irrationality that comes along with sex appeal. See the “four organs of communication” in some of Randy Olson’s writing (summarized here).

    In search of sexy, the authors went with the bra image. The problem is that the imagery they used is too literal and in your face. It violate the Sommese rule and treats the audience like morons.

    I’ve talked before about the power of pastiche: imitating something that is a proven and recognizable template. You want to evoke lacy bras? Pick a well known and recognizable brand that one associates with lacy underthings.

    I would go look at a Victoria’s Secret catalogue. (Purely for research!)

    I’d look at the type used in the Victoria’s Secret logo and in the main pages. Bell MT is close to their main logo, and they also sometimes use a grotesque sans serif that I can’t identify. I tried a Franklin Gothic as a substitute. I also notice that they use a mix of small caps and italics in their display text.

    I’d take a few representative pages from the catalogue to figure out what the colour palette might be. It would probably be pinks, pastel blue, creamy or pearly off-whites.

    My version of this poster might be more like this (click to enlarge):



    The key element is the lace of the title. The lace is now a very light, subtle pattern in the background. I took a large image of lace, and used the corrections in Microsoft Publisher to adjust the lightness and recolour it. To reinforce the lace theme, I kept something the authors had in their original poster: a little bow, which I put at the bottom instead of the side.

    This is just my first draft, and certainly isn’t the only or best way to do it. The makeover shows that colour, type, and patterns alone can evoke a little bit of the sexiness implied by the title.

    External links

    Louise Brousseau 

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    Over the last few weeks, I’ve been teaching the #SciFund poster class (compiled material here). It was a learning experience for me as well as the students, because I’ve never used Adobe Illustrator before. I made a poster based on some research I hadn’t presented yet. (The paper is in press; I’ll share the poster here once the paper is out of production and ready to read.)

    I had something that I could have hung on a poster board at pretty much any conference in the world around the end of the second week. I felt the poster was maybe 90% of what I wanted it to be. But to get to the point where I thought it was almost 100% of what I wanted it to be, took two to three more weeks.

    To be clear, I’m not talking about working continuous eight hours a day on a poster for a couple of weeks, but working on it briefly each day for a couple of weeks. You need to be able to step away from the work and look at it later with fresh eyes.

    I spent that time adjusting the leading of the text. I made key numbers bigger. I proofread the text, refined it, and proofed it again (and someone will probably still find errors when I show it). I moving around a logo. I tried a different logo, realized it didn’t work, and switched it back to the first one. I tweaked the colours. I added lines, made them thinner, thicker, adjusted the line colours, then made them thinner again.

    Those tiny little adjustments may not be something that an average viewer can easily identify when they read your poster, but the difference in the overall impression it leaves on a viewer is huge.



    You have to leave yourself time to make all those tiny little adjustments. When you first start making a poster, improvements come fast, and the zones of “I could never hang that up” and “I could show it, but I wouldn’t be proud of it” are narrow.

    The range of what is a passable poster is large. And somewhere in that big gray zone of “I like this and nobody would give me grief about it” is where you hit the point of diminishing returns. Sure, the poster is getting better, but not as much as when you started blocking it out.

    To get to something that truly stands out, you have to keep working past that point of diminishing returns. You have to be willing to keep adjusting, coming back the next day, and adjusting again. The final improvements will come in at a crawl, not a sprint.

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  • 07/30/15--05:00: Link roundup for July 2015
  • This month’s must read is from Bethany Brookshire, a.k.a. the mighty Scicurious, who has been baking cookies for science. She is at the point where she is making posters showing the results of her experiment.


    Her article is aimed at people who are still in school, but is worth reading even if you haven’t used glue sticks in a while. For instance, Bethany writes:
    What makes a good poster stand out is one having what I call the three C’s.

    • Continuity: The poster should present a continuous story of your experiment. ...
    • Clarity: When you share your research with others, you want to make sure that what you did is clear. ...
    • Consistency: The style of a poster should be consistent to help the poster look clear.

    Today’s lesson in why the spacebar was invented: to prevent the University of Florida art education department from embarrassing itself (hat tip to Jeff):


    Default QR codes are kind of ugly. But here’s a way to make them more interesting. You can upload a small, high contrast image, and incorporate that into the code at this website. Fer instance, I took this UTRGV institutional logo:


    And turned it into this QR code that links to the university home page.


