21 May 2015

Critique: The final four

It’s long past March, but poster design knows no season! This week’s poster comes from author Cameron Fuqua, and is used with permission. Click to enlarge!

In a reversal of the norm, the tables – usually one of the things I like least on a poster – are one of the best things on this one. The tables avoid the “data prison” problem: that is, too many lines encasing each cell. The colour banding to distinguish rows is subtle. The gradient fills provide a little emphasis for each cell, but are not distracting. The silver gradient fills for the text boxes are also well done, providing some visual interest that is not distracting.

I wish that aesthetic extended to the rest of the poster.

The rest of the poster is confined within thick, heavy-lined boxes. The poster would probably be significantly improved by thinning or removing the lines entirely.

Worse, they’re boxes with rounded corners. The rounded corners brings the lines of the box closer to the text, which is already a problem. There is no space between the text and the lines, particularly in the upper left boxes. Further, the rounding isn’t consistent. Some corners are quite curved, others are closer to right angles.

I like distinctive typefaces for titles and section headings, but this one (something in the Eurostile family, I think) sacrifices too much legibility for decoration. From a distance, common letters like “a” and “e” are hard to tell apart. There is some variation in the heading weight: some things are in bold (which is contributing to making the letters hard to read), some not.

Underlining is used for emphasis, which also make it more difficult to read the text.

Throughout the poster, there are dozens of cases with things being poorly aligned or placed. Some of the mathematical equations have a space surplus on one side or another.

Finally, predicting the outcome of a competition is something that many people should be able to understand and relate to, regardless of the complexities of the mathematical equations behind the predictions. I’m surprised that when I look down in the lower right, where I expect to see an answer to the question, “Can I use this method to get a better bracket?”, I can’t see any answer. I would love a single sentence like, “This new model’s performance is better / as good as / worse than previous ones.”

14 May 2015

Bullets versus sentences

Some other resources on poster design recommend that people use bullet lists extensively for their posters. I advise against it, most of the time.

The pros of bullet lists is that by their nature, people tend to write less text. That concision is very useful on a poster, I admit.

But I want to argue there are more negatives to using bullets that positives.

First, my experience with looking at PowerPoint slides is that people are inconsistent in how they type bullet lists. For example, people often punctuate some bullet points with a period, but leave others without a period. When people write sentences in paragraphs, they will put a period at the end of every sentence.

Second, the size and spacing of bullet points is often badly done in software. Even PowerPoint, the culprit that made bullets ubiquitous, doesn’t scale well when you move outside of the standard slide sizes. Here’s a quick mock-up for a four foot wide poster with a bulleted list (click to enlarge):

Under this default scheme, the bullets are too far from the text. The spacing between lines and points is also a little dodgy. Microsoft Publisher, which I use a lot for posters, handles bullets even more poorly.

Third, bullets destroy narrative. Edward Tufte has made a thorough analysis (from The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, excerpt quoted here):

Lists can communicate three logical relationships: sequence (first to last in time); priority (least to most important or vice versa); or simple membership in a set (these items relate to one another in some way, but the nature of that relationship remains unstated). And a list can show only one of those relationships at a time.

Bullet lists may be more concise, but they are impoverished compared to sentence in paragraphs. Sentences can express many more relationships.

Fourth, readers are trained to read sentences in paragraphs. It is the most common thing we read, and is how we expect to absorb complicated ideas.

This is not to say that bulleted lists are useless. They are completely appropriate for short lists. A poster, though, should be more than just short lists. For example, I feel okay about using a bulleted list for a quick summary of my case again bullet points:

  • Bullets are used inconsistently
  • Bullets are poorly typeset
  • Bullets show relationships poorly
  • Readers are used to sentences

I don’t think I would convince anyone of my argument if that list were all I posted.

External links

The Zen of Presentations, Part 41: Consistency

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

12 May 2015

Register now for #SciFund poster making class!

The poster design class I mentioned last week is now ready for you to sign up! Click here to register for the class!

The official announcement on the #SciFund blog has a few more nitty gritty details.

This is the first time we’re charging for a #SciFund class (US$50), so I’d like to address is a question I’m sure many people will ask:

“What am I getting for my money?”

