17 August 2017

Critique: Measuring negativity

Today’s poster is from Jonathan Mohr. Click to enlarge!


Jonathan says of this poster:

Our study focuses on measurement, which is a pretty dry topic. I can’t say we’ve made any progress on making the material come alive. However, we’ve tried cutting down the amount of detail (which may be hard to believe after viewing the poster!) to create at least a bit more “white space” (actually not white, but you know what I mean).

I sympathize with the problem. Some topics are more visual than others. Measurement tends to be less visual.

This poster was based on a template provided by PosterPresentations website. Using a template has pros and cons. Here, the “pro” is that the template provides a clean layout, with everything aligned nicely. Nobody will get lost reading this poster.

The “con” is that I am skeptical of some of the colour choices. The poster looks muddy and monotome. The text has a low contrast against the background, especially at the bottom. This isn’t bad in the middle, where the darkening background helps make the graph more prominent. But the text on the left and right hand sides fades away. The author credits are hard to read.

A few small points of contrasting colour would go a long way to adding some clarity and interest to this poster. Adobe Color suggests some cyan blues would be a good contrast to the tans.

As Jon notes, the biggest challenge here is the amount of detail. Editing always feels tough to impossible, but I have some tips here. I do appreciate that this poster starts with “Key points.” If you know you have a lot for people to read, a summary is not a horrible idea.

If you have a text heavy poster, as here, consider not using one of the standard fonts. This one is mostly set in Times New Roman for the main text and Calibri for the headings. Those are workhorse typefaces for a reason, but they are not distinctive. And they are maybe even a little out of date now. Look at new fonts, play with alternate character sets. There are thousands of typefaces out there! Splurge and buy something new! That can help break the visual sameness of a text heavy poster.

Related posts

10 August 2017

Critique: Nanotechnology versus climate

Today’s poster is from Jacob Martin, which he presented at the Commonwealth Science Conference. Click to enlarge!


Jacob wrote:

This was to a very diverse group of scientist and policy makers, so the poster is made for a general audience. The font size is relatively small as I wanted to draw people into the poster to read it and as the poster was A1 (Note to Americans: That’s 23.4 inches × 33.1 inches. - ZF), it was not too difficult to read. While presenting the poster, a lot of people wanted to read the whole poster before then asking me questions about it. I assume this is because of the small amount of text on the poster meant they could commit to reading it.

I played around with linking the text with aspects of the graphs using arrows and underlined brackets, as I find it takes a lot of text to fully explain a plot without these devices. I also made use of the perspective in GIMP to make the graphs stand out, but this made them a bit harder to read.

I agree with Jacob’s assessment that adding perspective to the images was perhaps a bit of unneeded flash. Here’s a blow up so you can better see the use of perspective, arrows, and brackets:


I understand the goal here, but I’m not sure if this is an optimal solution. In this particular example, that the arrows are laid down flat over the graph’s Y axis and label bugs me.

I am not a big fan of photo backgrounds, but this one works better than most. The “busy” parts of the photo, the plane and the sun, are removed from the text. The text sits over parts of the photo that are mostly colour gradients, with very little complexity.

Having the four main text blocks circle the plane creates a nice focal point around the plane and the title. This is fortunate, because the title is a little undersold here. The black text, particularly the first line, is not very high contrast against the dark blue of the sky image. Using italics makes the title feel like fine print, rather than the most important thing on the poster.

The circles are also a nice visual change from rectangles, and make the poster look distinctive.

The logos are nicely corralled down in the bottom, where they are aligned with each other and not intrusive.

This poster works well from a distance. It has a strong and distinctive look, and it feels inviting. I am not sure if the details are as successful when you get in close-up. The text and line weights feel a little bit too fine and fussy for easy reading.

07 August 2017

New email address for submissions and Twitter feed

I have created a couple of new resources for this blog.

First, and more important, the blog has a new, dedicated email address: BetterPosters@gmail.com. If you would like to submit a poster to the blog, or get in touch for anything else poster related, please mail me at this address. (DoctorZen@gmail.com still works, too.)