    If you squint a bit, you can kind of make out the shape of Texas! I could probably do better if I made a black and white image. Hat tip to Dustin Mayfield Jones.

    While everyone is abuzz with the gorgeous images of the Pluto flyby, take a look at how the first television image of Mars was made fifty years ago this week. It’s a story of impatience and a lot of crayons. (Okay, pastels.) It’s a fascinating story of turning data into an image. Hat tip to many, including Sarcastic Rover.



    “How big should the text be?” is a persistent, but not readily answered, question of poster designers. But there is a particular kind of poster where text size and visibility has to be rigorously assessed: eye charts. This article is an in-depth look at how eye charts were designed and have changed over time. Hat tip to Mocost.



    Here’s one for conference organizers: how to make your meeting accessible to people who are ill or have long term disabilities. Another contribution: make sure chairs are available somewhere for the poster session for people who have trouble standing for long periods.

    Album covers become iconic images. Album covers were some of the first things I thought about in design terms. One of my favourite cover designers was Malcolm Garrett, whose name appeared on records by many early 80s UK bands. Songwriter and business woman Little Boots talks about the creation of her latest album cover:


    The more you learn about design, the more good descriptions of process become invaluable.

    Follow this Twitter thread for some interesting comments on what people look for in a poster.

    And I’m going to leave Andrew Farke with the last word this month:

    All together now: Posters are often a better presentation medium than talks! For both presenter and viewer! Seriously! #2015SVP


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  • 08/03/15--14:09: Archiving posters

  • I’ve talked before about the long waits in getting projects published. But sometimes, despite waiting, projects never make it past the conference poster stage. I’ve also talked about developing a gut instinct for whether something is publishable.

    It’s nice that now, there are ways to turn ephemera into an archival, potentially usable and citable, document. For a while, I’ve been meaning to start putting up some of my posters into FigShare, which I’ve been of fan of from early on. I first used it when I published a paper here on my blog. Since then, I’ve used it to archive the raw data for several of my papers as unofficial supplemental information.

    The first one to go up is a poster I presented at the third International Tunicate Conference in 2005 at the University of California Santa Barbara.

    This one is one of the relatively few projects that we were never able to push out into a paper. I still think it makes for a pretty good poster, though.

    Archiving this poster got me thinking. I see clear value in archiving old posters that can document projects that never made it into the scientific literature. But is there value in archiving posters that were the early versions of projects that did make it into the regular scientific literature? I can see old posters have some interest as examples of design (see the Better Posters blog). They might eventually have some historical interest.

    But is there any scientific interest in archiving old posters? Posters are generally works in progress, so tend to be incomplete and preliminary. Might they actually confuse matters by including dead end ideas that were abandoned by the authors?

    Reference

    Stwora A, Scofield VL, Faulkes Z. 2015. Effects of oxidative stress on Ascidia interrupta embryogenesis. figshare. http://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.1499282

    Crossposted from NeuroDojo.

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    Ladies and gentlemen, as hard as it may be to believe, I was not always the poster design guy you see before you now.

    Rewind back to late 2007, when I was preparing a poster for the meeting of Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB). I’ve hauled out the poster I made then because the paper has finally been published (Faulkes 2015).

    This... is gonna hurt. Click to enlarge.


    Oh boy.

    Clearly I had not yet taken on board the lesson of editing. This was a problem in a lot of my old posters I made before I started this blog; see here and here in particular.

    Yes, there’s even an abstract. The one thing I will say in my defense is that the instructions specifically said to include the abstract, and I was still a few years from realizing there are no poster police, and becoming an abstract anarchist as far as posters were concerned.

    At the time, I was happy enough with this poster to have my picture taken with it. I can’t recall who I loaned my camera to, but I’m so grateful to him, because this is a favourite picture of me to this day. I felt like this picture showed my in my natural element.


    My reaction to the poster now?

    Not so much a critique as a cry of anguish.

    Too much stuff and not enough space. I cringed when I looked at the guideline settings and saw the columns were only separated by half an inch. Nowhere near enough of a margin.

    There were also a few blatant errors in the text that I never caught until now. No, I’m not going to tell you what they are. I shall leave that as an exercise for the reader, as they say.

