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.

18 May 2017

Lessons from “Stone Cold” Steve Austin: There’s just one bottom line – and it should be your title

Margaret Moerchen wrote:
Every poster needs an executive summary like this!


I appreciate the sentiment here. Summaries are good. Highlighting those summaries is also good. But this doesn’t go far enough.

Four bullet points is too much.

Let’s turn the mic over to “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, who famously pronounced:


Would Austin get the same reaction from the crowd if he said, “And those are the bottom four lines”?

Do we say, “Get to the points?” “Cut to the chases”? No. It’s singular in every case.

Here’s what I would suggest. Drill down those four points to one. Looking at the points above, I might suggest: “New techniques to measure carbon contents in vapor bubble,” or “Carbon content in the Hawaiian plume may be higher than in the MORB mantle.” Which I’d use would depend on whether I wanted to emphasize the techniques or the preliminary results.

Then, instead of sticking that one point away as a bottom line, make that one point the title of your poster. Don’t make people with 30 seconds hunt for your most important thing. Make it literally the first thing they read.


11 May 2017

Critique: Motor math

Not one but two posters are up today! This is fun, because I don’t often get to show people trying different things. Today’s posters are both from Chris Miles, a graduate student in mathematics. Chris writes:

I’m in a weird misfit field: mathematical biology, which seems to take certain aspects of each culture, like posters from biology. However, this leads to some culture clashes, like having a math-heavy poster. I guess my question is: how math-heavy is too math-heavy if math is the focus of the poster?

This is an excellent question, and reminiscent of a similar question I got about posters in the humanities. Let’s see.

Here’s Chris’s current poster (which you can click to enlarge):


I like this. Clean, straightforward. Colouring a lot of the text bring some visual interest.

There are a couple of elements that distract me.

The right side of the title bar. The logo on top of the names on top of the department affiliation are not harmonizing. I expect to see more space around the logo, and the right side of “diffusion” in the title over Christopher’s name also throws me.

I like the light dashed lines between the columns, which add a nice graphic touch in a text heavy poster. I’m not crazy about the horizontal lines between the sections, though.

For comparison, here is a poster Chris did from last year, about which he says, “It had a very different vibe (but I won an award for despite being not super thrilled with).”



This one suffers from the clutter, which is such an easy hole for new poster makers to fall into. The title is too small, text is too close to the margins, and there is just a sense of “too much stuff.”

On the plus side, this one does a bit better job of giving a viewer an “entry point” and conveying the topic at a glance. Since I am a biologist, I recognized the images of motor proteins and microtubules under the title and on the right column immediately.

I wonder if a line of microtubules might be used in the current poster to replace the dashed lines dividing the columns.

Overall, I think the new one up top is better that the one below. It’s simpler and cleaner. I’d be more likely to stop at it if I was browsing, because I would be turned off by the clutter of the old one. But, if motor proteins were my thing, I might be more likely to stop at the old one because I can more easily see what the topic is.

To get back to Chris’s question, “How much math-heavy is too math-heavy?” Not all math is created equal for poster purposes. For instance, I could write this on my poster:

y = ½x + 2

Or, I could put something like this:


Because I am not a mathematician, I don’t have a good sense of when you can show something visually versus when you need an equation. But equations alone are tough. The standing joke is that each equation loses half the audience.

Perhaps the key with a math heavy poster is to provide something on the poster that is not math, to give people a way in. I recall one math poster that had a lot of equations, but it also had a picture of one of the historical mathematicians whose work was the basis for the poster. It made the poster much more approachable. 

It’s hard to underestimate the value of having even just one thing on a poster that is instantly recognizable and does not need to be deciphered or explained. A photograph does that. Artwork or a single word might do that. A sentence, graph, or equation won’t do that.

04 May 2017

At a distance

Here are two posters from the same conference, photographed at roughly the same distance. (Identifying information has been slightly pixelated.)


This poster is not using its available space well. The board is half empty. But although I cannot read virtually anything at this distance except maybe the headings and title, I can see that there are bar graphs on the poster. I can see blocks of colour.


