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.