    I am happy that this poster is laid out in columns, with at least a major grid structuring the poster. I also learned something very important from doing this poster: rehearse the poster out loud. This is the poster that inspired this story:

    For one poster I did, I had a figure that ended up in about column four, quite far to the right of the poster. (Black and white image at top of column four - ZF, 2015) I thought it made sense to put it there given the poster space. It felt fine when you read through the poster.

    But when I gave people “tours” through the poster at the meeting, I kept referring to that picture very early on, when people were mostly examining stuff on the left side of the poster. People had to look way over to a different section of the poster, and it disrupted the flow of the presentation. (In that case, it was exacerbated by the poster being over two meters wide. People had to look a long way over to see the picture.)

    Because this is one of my own posters, I was able to open up the original Publisher file and start editing. I didn’t give myself anything that I wouldn’t have had at the time, like new images. Here’s the revised version:


    I made all the margins two inches. I hacked away a lot of the text, and replaced the stupid abstract with a picture of the study species, which people can more readily relate to and understand. That one key figure that threw off my narrative because it was too far over to the right got moved up to the introduction, too.

    It’s better, but honestly, I can see this version is still struggling with the baggage from the first effort. I’m not sure those three tables are helping my cause. And there is still too much text. But I am not going to redo the poster from scratch because I have better things to do than completely remake a poster from a conference more than seven year ago. (But apparently I don’t have better things to do than write a blog post about it.)

    If I were to design the poster again from scratch today, it might be a lot more like these graphics that I made to promote the paper on Twitter. None of these graphics could be a poster as is, but they give an idea of the approach I took in making a compact version of the paper.


    The one above has the picture of the shrimp, which is nice, but it needs more detail for the results. Remember, the point of this is not to be complete, but as an enticement to get people to click a link to a longer article.

    This next one below is probably closest to a working poster:


    Nice, simple, straight head to head comparison between to species. Put in a title, a picture of the animals, and this is close to something you could hang up on the conference poster board.

    This last one has a clear title and some more detail:


    I worry that it has a little too much detail, but that central panel really drives home the difference between what was expected (two separate cell bodies on the side) and what I saw (massive, hard to tell apart cell bodies in the middle).

    As much as it hurts to go back into your old work, it is nice to go back and see how far you’ve come.

    References

    Faulkes Z. 2007. Motor neurons involved in escape responses in white shrimp, Litopenaeus setiferus. Integrative and Comparative Biology47(Supplement 1): e178. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/icb/icm105

    Faulkes Z. 2015. Motor neurons in the escape response circuit of white shrimp (Litopenaeus setiferus). PeerJ3: e1112. http://dx.doi.org/10.7717/peerj.1112

    Related posts

    Critique: Crustacean nociception
    Should your first presentation be a poster?
    The one inch rule
    Scripting a poster
    Abstract abolition

    External links

    The most beautiful thing I’ve made in science
    Shrimp FFMN FAC: social media exclusive!

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    A couple of months back, I was one of the instructors in the #SciFund poster making class. We had decided to require everyone make their posters in Adobe Illustrator, which I have never used before. This freaked me out a little bit, and I knew that if I was going to be useful to students, I would have to figure out Illustrator myself.

    I decided that I had to make a poster at the same time the students were. I just had one problem: I wasn’t going to a conference this summer, so I had no actual need to make a poster. I decided to tackle the data on a paper that was going through the editorial process at the time, and was finally released today (Faulkes 2015).

    I wasn’t extraordinarily diligent in documenting my process, but I did try. This first one is fairly early in the process (click to enlarge):


    What surprises me in retrospect is that from a distance, this first one is very similar to what I ended up with. The basic layout decisions – five columns, three pictures in the middle – served me pretty well. But you could not hang in a conference. Obviously, pictures are missing, and if you click to enlarge, you will see a lot of silly placeholder text (from a variety of sources).

    Despite that I normally tell people they don’t need logos, I included one mainly because it looked like I would had space left over. This was a simple way to fill it, and the colours matched the picture.

    A few steps later, and the poster already looks very close to done. But as we’ll see, looks can be deceiving.