This poster is about the same size the one above, and suffers from not using its available space well. But it’s suffering in so many more ways. The content of the poster has faded away in the distance like disappearing into a fog. There are no blocks of colour; everything has turned to gray. You can make out that there are columns of text, but you can’t make out anything about the figures.

I am not sure either of these posters would pass the “arm’s length” test. But while both posters are far from ideal, the top one succeeds in that at least at these long distances, you can make out something that is recognizable.

The smaller and further away you can get from your poster and recognize something on it, the more successful your poster is likely to be. Even if that is just blocks of colour.

Related posts

27 April 2017

Link roundup for April 2017

I’ve seen a few creative re-uses of fabric posters before, but Rolf Hut is the new champion of poster recycling. I think Clicking to enlarge is mandatory to appreciate this in its full spendour.


This Netherlands site also promises to allow you to re-use your poster in equally creative ways.

Hat tip to Elizabeth Sandquist.

Hanna Isolatus ran a poll on Twitter that is relevant to the interests of this blog! Justify the text on a poster, or ragged right?


With just a 2% difference, clearly the battle is set to rage on. I personally have no strong preference for a poster.

Vivid Biology is a Twitter account from a scientific illustration studio of the same name that brings a strong graphics sensibility to illustrating biological facts. The approach that they bring is one that would work well for posters, too.


Hat tip to Dan Tracy.

20 April 2017

Critique and makeover: Weeding the library

Today’s contributor is Jodene Pappas. This poster is a bit of a break from the usual natural science that we see here on the blog, for which I am grateful. Click to enlarge!


My computer was not able to import the font correctly for the makeover I am about to show you. So the text does not quite represent what the author intended. But I wasn’t focused on the text, anyway. No, I want to talk about those arrows.

Arrows generally represent not only a failure of design, but a public admission of that failure. It says, “I know I screwed up, and that the order doesn’t follow the normal reading rules.”

The ethos of this blog, though, is to make things better. This means you work with what you have, and not always throw away the existing style.

My first concern is that the arrows are darker than almost everything else on the page. And the dark blue fill isn’t represented anywhere else on the eposter. This makes them stand out optically more than almost everything else on the page. The first step was to make the arrows lighter and harmonized with the other colours in the poster. I pulled the colour from the blue down in the left hand side.


The next things I wanted to address was the placement of the arrows. The arrows weren’t obviously aligned in any consistent pattern. I tried to center each arrow to something, but still had to give up in the top right most one, which pointed into white space.


Another little bit of colour harmonizing was in the text boxes. In the versions above, there is a thin light line, surrounded by a heavier, darker shadow. I make the two of them the same colour. I also wanted to make the shadows equally thick, but couldn’t figure out how to do it.


Finally, the placement of the arrows was still bugging me. The arrowheads weren’t consistently clearly past the outline of the box they were pointing to. I moved them so that the flat end of the arrow was flush with the text box it was emerging out of.


I turned the lines around the images from a black to the same light colour that surrounds the text boxes and outline the arrows.

Now, when you look at this poster, the emphasis is on the content, not how you navigate through the content.

Here, you can see the changes unfold:



Related posts

Don’t hold my hand

13 April 2017

Critique and makeover: Snake bite

Today’s poster comes to us courtesy of Catherine Chen, who was kind enough to share. Click to enlarge!


Catherine supplied this in an editable file, so the easiest way to go through this critique is to show how this poster could change.

The first thing that jumped out when I opened up the file is that title area. The longer I write this blog, the more interested I am in the titles of posters and how they are presented. Titles are just critically important. As I wrote last week (and before), nothing should compete with the title.

Here, your eye is drawn to that big blue band running across the top, and not the title. It is arguably the most optically dominant thing on the entire poster. I kind of like the idea of the bar as a separator, but it needs to be smaller, opening up the space around the title.


In addition to shrinking the bar,  I made other, less obvious tweaks.

I shortened up the institutional addresses. Will anyone need a zip code while viewing a poster? Rather than footnotes leading to institutional addresses every author, I just had one for the single person who was different than the others. The result is more white space that clearly separates the logos from everything else.