Second, the blog now has its own dedicated Twitter feed: @Better_Posters. That’s “Better underscore Posters.” The plan is that this will be an automated feed that will tweet out new blog posts. Blog readers on Twitter no longer have to wade through my other random thoughts about crayfish, scientific publishing, Doctor Who, or what have you. (Those are all still available on @DoctorZen, too.)

03 August 2017

Critique and makeover: How to recognize birds

Today’s poster was presented at this year’s Evolution 2017 meeting by Stephanie Aguillon. Click to enlarge!


Stephanie spelled out her design goals with this poster:

I worked really hard on minimal text and focusing on visuals. ... I think this is one of the best posters I have designed.

Stephanie achieved her goals. Her poster is graphic, it’s bright, and you can pull out the main points very quickly. She clearly put some thought into her colours, using them consistently to identify her different bird populations.

I wouldn’t change much on this poster, but nobody reads this blog for “Yup, it’s good” and no suggestions. The first thing I tried is to go Samurai Jack on the boxes and get rid of the thick black lines:


My next concern is that the graphs for the results are quite close together. I tried shrinking them by 95% in the version below.


I also shrunk down the Cornell logo, so that it was roughly the same height as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Then, I nudged both logos so that the right side of the Cornell logo was in alignment with the right side of the title, and both were in line with emails in the author’s credit. Alignment is good!


I didn’t change it here, but the “Results & Discussion” section lacks a clear visual hierarchy. Here’s the problem.

The “Results & Discussion” heading is all caps and set large type, both of which are visual cues to importance. But the two sentences below the heading are almost as large, and set entirely in bold text. Bold text is another, different visual signal for importance. Consequently, the two bits of the poster are sending conflicting messages about which is more important. So rather than emphasizing the text, the bolding across the board ends up lessening the impact of the text.

Stephanie printed her poster using Spoonflower (which I mentioned a while ago). Here’s how it looked on the day:


The colours are vibrant, but you can still see some distortion from the fabric stretching near the tacks. I think I still prefer paper for most purposes.

The changes, animated to make comparisons easier:

27 July 2017

Link roundup for July 2017

Diana Hernandez has this month’s “best re-use of a poster” nominee:


How to deal with awkward questions at a conference, by Dani Rabaiotti. Hat tip to Stephen Heard.


Netflix recently premiered an original documentary about design called Abstract: The Art of Design. I’ve been waiting to mention it until I finished it. Each of the eight episodes showcases one designer in a different field. Each is a combination of biography and case study. It’s good, but not great.

For poster makers, probably the most relevant is Episode 6, featuring Paula Scher, which is mostly about typography. I also like Episodes 2 and 5, on shoe and car design. respectively, because those are the furthest from my experience and the most novel to me.

Speaking of typography, Bear Knee Sanders probably had no idea what he was wading into with this tweet:

Heaven.
God: You may ask me one question.
Me: Why aren’t there lowercase and uppercase numbers?
God: What?
Me: I wanna write loud numbers.

Watch the type nerds emerge in the thread to talk about oldstyle letters. If you read this post a couple of weeks back, you would know how to find and use those!

Being a man, I never knew that women often get told they shouldn’t go to a conference sleeveless. But the struggle is real. Caitlin Vander Weele mentioned she had been told many times she should wear things with sleeves at conferences. Didi Mamaligas‏ replied:

Dude, this is bs. There’s nothing worse than being sweaty while presenting a poster.

Arms and shoulders of the world, unite! Be free! (By the way, if you haven’t seen Caitlin’s Interstellate magazine, it’s beautiful stuff.)

Although this article in The Condor and the responding blog post on The EEB and Flow blog are about conference presentations, the key question of “How much data do you show, and how much do you hold back?” apply to posters, too.

Random design inspiration: Vintage Vogue covers from the 1920s and 1930s are something to behold.

20 July 2017

Critique: Precipitants to suicide

Today’s contribution comes from Annie Snow, who was kind enough to share this poster with blog readers. You will probably need to click to enlarge this one!


The rainbow background pops. A rainbow is the symbol of pride for a wide community that includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer, intersex, and others (I apologize to anyone who love the rainbow that I neglected to mention). And since lesbian, gay, and bi people are the subject of study here, the rainbow is a clear visual signal for the topic. The rainbow is clearly visible as a rainbow and not just as random colours, because Annie made the margins between the columns wide.