    First, I ditched the standard “IMRAD” headings. My idea was to try to make the poster quickly readable by making every heading a key question or finding. That way, you only had to read a few sentences to get the gist of the poster.

    Second, I pulled in colour. It just happened that the pictures I found tended to have green and orange in them, which, coincidentally enough, was the colour scheme for the new University of Texas Rio Grande Valley mascot. I used the eyedropper to duplicate colours from the mascot and photos to the headings, the box around the pictures, the title, and so on.

    Third, I put in the data. I considered making graphs, but I kept thinking that these were simple, easy to understand numbers, and there were not very many of them. The central graphic is, in essence, the thing I tell people to never put on a poster: a table! But it’s a table with photos, lots of space, and no “data prison.”

    Fast forward a few more steps:


    The obvious change when you see the thumbnail is that I’ve moved the mascot. I placed the mascot in the lower right corner following the Cosmo principle: that’s where the least important stuff goes. The problem was that the Vaquero was facing outwards, leading your eyes off the poster. I moved it one column over, just because I didn’t want to move it very far.

    But that wasn’t far enough!


    Now the mascot is clearly facing into the poster, leading your eye into the next section of text. Much better.

    You can’t see at a glance are all the changes to the text I’m making as I go, too. But trust me, there is a lot of editing and rewriting going on.

    This is the final version:


    I know it doesn’t look all that much different from the second image above, but there are so many chances that you can’t see in the thumbnail. They are the little things like increasing the text size, changes in wording, and the space between the lines. They are almost subliminal differences, but they all add up to a much nicer appearance, as I wrote about here.

    One of the last changes was which numbers I used in the central graphic. I rounded the percentages up to got rid of the decimals. They just weren’t necessary. I also changed which numbers I showed in the second row, which much more clearly indicated the popularity of one species (almost half of all sales!).

    The decision about which numbers to show on this poster, in fact, led to me asking the editors to make some last minute changes in the published paper. Because I was forced to grapple how to show things clearly and visually on a poster that I realized there were some nice improvements I could make to the paper.

    I’ve given just a few examples of the stages in making this poster in this post, but you can watch the development with more steps in this video:


    Related posts

    Look into the poster: gaze and graphics
    #SciFund poster class links
    The last 10% of the poster should take more than 10% of your time

    External link

    A clone and two dwarfs

    Reference

    Faulkes Z. 2015. Marmorkrebs (Procambarus fallax f. virginalis) are the most popular crayfish in the North American pet trade. Knowledge and Management of Aquatic Ecosystems416: 20. http://dx.doi.org/10.1051/kmae/2015016

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  • 08/20/15--05:00: Critique: Rein it in
  • Opening up reader submissions for this blog is interesting. Sometimes, I make an audible sound when I first see the poster. Sort of a sharp intake of breath. Not quite a gasp. The sot of noise you make in the passenger seat and you see a car coming towards you and you’re not sure if the driver has seen it and you can’t hit the brakes or steer?

    Maybe not quite that bad, but... it’s not a good sound.

    Then there are times when you open up the file, and think, “Well, dang, am I going to have anything to write about that?”

    Today’s contribution is more in the latter category than the first. It comes from Sourav Chakraborty, who gave me the okay to show this to you. Click to enlarge!


    Sourav was inspired by a poster by Josefine Kühberger on this very blog, in fact. The result is a nice, clean, attractive poster. There is not a huge amount of text. The layout is clear. The base colours are subdued neutral shades (which I think is one of the main influences from Josefine’s poster), with brighter colours used to good effect for emphasis and highlighting, particularly in the code.

    This poster uses bulleted lists, which I generally don’t like. Let’s have a closer look:


    This list might be improved by creating a stronger and more distinct hierarchy between the different levels. The main bullets are black squares, and the secondary bullets are black circles.

    It’s good that the two levels have different shapes and sizes, but the differences are not that big. I might try reducing the point size Particularly from a distance (or when reduced in size on the screen), the squares and circles look pretty similar. If you’re going to use different levels of lists, you want to make it clear that they are different.

    Here’s a quick change to make them more distinct: a hollow circle instead of a filled one.


    The difference alone is not enough: you also want to make sure that the differences work in the right direction following expectations of hierarchy. Here’s an example, where I create the same difference (hollowing a symbol), but the other way around:


    Lightening the squares works against viewer’s expectations. You’ve made something important lower contrast, making is less noticeable, signalling that it is less important, not more. But the position says it’s more important, not less.