Valid question. After all, I’m one of the instructors, and this blog exists to spread ideas I have about poster design around for free. If someone read all the entries in this blog, you would probably have a very good idea of some of the things I’d be talking about in the class.

One benefit of the class is that you’ll be able to have a lot of interaction with the instructors. It isn’t just me leading the class; I’ll be joined by Anthony and Jai. And while a blog is static, working in the class will not be.

Perhaps more importantly, you will get to have a lot of interaction with other students in the class. In a class like this, the opportunity to get the ideas and feedback of others can be invaluable, because different people bring such different ideas about style.

Another thing that you get from being in the class is that we do have plans to offer a certificate of completion for those who make it all the way through. This could be useful in demonstrating that you’ve been engaged in professional development activities.

Once again, you can click here to register for the class! I hope you will join us!

07 May 2015

Announcing the #SciFund poster class!

I’m very excited to announce a new poster making class, sponsored through the #SciFund Challenge!

#SciFund started out as an experiment in science crowdfunding, but has expanded its mission to include science communication and professional development.

In this class, you’ll learn basic design principles, be instructed in how to use Adobe Illustrator (a powerful, vector-based graphics kit), and build your communication skills. And yes, you will make a poster!

Because we want class participants to make something that is useful to them, we ask that you have a research project with data or a research proposal. This might be a project you are presenting at conference this summer, or, if you’re an early career academic, might be a proposal for a thesis or dissertation. We also ask that you have access to Adobe Illustrator.

The class runs five weeks, starting Sunday, 7 June 2015 and running through Saturday, 11 July 2015.

Unlike some online classes, where it’s just you and the computer, this one has lots of meeting time with moderators and other class participants. The main moderators will be Anthony Salvagno and me (Zen Faulkes). We expect participants will put in about 5 hours a week for their assignments. We will also have hangouts (group therapy for poster design) and some group work for review and feedback.

Participants should be generally available between 10:00 am and 10:00 pm Eastern time to be in class hangouts and other events. (Multiple time slots will be available to meet.)

People who successfully complete the course will be given a certificate of completion.

The cost will be $50, and registration will begin soon. The last #SciFund class on video making filled up, so watch this space, follow the #SciFund hashtag on Twitter, and the main #SciFund page for more details.

Update, 12 May 2015: You can now register here! More details here!

30 April 2015

Link roundup for April 2015

While this blog is mainly about poster sessions, poster sessions happen in the larger context of academic conferences. I love conferences, and part of the reason I write this blog is so that people can have good experiences at those conference sessions. Those good experiences do not include harassment. That’s why this blog post by Timothée Poisot is this month’s must read:

Across all ecologists we surveyed, 37% witnessed harassment, and 24% experienced it, at least once, only taking into account what happens during scientific meetings. This… wow, this is a lot. ...

1 out of 3 people is not an epi-phenomenon.

The post also shows strong support for organizers to be much more active in dealing with harassment. If you’re involved in organizing a conference, there are steps you can take to make them better and more welcoming. Take them.

I’ve often lamented that most posters are designed by amateurs. I have rarely seen a case for using professionals as compelling as this ad, which was a full page in several American newspapers:

It’s an attractive and well designed ad. Except for one thing.

The brain is backwards.

Not being able to get a brain the right way round is not the signal you want to send when you are trying to announce a “new era of discovery in brain research.” There are professionals who do medical illustration stuff for a living. Hire one. (Hat tip to Mo Costandi.)

The bar graph is a standard way of presenting data. A new PLOS Biology paper argues that it’s a bad way regardless of its ubiquity. Hat tip to Gaetan Burgio and Michael Hendricks.

Nevertheless, the humble bar chart is likely to remain a major workhorse for data presentation for a long time. Here is a short list of good tips. Hat tip to Garr Reynolds.

I Want Hue bills itself as a tool for “data scientists.” Its claims:
Distributing colors evenly, in a perceptively coherent space, constrained by user-friendly settings, to generate high quality custom palettes.

Looks interesting. Not sure why the colours jiggle when you make palettes, though. Hat tip to Dean Malmgren and Justin Kiggins.

I’ve always been skeptical when I’ve heard mathematicians and others wax rhapsodic about the “golden ratio.” This article calls it “design’s biggest myth,” and I­’m inclined to agree. But maybe that’s just my confirmation bias. Hat tip to Tommy Leung.