Speaking of the logos, I added a thin blue line around the top “Parkland” logo so that it was more clearly a rectangle. Now, it becomes more obvious when the two logos are the same width.

Next, I continued creating space. This poster has so much text that it looks like a manuscript draft rather than a poster. When I have the chance to do a makeover, I always try to preserve the original style of the poster, so I didn’t edit the text much.

The effect of so much text was made worse because everything was pushed far too close. I selected “View grid,” set a grid for one inch. Then I made sure everything was an inch from anything else. That is:

  • The text is an inch from the margin.
  • The columns have an inch between each of them.
  • The figures have an inch of white space left, right, top and bottom. Exception: when two pictures are parts of a single figure.Then you want them to be closer to indicate visually that they belong together.


At this point, I realized that some of the figures had arrow in them. I literally had not noticed them until I zoomed in for some other reason, which tells you those are too innocuous. The ones over the right hand images were were so low contrast (dark brown over black) that they were practically camouflaged. I made those white, and made them bigger.

I also added the “A” and “B” to the black figures on the right. I harmonized all the figure labels, making them the same font (Franklin Gothic Medium Condensed) as the rest of the text.

I also took out a lot of lines in the table.


I still wasn’t done with that title, though. I didn’t like that there was so much unused space at the top.  I upped the ante, and made it even bigger.

I also tweaked the spacing so the top of the letters in the title were aligned with the images on either side. The automatic “snap to grid” doesn’t always do it correctly, so sometimes you have to do it by eye.


I did a little editing to make the left column fit more comfortably in its space. I also made the text in the right column the same colour as the left.


I also tried the poster with the text justified.


The difference isn’t large, but it does emphasize that items are squared up in a way they weren’t before.

Here’s the transformation in animated form! Hopefully, this makes the impact of the changes easier to see.

06 April 2017

Critique: Fear of death

Today’s poster comes from Anthony Biduck. Click to enlarge!


This poster is unusual, because there are not graphic elements here. There is only text. This poses a challenge, because text blocks are not terribly visually appealing.

The good news is that the typesetting is clean. There poster is written in sentences and paragraphs. There is not an over reliance on bullets, with the couple of numbered lists making sense. I personally would prefer to have zeroes before the decimals in the results (that is, -0.36 instead of -.36) and conclusions (that is, 0.07 rather than .07).

I results in the table are listed in order of “strongest correlation to weakest correlation.” That some correlations are positive and some are negative confuses the ordering. Instead of the raw correlation, r, an alternative might be to use r2. This value is often reported, because it explains how much of the variation is explained by the factor at hand. It also happens to make all the values in the table positive.

There is not much colour, but orange and blue draw from the logo, and are nice contrast colours.

The one problem I have is the title placement. Placing it on the right de-emphasizes it. I will say again: the institutional logo is not more important than the title. Nothing should be more important than the title. This becomes even more true where there are no graphics to draw in a viewer. The title becomes your one and only shot at capturing passers-by. You cannot afford to bury the lede, as journalists say.

At the very least, the order could be flipped:


Now the title is in the place where a reader will look first. But even with the switch, the institutional logos is competing for attention. The title will benefit from being much bigger:



Now the title can be read more easily. I know some people are attached to their institutional logos, so here is a version that includes a logo in a more subtle location.


The logo used here is a transparent version grabbed from online. It has the same palette of blues with blues and a hint of orange, so still fits. A transparent version of the one in the original would fit the space better, though.

Related posts

Your title is 90% of your poster

30 March 2017

Link roundup for March 2017

My last link roundup came out just before this year’s Academy Awards, which featured an ill-fated announcement of announcing the wrong winner.



This article argues that the card design could have been much better and possibly avoided that memorable but embarassing moment.

That’s horrible typography. I will emphasize that again: horrible. Or, to be nicer, not good. Look at it again. Of course anyone could’ve made the same honest error!

The words “Best Actress” are on there  —  at the very bottom  —  in small print.