I also love that the rainbow is even continued into the colour fills for the bar graphs in the second column.

But I am experiencing some cognitive dissonance when I dig into the content of the poster. The bright rainbow colours of pride say exuberant and joyous, which is not how people normally describe the poster’s topic: suicide and depression. There is a risk that the bright colours might make people see the poster as flippant, trivializing a serious topic. This might be a good opportunity for comments; would be curious to know what others think on this point.

There are many other elements of the poster than work.

I love pushing the title into a big central circle, and using different point sizes for emphasis. Even at the small scale, you can’t miss the word “suicide” in the title. It’s bold and different and works well. The cost to this is that the author credit is moved over to the left, in the area normally reserved for the “fine print.” People reading the poster often want to know who did it, and there is a pretty long cultural tradition of author names being close to titles all kinds of written text.

Annie further breaks the rectangle monotony by using other circular and organic forms as big design elements. While I am not sure how “Earth seen from space” is tied to the poster content (“No borders, we’re all one,” maybe?), the globe, and Émile Durkheim and his quote, have been blended in to the poster well. (Though Émile is missing his accent aigu on the quote credit.) 

I am concerned about the main body of the poster. There is a lot of text, and the main text is very narrow. This allows for generous margins in the boxes, and makes the layout clean. And there are some smart decisions in the use of icons to break up the monotony. But even with those positive aspects, I worry that this poster can’t be easily read from a distance, or by those older conference goers starting to deal with presbyopia. I am not sure this poster would pass the “arm’s length” test.

Speaking of readability, I completely missed that the sections of the poster were numbered until I got in an enlarged the text. The poster’s reading order is so clear that the numbers are superfluous. There is an argument, I suppose, for leaving them as they are as a subtle design element. My own inclination would be to lighten them up as much as their adjacent boxes.

This poster has many interesting and smart design choices, but is weak on addressing one key need of the reader: that is, to read it.

13 July 2017

How to swash: using a font’s alternate glyphs, text styles, and numbers

Microsoft Publisher is my go to software package for making posters. It hits a sweet point for me between power and ease of use. I recently found another reason to use Publisher: it lets you in to a whole new realm of type you might not have known existed.

Many professional fonts in the OpenType format include not only standard letters, but alternate letter shapes, or “glyphs.” For instance, you can have you choice of shapes for lowercase “g”:


Or fantastic artistic swashes:



I recently bought a new font for a poster, Plusquam Sans, in part because I wanted to play with the alternate glyphs. I almost had a heart attack because I couldn’t find the alternate glyphs at first. But I got lucky, and stumbled up how to use them.

Of the entire Microsoft Office package, it seems that only Publisher lets you play with alternate glyphs and swashes without too much effort.

Here’s how.

Select your text, then go up to the ribbon an pop up the fonts menu.


Once you have the font menu, look for the “Typography” section.


In this case, the alternate glyphs are more dramatic forms of capital letters, with expressive swashes. So I check the “Swash” button, and the preview below shows the difference.


But wait! There’s more! Some fonts also come with alternative number forms, too. In that same section of the font menu, check the drop down options for “Number style.”


This font has three alternates for numbers. Again, selecting one option immediately shows a preview.


You can get the alternate numbers in Word. Open the “Font” menu from the ribbon, click on the “Advanced” tab,and check the drop down options for “Number forms”:


Word also lets you get different “Stylistic sets” for the main text (straight versus curved lowercase “l” and “i”, for instance). But I still can’t get to the swashes, as far as I can tell.

PowerPoint doesn’t do any of those things.

I’ve seen some online instructions that say you can get to the swashes in Windows through the old Character Map app. In Windows 10, Character Map is located in the “Windows Accessories” folder,  under “All Apps.” But so far, I have not gotten those swashes to show up.

You can see a little bit of those swashes in action on the poster I recently presented at the American Society for Parasitologists meeting in San Antonio:


I have much more to say about the design of this poster (I was very happy with it), which I will talk about as soon as the paper is published. It’s already in the hands of editors, so I am hoping that won’t be long!