    Here’s one more revision where I shrunk the secondary bullets to about 80% of the original, again to create a bigger difference between the different levels of text hierarchy.


    Now it’s clearer which are the main points, and which are the secondary points.

    Egalitarianism is great socially, but it’s not so great in text design.

    Related posts

    Bullets versus sentences

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  • 08/27/15--05:00: Link roundup for August 2015
  • And this month’s winner for best repurposing of a conference poster goes to Will Mandy:


    BioMed Central is starting a series on scientific illustrations called, What’s Wrong With This Picture?


    The collection has three articles so far, each of which examines a different specific graph and how it could be improved. The one above takes on bar charts versus box plots and rescaling the Y axis.

    This title for the upcoming Society for Neuroscience meeting is sure to ignite debate about whether posters should have funny titles:

    12 things you didn’t know about high responder/low responder rats, stress coping, and the dorsal raphe. Number 5 will blow your mind!

    Hat tip to My Cousin Amygdala.

    Icons can be useful things for all sorts of graphics. There is a big icon library call the Noun Project that might be useful for in poster design. Its splash page boasts that it has 150,000 icons. I gave it a whirl by searching for “crayfish,” because those have been on my mind:


    Not bad. You have a choice of downloading PNG or vector based SVG images, and it’s all available under a Creative Commons license. I will forgive them that two of their icons are definitely crabs and not crayfish. Hat tip to Paige Jarreau.

    Astronaut Chris Hadfield has an album of songs from space. Fellow musician Jud Haynes (of Wintersleep) talks about the process of designing this cover.


    Jud is an academic at heart:

    I set out on the first phase of every good design project, “research”.

    Hat tip to none other than the man himself, Chris Hadfield.

    I’m a bit late to this article from two scientific illustrators talking about their craft. These guys are not doing literal interpretations of data, but they still want to get it right. Jon Hendrix says:

    In my visual language, science is one of the easiest things to illustrate. There are so many nouns involved. The great thing with science, even in something as abstract as arithmetic, is there’s always some sort of image involved in it, and lots of stuff—whether it’s robots or plant material—that’s exciting to draw. It’s funny, sometimes when I do a science piece, I don’t have to draw things accurately, but I do want to value the science and the research.

    Journal covers can have some similarities with posters: a big focus on key images and findings. Cell Press discusses how they pick their cover images: for the journal Neuron:


    In particular:

    (T)he editors have varying opinions within the team about what they prefer in a cover. Some like somewhat abstract images that require the viewer to stop and think about the connection between the visual and the experiment or idea it represents, and others prefer a beautiful scientific image over a metaphorical work of art. ... Images that look like simple reproductions of figures will most likely not be selected. In other words, no scale bars.

    Rebranding a university is always tricky. I’m going through this process now. Penn State is doing this and has a new logo:. Compare the left (old) and right (new):


    It hasn’t gone down well. I like the new Penn State logo in its overall design. The only problem is the eyes of the lion looks zombie-like, or, as one person said, “hypnotized.” But there isn’t much you can do about that when that is what the statue looks like:


    I’d be a little creeped out having that on my campus.

    Speaking of logos and rebranding, here’s an article about the creation of the distinctive NASA logo from the 70s.

    Which conferences should you go to? You know, the location on the map doesn’t necessarily tell you about what the conference experience will be like. Jacquelyn Gill has some reflections on this based on her experiences with the Ecological Society of America conference:

    I can attest that meeting location usually has little to do with the quality of amenities. Milwaukee, which had the lowest attendance in the last decade, is on a beautiful waterfront with lovely art deco architecture and great breweries. ... Portland and Albuquerque... were far from amenities and it was challenging to get to and from hotels and local restaurants. I hope more folks will realize this, and check out the places that aren’t as glamorous.

    I wrote a guest post on the Edge for Scholars blog, describing the top three things you’re doing wrong on conference posters. Yes, I wrote and listicle, and yes, I feel dirty.

    I’m also quoted in this article about the future of research conferences. The overarching theme seems to be that people want more interaction at conferences.