Peter Newbury asked:

Conf poster style question: do you use present tense, as in “results are calculated by...” instead of “results were calculated by”?

This isn’t just a conference poster question, but a general scientific writing question. In general, any methods are in past tense, because you’re describing something that already happened. Results are often in present tense, because the effect you’re describing should be generalizable to past, present, and future situations. To put it another way, we write “E is equal to mc squared,” because it’s always true. You might write “E was equal to mc squared” if it was only true once.

Graphic designer Ellen Lupton has a book coming out in June that was an instant pre-order for me: How Posters Work.

Expect a review as soon as it arrives and I devour it, as I surely will. There is an art exhibit to check out if you’re in the New York area.

Haas Unica is an old typeface that has been made new again. It’s the sort of sans serif workhorse that works well in posters. Hat tip to Timothée Poisot and Genegeek.

Jarrett Fuller ruminates on his love of all sorts of posters, not just academic ones.

Throughout history, you could group posters into three purposes: to inform, to persuade or encourage, and to commemorate. Sometimes it straddles the lines between each of these, but the poster’s purpose must always involve one of them.

Alex Holcombe wants you to know this.

Each word you put on your poster reduces conference-attendee approaches by 0.2%. People need to know my invented statistic.

Now they know, Alex. Now they know.

16 April 2015

Variations on a theme: crayfish nociception

Back in 2010, I had just co-authored a paper on crustacean nociception with Sakshi Puri. At the time, we had already started the follow-up experiments that have just been published.

Now there was a bit of a gap between the two papers, which means that this research was presented at quite a few conferences. Six of them, all told. Click on any to enlarge!

The first poster in the series was for the International Association of Astacology in 2010. This one shows how many of the experiments that made it into the 2015 paper were already in the can (to borrow an old movie making phrase) back in 2010!

Graphically, the red used in the central graph in the middle was picked up from the colour of the crayfish in the pot on the upper right. The greens used in the headings were picked up with an eyedropper from the colour of the wasabi.

While the crayfish boil provided a nice illustration of the question that initially motivated these experiments, it’s hard to make out that they are crayfish from a distance. The rest of the posters have big pictures of individual crayfish, or their close relatives, lobsters.

Later that same summer, I attended the Ninth International Congress of Neuroethology in Spain. This one is different from the others for two reasons:
  1. It was the only one in portrait format (and a fairly small total size, too). I’ve heard fairly consistently that posters for European conferences are portrait more often than North American conferences.
  2. It was made in PosterGenius (reviewed here) rather than Microsoft Publisher.

I switched from the picture from a shot of many crayfish in a pot to a single lobster in a pot. As a result, the colour palette for this poster completely changed. The lobster is greys and blues, so the graph and headings are those colours, too.

Making this in Poster Genius was a challenge, because I recall it being difficult to adjust the size of the text. I couldn’t use my usual trick of making the text for the references smaller, so I struggled greatly to make everything fit. As a result, this poster came out rather text heavy.

The following summer,  in 2011, I went to The Crustacean Society meeting. We had done more experiments over the year, and this was the first appearance of the behavioural responses to high temperature stimuli. Video gives a much better sense of the behaviour than any graph, so this was an early appearance of a QR code that people could scan to watch the video. I don’t recall many people using it.

This was also the first appearance of the title that my co-author, Sakshi Puri, wanted our paper to have, and which ultimately became the title of the paper. When we started the experiments, I’d joked with her that I’d wanted it to be, “Do crayfish like spicy food?”

I also think Sakshi asked for us to set the poster in Time New Roman rather than sans serifs.

I think of all the posters, this one is, in some ways, the least successful. There was a lot of space at the bottom that are filled with pictures that could go anywhere. And the spacing between the habanero and wasabi pictures is a little too wide. The colours used for the spikes are a little bright.

I was pleased to have found a lovely crayfish picture from Michael Bok that appears on several later posters. 

In fall of that year, we took this project to “the big show”: the Society for Neuroscience meeting in 2011. (Sakshi blogged about her experience here.)

This paper is a little reminiscent of the first one in this series, in that it uses a lot of red for graphs and headings. The heading here was a font called Orial that has some nice detailing, although in retrospect, it was a little too subtle for people to notice.

People scanned the QR code a lot, according to Sakshi.