External links

How To Access All Glyphs In A Font
How do I access the alternate glyphs in my OpenType font?
Secret To Add Swashes + Extras to Your Fonts…. Use The Private Use Area in a Font

06 July 2017

There should be at least two poster awards


Many conferences have some sort of awards for “Best student poster.” But John Vanek recently noted something I pointed out early on in this blog: the winners are often not very good looking posters.

Pet peeve: when posters that are simply walls of text win best poster awards, despite all the advice that stresses not to do that.

This is not surprising. I’ve judged many presentations, and there is always some sort of scoring sheet to guide the judges. Those scoring schemes always weight the content of the presentation (whether poster or talk) more heavily than the visual excellence of the presentation.

Hey, conference organizers: be like the Oscars. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognize that there are many components to making movies. These all deserve to be recognized. So they have the main Oscars, and a separate ceremony for scientific and technical awards.

If you are going to judge poster presentations, make two awards.

  • Give one award purely for the scientific content of the poster. Does it have a clear hypothesis, appropriate controls, important finding, and so one.
  • Give one award purely for the visual excellence of the poster. I already have a checklist ready for judges!

The problem would be getting people to get past the idea that an award for graphic design at an academic conference is like the “Miss Congeniality” award at a beauty pageant. Yes, it’s an award, but not the one that people are there to win and that isn’t taken seriously.

Related posts 

The Better Posters checklist

29 June 2017

Link roundup for June 2017

Neil Cohn wins the “Best poster reuse" award for this month:


Neil writes:

Given my last poster, I can't help but design my poster for #CogSci2017 thinking how I'm just going to turn it into pillows afterwards

This short (30 second) video shows the same data, plotted different ways:


D3 Show Reel from Mike Bostock on Vimeo.

Think about what your intuitive reaction is to these different plots. As I have said before, design is all about choices, and sometimes we underestimate how many choices we have in showing our data. You can find more about the data here.

I’m not sure what the difference between a fact box and an infographic is, but I’m intrigued by this article about the effectiveness of fact boxes. Hat tip to Hilda Bastien.

Speaking of infographics, there’s a whole gallery of them here.





Hat tip to Brett Favaro.


I have become obsessed with titles. This slide about headlines makes the point:


On average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.

Hat tip to Barry Adams and Garr Reynolds.

I think I missed this paper on ways to improve data visualization.


We review four key research areas to demonstrate their potential to make data more accessible to diverse audiences: directing visual attention, visual complexity, making inferences from visuals, and the mapping between visuals and language.

Hat tip to Jarrett Byrnes.

I think whoever made this graph might have benefitted from reading the aforementioned article:


What is going on with that Y axis!? Why is the Y axis on the left and right? Hat tip to Caroline Bartman.


There is a course on scientific illustration 20-24 November 2017 in Barcelona. The course will be taught in English by Julienne Snider, whose work is above.

I don’t drink. So this article’s point resonated with me:

(I)t’s worth thinking about who is excluded in academe when we found our conference conviviality on drink.
Hat tip to Jon Tennant.

Type crime spotted by Ben Valsler, who notes, “Always consider how your layout will look from a variety of angles.”


Hat tip to Dr. Rubidium.

Nice set of typography tips. Hat tip to Ellen Lupton.

California state employees – including public universities – can’t travel to states that discriminate against LGBTQI communities using public funds. That includes for conferences. Simiarly, the Society for the Study of Evolution has struck several states out of consideration for hosting future meetings due to discriminatory laws. Hat tips to Janet Stemwedel and John McCormack.

22 June 2017

Handouts and other papers

The ESA Student Section tweeted:

Conference tip: Presenting a poster? Consider giving some sort of handout: a print out of the poster, or additional info. #ESA2017

It’s a common tip, but I got thinking about it. What’s the purpose of duplicating your poster in miniature?

I’ve always thought the point of having a poster handout was to remind people about your academic work. But I was cleaning off my desk recently, and found quite a few handouts of posters I’d collected from conferences. I’d hauled them back from the meeting, but I hadn’t looked at them for their scientific content or contact information since. The handout had failed in their purpose.