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    Today’s poster comes from Vasco Elbrecht. Before I get to his poster, Vasco has a whole series of YouTube videos on making posters in InDesign, so you might want to check those out!

    On to the poster that Vasco sent to me and let me share it with you. Click to enlarge!


    My first reaction was that there’s a lot going on in this poster. It was a little overwhelming and intimidating.

    The layout of the poster isn’t to blame for the feeling of busyness. The structure of the poster is actually reasonably clear and easy to follow.

    A lot of the feeling of busyness has to do with the colours. Looking at it felt a like looking at a busy city’s business district:


    There are five big blocks of colour on this poster: a red box, a green box, a yellow note, and orange note, and a light blue sidebar. And there is the data at the bottom, which also uses bright primary colours.

    There may not be much that can be done about the data at the bottom, but the other five blocks might benefit from being more similar. Here is a quick and dirty example:


    This redesign points out that the logos are also contributing to the business. Three of the five are dark blue, which isn’t in line with the rest of the poster. The dark blue blocks are also competing with the title for attention: the position says “the logos are important” (Cosmo principle), when the title should be most important.

    Again, a quick revision that tries to bring the title out by repositioning and shrinking the logos (the title size is the same):


    Now the emphasis is clearly on the title. Shrinking the logos helped emphasize the title by creating more white space to separate the title from everything else. The overall effect is a little calmer and more approachable.

    Let’s revert back to the original colour scheme for a moment and have another look at that.


    Over on the left hand side, the brightly coloured boxes again create a problem of emphasis. The highlighted colours and boxes, particularly from a distance, say, “I’m important, read me first!” The text supports this, too: “The problem” and “The solution” are in bold, and meant as key summaries.

    If all the graphic and text cues say, “read me first,” why not put them first?


    Some of the things I like about this poster? This poster has uneven sections, but there are visual signals that make it easy to follow. The lines between the columns is better done than on many posters, providing a clear guide that isn’t overwhelming. The use of subtle “A,” “B,” “C” icons help make the order clear and add a nice graphic touch. The sidebar clearly signals stuff which is nonessential to the main presentation of the poster. The spot for stickies is also a nice invitation for interaction.

    City photo from here.

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    Today’s poster comes from Arunas Radzvilavicius, and is shown with his kind permission. Click to enlarge!


    The layout, the colour, the generous space, the use of graphic touches are all things to like on this poster. It’s very nice. But sometimes, a poster’s own worst critic is its designer. Arunas wrote:

    The optimal amount of text on the poster is something I still can't seem to get right. I always seem to reduce the amount of text to the possible minimum, but that often leads to the poster becoming unintelligible to people not familiar with the details of my research.

    How much to write on a poster is always a challenge, although most academics have the opposite problem of Arunas and leave in far, far too much.

    The low amount of text is inviting to a reader from a distance, but perhaps confusing when you get up close. Here’s the start:

    Isogamy: mitochondria inherited from only one (UPI) or both (BPI) mating types. Ancestral metazoan state. BPI if mutation rate was low.

    This is so condensed, it’s close to shorthand. I struggle to revise this into full sentences, because some of the logical connections between words have been erased by the editing. I think this might be close to true:

    In isogamy, mitochondria are inherited from one (uniparental isogamy, or UPI) or both (uniparental isogamy, or BPI) mating types. Isogamy is the ancestral metazoan state, with BPI favoured if the mutation rate was low.

    Full sentences add more clarity than they take up space.

    Seeing this poster shrunk down, it might benefit from the headings being a little more prominent. The poster is a little dark overall, and the reduced contrast dos not help the headings to “pop.” Likewise, using all capitals for the headings make them a little harder to read from a distance.

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  • 09/17/15--05:00: Critique: The social network
  • Something about this looks familiar. Today’s poster comes from Igor Mikloušić. Click to enlarge!


    I love this idea. I’ve talked before about how it can be so helpful to base a poster off an existing design. Make a poster about Facebook look like Facebook. Brilliant. It immediately helps viewers recognize what they’re in for.

    The poster runs into problems because it doesn’t follow the Facebook format closely enough! Facebook posts are usually short, and accompanied by a picture. Instead, we get some sizable blocks of text with no pictures, and they look gray and uninviting at a distance:


    This is a limitation of copying another design. The design of a poster would benefit from changing the text size. But following the design of Facebook means you can’t, because then it won’t look like Facebook, which is, after all, the point.