You are on television with millions of people around the world watching. You are a little nervous, and you have to read a card. You will most likely read it from top to bottom without questioning whether the card is right. ...

Here’s what should’ve been changed based on the three critiques I just made:

  • The logo doesn’t need to be at the top of this card. Everyone knows it’s the Oscars. We move the Oscars logo to the bottom where it’s least important in this context.
  • The award category, Best Actress, is moved to the top so that it’s the first thing anyone sees and reads. There is no confusion what the category is because it’s clearly stated first.
  • Emma Stone’s name is bigger than the title, La La Land, because she is the winner of this category. The winner should be the most emphasized thing on the card, with all other information, like the film’s title, in a smaller or thinner font.

Friggin’ logos mess things up all the time.


For a few years, some journals have been playing around with “graphic abstracts” or “visual abstracts.” Clearly, many of the same principles that you would use in a graphic abstract you would also use for a poster. This post looks at their proliferation in the field of nephrology. Hat tip to Hilda Bastian.

A century ago, an artist made a beautiful typeface.


And threw it into the river.  A brilliant bit of history.

Speaking of fonts, check out this article on Futuracha Pro, described in the article title as a “crazy gorgeous font” that “evolves as you type.”


You can pre-order it here.

This is supposed to say, “Arise.”


Hat tip to Alistair Coleman and Stephen Curry.

Ace doodler Sunni Brown posted this reminder on her Instagram:



Good design is not just about thinking outside the box. It is more about climbing into the box of others. - Caroline Korowicki

Design is about empathy as much as colour and typefaces.

23 March 2017

Critique: Electric India

Today’s poster comes from Anjali Sharma. It is being presented at the Energy For Society conference in April. Click to enlarge!

It’s... square. This is interesting, because I don’t see many square posters here on the blog.

Something you may not see (depending on browser settings and such) is that this poster has a wide margin. Margins are very undervalued on many posters, and the margin helps give this poster some lightness.

I’m having a hard time moving past the title. Those letters touching the top of the box are just killing me. There is room to center the text better vertically, since none of the bottom descenders (the lower case Gs) are threatening to touch the bottom of the red box.

The lines around the columns are not heavy handed. They are light and well placed far from the text, so they add some visual interest rather than feeling like an attempt shoehorn too much content into too little space. But I always like to see what a poster looks like without boxes.

Speaking of lines, there are a couple of stray vertical gray lines on either side of the bottom bar graph that seem to be left over from importing the graphic on to the poster.

Here’s a slightly revised version of the poster. I cheated with the title, extending the coloured box up rather than centering the text. this leaves the poster no longer perfectly square, nor all margins equal. But I think you can see what I was going for.

This is a rare case where I think the removal of the boxes does not benefit the poster.

The poster feels grey and text heavy, even though there are some reasonably nice big images on it. This might be happening because of the visuals are buried in the bottom and the right, far from where people look first.

But this poster is is clean, readable, and no one would be embarrassed to hand it on a poster board.

16 March 2017

Critique: Oil spill

Today’s contribution is an award winning poster from Ryan Gilchrist. Click to enlarge!



Ryan writes:
My aim here was to balance on the fence between a poster and an infographic, and try to convey some complex physics in an intuitive manner. My concern is that there isn’t enough information on the poster to keep the reader interested. Additionally, I’ve been trying to find an alternative colour scheme than ‘sideways traffic light’, but haven’t had much success yet!

This poster would definitely stand out at a typical conference. It makes a strong statement visually, with its big blocks of colours, curved lines, and slightly low fi images. It looks different than most posters you see at academic conferences, generally in a good way.

There are a few changes that I might try, although I’m not convinced I would implement them.

I’d try seeing how the central headings (“Subsurface spill dynamics”) would look if placed horizontally instead of at an angle. I appreciate that a little use of the diagonal breaks up the poster and adds some visual interest. But I would like to see it with the order and structure that a more typical placement provides.