I’m particularly wondering about the trouble of making, carrying, and tacking up poster handouts in the days where these are ubiquitous:


If anyone wants to look at a poster later, why not just take a picture of it? If someone wants my email, why not take a picture of my contact info on my poster?

Granted, there are a few meetings where the conference organizers try to prohibit photographs of posters. It’s dumb and ineffectual, in my estimation, but a handout makes sense at such meetings.

There is value of creating handouts, but not to give them out when people are standing in front of your poster.

First, by making handouts, you force yourself to do the “arm’s length” test. If you can’t read the poster when it’s shrunk down to letter sized paper, your audience will struggle to read the full sized version on the poster board.

Second, you should have handouts so that you can give them to people who are not at your poster session. Most poster sessions are shorter than meetings, but you will be meeting people all through the conference. If you have small handouts of your poster, you can show someone your work at a coffee break, even if your poster session is already over and done with.

Making a poster handout is usually simple. I export my poster as a PDF, and PDFs can be readily printed to fit the size of your printer paper. As I noted above, if you have a good poster that passes the “arm’s length” test, you won’t have to redo or adjust anything.

There are maybe two other kinds of paper that are worth having ready to give.

  • Business cards are compact, socially expected, and can be very beautiful. Even better if they act as invitations.
  • Reprints can be useful if you have already published material that your poster builds upon. People might read those on the plane home.

Related posts

Don’t get mad, get playful
Invitation cards
Link roundup for December 2012

15 June 2017

How many people will show up at your poster?

This Twitter thread by Laura Williams about poster presentations began:

83% expect 10 or fewer poster visitors at large meeting.

This reminded me of an unfinished project: a formula to estimate how many people you could expect at your poster.

This is how far I got:


My efforts were inspired by the Drake equation. The attendance at the meeting (Nr for number ) is the maximum possible number of people who can see your poster (V for viewers). Most of the rest of the terms in the equation are fractions that reduce attendance at your poster.

Looking back on this was, my favourite factor in this equation (mid right) was, “fc = fraction (of attendees) more interested in coffee (than your poster).” And the postscript to that still makes me smile: “GEOLOGY fb = beer.”

Geologists do love their beer, I’ve heard.

09 June 2017

Critique: Demonic

Today’s poster is from Christian Casey, and it won first prize in the student poster competition at the 2017 ARCE Annual Meeting. Click to enlarge!


My first reaction when I opened this file was, “Oh, that is cool.

My major concern was the reading order. Do I go across, or down? I wanted to make sure I understood Christian’s intent before shooting my mouth off, so I emailed him, and got this generous reply:

That was probably the biggest problem I wrestled with while creating the poster, and I don’t think that my solution is perfect. I understand the story as a branching tree of related concepts, which doesn’t lend itself easily to projection into the one and two dimensions of papers and posters, so I struggled to come up with a way of presenting things that conveyed the way I see them.

The idea is that you can read through in more than one direction, depending on what interests you and the amount of prior knowledge you bring, and still experience a coherent story. If you know what problem I’m trying to solve, you can start under the title at “Proposed Solution,” then go to the demo in the center, and then read the extra stuff on the right. If you don’t come with that knowledge, I hoped that you would go to “The Problem” first, read left to right through the top row, and then return to the left for “Proposed Solution.” It is also possible to get a slightly different view of things by going clockwise first, getting the main problem and the sub problems (fonts, input methods), then going to the solution.

When I started working on the poster, I put all of the sections on index cards and then moved them around on a big table until I found a layout that worked. I don’t have any record of the alternative arrangements, but you can get a sense of what I envisioned from the flyer I made to go with the poster.


The timeline is made much more prominent to highlight the importance of the Demotic script in our broader effort to understand Egyptian languages, which is one of the main takeaways that I intended for people to discover. That’s not as clear in the poster, but that was a compromise I had to make during the design process.

The flyer also had a selected bibliography on the back, mainly so that I could avoid using valuable poster real estate for references while still conveying the fact that I had done my research. IIRC I got the idea to do that from your blog, but I don’t remember where or how. You said something about needing to have references, and I didn’t want to do that, so I tried to invent a way to have my cake and eat it too. (Maybe this? - ZF) I ordered prints of the flyers from Moo.com ($50 for 50), and put them in a holder thing under the poster for visitors to take. All 50 had been taken by the end of the second day, so I think people liked that.