    This might be fixed by a substantial restructure of the middle of the poster to break the big posts into several small ones, perhaps with a few graphics. This would not be a simple change, but might be worthwhile.

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    FoxTrot starts off this month’s link roundup...


    Hat tip to J.D. Wikert.

    “What’s that font?” Trying to identify a font is one of those tasks that, until recently, was something that in many cases could only be done by someone with a near encyclopedic knowledge in type design. Indentifont is a good tool for the rest of us. It walks you through a series of questions, and makes suggestions all the way.

    Using Identifont, I was able to nail down the typeface on this book cover as a slightly compressed ITC Fenice...


    And my new institution’s new logo as PMN Caecilia with a customized rockin’ R. Bold, specifically.


    Pro tip! Check the suggestions after every question. I found that sometimes, Identifont would make a correct suggestion that would go away after I answered more questions. I don’t know why, but there it is.

    Be it resolved that:

    It is unethical to present the same scientific poster at more than one meeting.

    Drugmonkey started the debate; read the replies to the tweet for people’s responses.

    There is an entire blog of free academic images. A promising resource, although it is a bit difficult to browse and search. For example, although this blog is all about images, it is entirely written in plain text.

    Here are five reasons to go to conferences. Hat tip to Paige Jarreau.

    How Scientific Americanmakes its infographics. Quote from one of the illustrators:

    The designer must realize that things are always more complicated than they seem. Particularly in any biological science. Moreover, any kind of catchy headlines like ‘we share 99 percent of DNA’, while not entirely wrong, are ultimately useless because they tell people nothing. Journalists must dig for surprising, engaging stories that reveal and manage complexity to the reader.

    Hat tip to StoryBench and John Rennie.

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    Today’s poster comes from Joschka Haltaufderheid. Before I get to a critique of the posters, I want to start addressing something Joaschka wrote in the email accompanying the poster:

    (F)or researchers in the humanities, making a good poster seems to be quite challenging. Normally we do not present empirical results but rather lines of arguments, considerations of pros and cons, ideas, etc. That makes it very hard to balance text and graphical elements in a proper way since we first need lots of words and second do not have any figures, tables or diagrams at hand.

    This is something I’ve thought about more than I’ve written about. Different disciplines in the humanities will likely have different tools at their disposal. Historians might have images of artifacts. Those studying literature will have texts. Both might have representations of the people they are discussing.

    But, if you are in a situation where your main tools are words, there are two skills you need to master: editing and typography.

    I’ve talked before about how uninviting long blocks of text are. You must find ways to convey your key point in as few words as possible. You must be ruthless about editing your text. Try to find a few, choice, tweetable phrases, and highlight those. People love aphorisms.

    You can turn words into graphic elements with good typography. Compare this bit of text:

    Give thy thoughts no tongue. - Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3

    Sure, you could put that bit of text on a poster like that. Or you could put it like this:


    Magazines and newspapers turn words into graphic elements all the time. Pull quotes. Drop caps.The choice of typeface and colour. These are not simple techniques to master, but they can give a text-based poster a graphic appeal that a document does not.

    On with Joschka’s poster, which is used with his permission. Click to enlarge!


    The accompanying picture of the sign is a good attention getter, and a signal that viewers will understand. There may not be enough contrast between the sign and the text where the two overlap, however. Look at the words on top of the “TY” in “SAFETY”, for example. Some slight repositioning might allow you to keep the interesting overlap with less conflict between the image and text.

    I love how the title is handled. It’s given plenty of white space around it so that nothing competes with it for attention.

    The rest of the poster reminds me very much of international typographic style that was popular in the 1960s. It’s a very modernist look using a sans serif typeface and a strong grid.

    A few changes in typesetting could make the text less intimidating. The “Background” section appears as one text block, the right indentation indicates its meant to be read as two paragraphs. These paragraphs might be separated by a bit more space, indents, or both.

    Similarly, a little more space between the headings and the text below might be useful in emphasizing the headings.

    The figures are helpful graphic elements and well placed, although the top of Figure 1 comes too close to touching the text above it.