This meeting was important, because another poster at that meeting had a technique for studying responses to low temperatures, using dry ice. We did that experiment soon after, and it made it onto the next iteration of the poster.

In 2012, I presented at the Tenth International Congress for Neuroethology.

I was proud of the use of the two callout boxes in this one. I thought the light red backgrounds were sufficiently different to signal that these were not part of the main narrative, but subtle enough not to be distracting.

I did away with headings, using drop caps as another way to signal sections.

While the QR code still appears with a link to a video of the behaviour, that was purely a backup. Most of the time, the code was covered by my new iPad that I stapled to the spot. I carefully designed the code and the text so that it would not be seen when the iPad was on top of it. This meant that much of the poster was designed around how big my iPad was! The width of the iPad helped determine the column width, and therefore how many columns the poster would get.

One of the big sticking points in publishing the paper was trying to get neurophysiological records from the claw, which are shown on this poster. These didn’t make it into the final paper. Ultimately, that proved too hard to get good recordings, so we went back to using the antennae, which we’d used in our 2010 paper.

The final version of the poster appeared at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting in early 2014.

I was happy with the picture I found as the entry point. I love the expression on the woman’s face, and it perfectly reflects why people are always asking about, “Are lobsters / crayfish / crabs / shrimp hurt when they’re cooked?”

Again, there are reds in the graphs throughout, because of the colours in the animals and the Nature article screen grabs.

While I often rail against boxes, I tried them here. I think they work because rather than putting a box around each individual part, I used the boxes as column separators. I’d seen this done occasionally in magazine and newspaper layouts. I went for extremely light lines (they look finer on the poster than in the image here).

When seen all at once, in this small format, several of them look a bit busy because of the physiology recordings. They often look very busy, and they use a lot of colours. The last two posters perhaps fare a little better because they don’t have those complex charts.

In looking at these again, I am pleased to see what I think might be some progress. The last two are, I think, a little more successful than the earlier ones. After all, for the first ones, I’d only been blogging about poster design for about a year. By the time I did that last one, this blog was closer to five years old.

Do you have a favourite?

Related posts

Small conference, big conference


Puri S, Faulkes Z. 2010. Do decapod crustaceans have nociceptors for extreme pH? PLoS ONE 5(4): e10244. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0010244

Puri S, Faulkes Z. 2015. Can crayfish take the heat? Procambarus clarkii show nociceptive behaviour to high temperature stimuli, but not low temperature or chemical stimuli. Biology Open: in press. http://dx.doi.org/10.1242/bio.20149654

09 April 2015

Critique: Build a better turbine

Today’s award-winning poster is courtesy of reader Jennifer Rinker. It was presented at the CU Energy Frontiers conference, where Jennifer walked away with the win in the “Electricity Generation and Storage Category.” Click to enlarge!

Jennifer writes:

At one point I was chatting with one of the judges briefly, and he enthusiastically told me I was getting full points for clarity.

I can see why. This is very clear.

The clarity is even more impressive because the poster uses a slightly unconventional layout: two horizontal sections, subdivided by vertical columns. While removing lines is often one of the first things I do to improve a poster (see below), the horizontal line here provides a clear cue of how to read the poster. It also serves the role of “grounding” the figure of the turbine, so it isn’t floating in space.

Because this poster has such a light touch – ample spacing, subdued colours, fine lines – the table near the center surprised me a bit. The table is emphasized in three ways:

  1. It’s printed in large, thick letters;
  2. Against a darker background, and;
  3. Inside a box.  

Any two of those are probably enough to highlight the table. I tried taking away the lines of the box:

The table harmonizes with the rest of the poster much better without the box. I’d perhaps increase the contrast between the table’s background and the background of the rest of the poster.

Cream and off-white colours are very attractive for posters, perhaps because they mimic the look of printed pages in books, which are rarely perfectly white. I would be tempted to go just a hair lighter in case this poster was someplace the lighting was bad. I tried a quick and dirty colour replacement. This wipes out some of the fine lines, alas:

I’m also pleased to report that this blog – and, more importantly, the many people who have shared their over the years – had a small part in this poster. Jennifer wrote:

I designed it based on a lot of your critiques and comments on poster blog. ... I was inspired by some of the really fantastic posters on your blog.

All part of the service!