All the different coloured sections have a black line diving them, except one. There is a colour shift between the top and bottom in the middle column. It’s even more noticeable because the implied line along the colour boundary continues on the right hand side, and there’s a black line dividing those sections. I might have tried making that middle section all one colour, or continuing the right hand black line (the one above “Research aims”).

I like the icons in the “Areas of uncertainty” section, though not their placement. It looks like they alternate between the left and right sides so that the icons don’t bump into each other. I suggest zig-zagging text and images, because it just makes more work for the reader. Again, the right column makes matters worse by comparison. In the list of research aims, the letters are so big and bold that they almost act like icons. And they are all on the left hand side. If you are going to zig-zag the icons in the central column, zig-zag the letters in the right list! Commit to the choice! Commit, I say!

Behind it all is a picture of an ocean spill on fire. The smoke mostly reads a texture, darkening up the central column, not as an image. I literally did not notice it until about the third time I looked at the poster. This is both good and bad. It’s good that I didn’t notice the photograph, because it means my attention was focused on where it needed to be: the content of the poster. But it’s bad because if I don’t notice it or recognize what it is, what is the point? What value does it add to the poster?

12 March 2017

Critique: Peak fusion protein

Today’s poster comes from contributor Braeden Schaefer, and is shared with his permission. Click to enlarge!


Braeden notes:

The poster theme colors had to fall within ASU’s maroon, gold, black and white color palette. The western blot in the results section is only a placeholder that I found online. I’m still waiting on my western blotting results but wanted to see how it would look now.

There is a lot to like about this poster. The two column layout is crisp from a distance. Up close, though, you notice that the left hand labels for the figure break through into the left column, rather than staying contained where they ought to be.

The left hand side is nothing but text, but it is typeset well enough. The text is big enough to be readable, has wide margins, and clear subheading that remove some of the intimidation factor.

This poster is a nice follow-up from the last entry about the design problem inherent in collaborative posters. In this case, it’s not the authors so much that are the problem as the institutional affiliations. The affiliations are chewing up for more space than I would like in the title bar.



There are five affiliations given. But four of them are different schools within the same institution, Arizona State University. I would cut the author affiliations down to lines: the university and the institute. Yes, you lose information about the schools, but I’m not sure anyone in the audience cares. You could then put the institutions on one line, freeing up more room for the title.

Speaking of the title bar, I have no love lost for logos bookending the title. The left institute logo looks like it has been distorted and squished horizontally. But I’m even more baffled here that the ASU logo is repeated at the bottom of the poster. And in an optically heavy black box, no less.

The use of the campus’s colours works well. Generally, campus colours have been picked by pros to go together. They are a good way to provide a subtle bit of branding that doesn’t chew up space. I have no clear idea if there is any reason why some of the bars are in gold and some are in maroon. It seems like the gold might be trying to highlight the main messages, but it’s a muddied signal (if that is the intention) at best.

02 March 2017

Showing authorship on posters

More and more academic projects are collaborative. This means more contributors, and more authors to list on posters. I’ve been thinking about how long author lists might be best displayed on posters, and have a few attempts here. You can click to enlarge any picture!

This might be the simplest multi-author scenario, where there are many authors, all from one institution.


Many big collaborative projects involve people from different institutions, however. How can you show the affiliations of those authors? Many people emulate journals and use superscripts.


This gets very complicated to read and difficult to read very quickly, however.

Another approach might be to group the contributors by their institution, relative contribution or alphabetical order or whatever other reason you have for deciding the order of authors be damned.


This chews up more space, so you might be forced to use initials for the authors and cut back on punctuation.


But if the team is that big, it is unlikely that they are all going to be at the conference. If we step into the needs of the reader for a second, what is the thing a conference goer might want to know? They certainly want to know who they might be talking to, that is, the poster presenter. They might also want to know the person behind the project, who is usually the most senior professor or staffer, and often the most recognizable “name” the poster might have.


Putting the full author list on an external link or down in find print in the corner might is harsh for the contributors. I know that. But in design, you have to grit your teeth and remember that it is not about you, or your friends. It’s about what the audience needs.

External links

When does authorship stop meaning anything useful?