    Overall, this is a strong design. I’m intrigued that the design strikes me as very “European.” I wonder if I could have guessed where Joschka is writing from.

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  • 10/08/15--05:00: Critique: CEOs
  • This week’s contribution is from Christine Haskell, who was nice enough to share. Click to enlarge!


    Chistine writes:

    I’ve seen a number of these now and no one reads their poster, it’s used as more of a discussion tool. I therefore chose a visual, a mobile, to reflect the short and long term balance leaders need to manage their strategies. I will have handouts with references for people to takeaway.

    I love the graphic approach using the mobile. It’s awesome. It’s the sort of bold choice that you don’t see often on academic posters, because it’s hard to pull off. It’s super effective.

    I worry a bit if breaking up the title along the mobile hides it too much. The individual words are large and readable, but it took me a couple of passes to realize that the phrase “How do purposeful CEOs” leads to “experience growth” leads to “in their organizaions?”, and that it’s all one sentence.

    More subtle is that the letters in the title don’t always follow their lines as closely as one might like. Particularly the bottom one, "in their organizations?" is diverging and drifting higher than the line below it.

    There’s variation in the spacing between letters. “How do purposeful...” is much tighter than “Experience growth.”

    Christina replied:

    I’ve reached my graphic-capability threshold. I did this in PowerPoint, and need to move on to other things like writing articles and looking for consulting. I can’t figure out how to make those pesky curves behave better.


    Down in 5B, I’m not a fan of the underlining of “Values have lifecycles.” Italics alone does the job.

    That sections 4, 5, and 6 each have different bullet styles is a minor inconsistency that Chirstine admitted she just caught at the end. Thus obeying the Law of Maximum Inconvenience.

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    I recently watched a double feature of Village of the Damned (1960) and Children of the Damned (1964). I was completely fascinated by the contrast between the two films. Even though the latter is ostensibly a sequel, instead of continuity, the two movies feel like mirror images on every level, thematically and stylistically.

    Although released in 1960, Village of the Damned is at heart a 1950s film. It’s just at the tail end of that era of science fiction filmmaking. This carried over into the movie’s title in the credits: a serif typeface, in quote marks. Playing against an ivy covered wall just accentuates the pastoral feel.


    Now look at the contrast in the title of Children of the Damned. I don’t think it’s Helvetica, but it’s something in that family: a “scrape away the crap” grotesque sans serif. The title appears over an urban setting. You just couldn’t imagine that title card on a film from the 1950s. Children of the Damned is absolutely a film of the 1960s.


    In just a few short years, everything had changed graphically.

    I could go on about the differences between the films, but this is a design blog, not the movie review blog. But it got me wondering: does your poster look like it’s in the right decade?

    As it happens, this is the twentieth anniversary of Windows 95. Windows 95 wasn’t the first PC operating system to have TrueType fonts, but it broke a lot of ground for digital typography for the average user. The font list for Windows 95 included Arial, Times New Roman, Courier, and (shudder) Comic Sans.

    Many posters have not moved past those font choices from twenty years ago. Lots of posters are set in Arial, Times New Roman, and sometimes even (shudder) Comic Sans.

    Admittedly, some typefaces have staying power. Decades-old Futura appeared on a list of most popular web fonts last year. Nevertheless, typography has moved on. Styles have changed.

    If I were to try to pinpoint some of the trends I see in type:

    Thin is in. Designers are using a lot of lighter lines for fonts. I think this is related to the development of very high resolution screens (300 dots per inch, in some cases). Fine lines can hold up very well on high resolution screens. I don’t think it’s an accident that Calibri Light got added to the roster of default Windows fonts a while back.

    Flat design. Again related to the propensity to design things that look good on small but very high resolution screens, simple, geometric typefaces are seeing a lot of use now. Nine of the ten fonts on this list of popular web fonts fit that description. Here’s a list of examples. It’s instructive to look at what Google images throws up, too. It’s a very distinct aesthetic.

    Angular momentum. This one is hard for me to describe, because I’m not a trained type expert. But I’ve noted that when you look down at the detailing, many modern serifs have some angled lines, rather than smooth curves. Here’s a new font, PF Occula, that shows some of this:



    Does your poster look like a product of the twentieth-first century... or the twentieth?

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