I still have concerns some concerns about the reading order. Having a section labelled “The problem” indicates I am supposed to read across, in rows. But it breaks down at “Encoding.”

Having one big central figure helps this poster enormously. The decision to put most of the ancient script in red brings is a smart one. But there is, like many things, a tradeoff. You gain visual interest, but some of the highlighted characters don’t stand out as much as they might have against a more neutral colour. Here’s an attempt to draw attention to the highlighted characters; click to enlarge!


I can see the individual characters more clearly, but the poster as a whole loses its visual punch. Putting the script in gray turns the central space into a drab block that nobody would look at.

The colour choices for the central script from the Rosetta stone are continued throughout the poster, bringing continuity. The minor colours blend well, too. They are distinct enough to be different, but not so distinct as to be distracting.

I also like the addition of the timeline at the bottom. Christian did an excellent job of fitting the timeline to an irregularly shaped space created by his columns.

Finally, while I applaud the placement of the institutional logo down at the bottom, I can’t help but wonder if Christian is a little too modest in the placement of his name. People do care about whose work they are looking at. At a glance, it’s not clear that he is the author. I might have moved his name up next to the title.


It doesn’t do any great damage to the flow of the poster.

The judges who gave out that award made an excellent choice. The combination of both big bold choices and attention to small details make this a very strong poster visually.

03 June 2017

Use black on black for fashion, not posters



Wearing black make you cool. Everybody knows that. But while black on black makes an awesome fashion statement, it is a terrible communication statement.

I saw a poster earlier this year that had its title – the thing that is the only thing most people at a conference will see about your poster – in this colour scheme: dark green text on black.


Rather than posting a picture of the poster itself, I used the eyedropper tool to copy the colours from a picture I took of it on the board. Keep in mind that the colours you see might vary, depending on how the image is positioned on your screen. But I doubt anyone will look at that and think that colour combination makes for easy scanning.

Let’s put the same dark green text over the black, as it was on the poster, and white for comparison:


You have to enlarge and squint to read that text over the black background. The white background makes the text almost infinitely easier to read.

The authors of this particular poster weren’t done, though. They ran with their colour scheme, and used black and green again for section headings. Plus ten points for commitment, minus several hundred points for practicality.


This colour combination is a tiny bit better than the title, but again, it would be easier to read over straight white:


If you liked the black background, you could go the other direction with the text, and lighten the words up:



Forget that black on black looks cool. Your title needs to be high contrast. People have to be able to read your title, at a glance, from a distance.

Journalists call it “burying the lede” when a story sticks the key point of information way down near the end. This poster didn’t just bury the lede with its dark on black colour choices, it buried the lede in an unmarked grave in the woods at night.

Top picture from here.

25 May 2017

Link roundup for May 2017

R users may be interested in this poster... not sure what to call it. Template? Package? It’s here, in any case. I am not an R user, so I am not in a position to evaluate it.


Hat tip to Karthik Ram and Milton Tan.

Rolf Hut proclaims this the best poster from EGU 2017 meeting.


Nevertheless, controversy erupted.



Hat tip to Nasty Lab Manager.

Dani Rabaiotti has a long post on conference etiquette. It is mostly concerned with asking questions and avoiding the “all out war” scenario. Hat tip to Stephen Heard.

Catherine Cavallo forwarded this advice from Graham Phillips of the Australian television show Catalyst. While I think it is geared to journalists, it applies to posters, too.


Hat tip to Melissa Márquez.

A free little ebook on using Inkscape for biological illustration. Hat tip to Chris Borkent and Morgan Jackson.

Melissa Márquez has a post on conference networking.

At its core, networking isn’t about how other people can help you… it is how you can help other people.

This is an example of blackletter:


You don’t see it used much any more. The historical reasons why are fascinating:

The government of one of the world’s great powers banned a typeface. That is the power of a symbol.
.
It is just one example out of a longer piece on typography and politics by Ben Hersh.

Speaking of typography, YouTube has a typeface all its own. The designers used the power of pastiche to good effect while creating it.


Hat tip to Nancy Duarte.