19 January 2017

Critique: frog choices

The “Best of Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology” continues, with this contribution courtesy of Matthew Murphy! Click to enlarge!


This is a very successful poster on multiple counts. There is not a lot of text. The visuals are simple, with a strong but limited colour palette. The reading order is clear.

Matthew wrote:

Almost all of the elements of the poster were created using open-source graphic design software. Some preliminary work (especially editing the reference image of the frog icon) was done in GIMP. The vector images were developed in InkScape, and the whole thing was assembled in InkScape. I used an individual layer for each section.

The fonts used are Steve Matteson’s Open Sans and Open Sans Extrabold, both freely available through Google Fonts.

With open source materials, I have argued that you sometimes get what you pay for. When I saw this poster, I wondered if Open Sans had the chops necessary for the job, because I was struck by the dumb quotes (also called straight quotes) in the title. But a quick check revealed Open Sans had perfectly good smart quotes.


The problem is apparently that the open source material didn’t auto-correct the quotes, as some software (notably Microsoft’s Office products) have done for years. The solution is not difficult: you just need to know the commands for extended characters. In Windows, this is ALT + 0146 on the keypad. A more comprehensive list is here.

Speaking of typesetting, some paragraphs end in periods and some don’t. Consistency always helps.

The use of numbers in circles is a nice graphic tough and keeps the reading order clear. I personally would have started with one instead of zero, though.

You might expect me to complain about the results being before the methods, but I am not going to. First, having seen Matthew present this work, the order on the poster reflects the order he presented the material verbally. Second, some journals have taken to putting results before methods. This practice has critics, but flipping the order isn’t absolutely crazy.

Some of the material you would expect to be at the bottom is up at the top: acknowledgements and a QR code. The word “Acknowledgements,” presented here in bold and all caps, is competing with the title. I would have suggested making it smaller and more innocuous, something closer in size to the author bylines under the title.

Also, when you put a QR code, it’s a good idea to tell people what they’re getting. The upper right one does (“Summary”), but the lower left one does not.

In the context of this poster, “green noise” might be more precise, but “noise” might more readily understood.

And, much like last week’s poster, Matthew isn’t just a contributor, he’s a reader!

I actually used your blog - especially your design critiques - to get design ideas for my poster.

I’m glad it’s useful!

Related posts

Anything free is worth what you pay for it
Scripting a poster

External links

Smart Quotes for Smart People

12 January 2017

Critique: Viper shapes

Today’s poster comes from Jessica Tingle, who I met at the recent Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting in New Orleans, where she presented this poster. Click to enlarge – if you need to!


I say, “If you need to,” because the reason I stopped at this poster, was just how visible this poster was from a distance. I could read the title and see the main outlines not only within the poster row, but from the next row back. Even if I shrink the image:


You might still be able to read the title and see some of the main shapes on the poster. That’s why I think this poster was one of the clear winners at a conference where I was frustrated by how small many of the posters were (more about which later).

The secrets to this poster’s success are not complicated. Jessica used most of the available space. SICB has big poster boards (8 feet long by 4 feet high, I think), and this one covered most of it. The title is in large point size, and has no colours or logos competing for attention. It has one big central graphic, with few colours that are clear and intuitive (green for snakes in trees, more earthy orange for snakes in deserts). The two colour-coded call out boxes explain the central plot of data well, using simple, icon-like outlines of the snakes.

The change I might have suggested are small. The title could have been more specific. I might have suggested something like, “Treeclimbing, but not sidewinding, snakes are morphologically specialized.” This would also have removed the need for the big question right above the data.

Similarly, underlining the headings adds nothing to their visibility. Bolding alone does the job.

The left paragraphs are in a box, but none of the other regular text paragraphs are. I don’s think anything is harmed by removing the box:




 The boxing of the three call-outs works, because the colour of the lines connects the explanation to the data. The boxes there also make it clear that the text and images are serving as labels to the data, instead of part of the main text.

The discussion is in a box, too, but it’s more subtle: very light gray with no outline. Indeed, the gray is so light that I am not sure anyone notices. And the discussion isn’t in the location you expect it to be (right), so feels like an awkward afterthought. I do appreciate that the discussion is split into two columns to prevent the line widths from getting unreasonably long, though the space between the columns might be widened to signal that there are two distinct columns.

This poster’s use of one data plot and visibility from a distance pays off.

 P.S.—Jessica is not only a contributor to this blog, she’s a customer! I swear I did not know this when I asked Jessica if she would be willing to share her poster on the blog. But she knew the blog! She was kind enough to write:

(I)t really is a precious resource in a field where graphic design is important but rarely (if ever) taught formally(.)

I’m glad it helps!

05 January 2017

Picking up the tab


I’m stepping a bit away from the poster board this week, so to speak, to talk about conference etiquette more generally. Conferences involve travel and eating out, usually in locations that cater to a lot of tourists (e.g., San Diego, New Orleans, Washington, DC) and partially hosted by hotels that are normally catering to business class. Since most conference attendees are usually early career stage scientists, cost is an issue.

Amy Lynch-Biniek wrote:

Tenured profs at conferences: adopt a “grad students and adjuncts don’t pay” rule at dinner/bar. Some did this for student-me and I never forgot.

Kate Washington added:

I was once in a grad-student dinner group that got stiffed by tenured profs who skipped out; I never forgot that either.

In fairness, that would be rude behaviour from anyone, regardless of career stage.

Drugmonkey, however, noted:

I never assume that just because (someone is a) tenured prof = moneybags that can pick up $$$ dinner checks. Should be voluntary.

Angela Vergara supports that:

I do it as much as I can, but as a prof in a state school in California, my conference budget is usually tied.

There are several issues at play here. For instance, how many people are at the conference with the professor? There’s a big difference in the cumulative tab for one trainee and half a dozen of them.

Many institutions support student travel to conferences. If a student has a per diem food allowance for a conference, it seems a little excessive for a professor to absorb all of those expenses when there are other sources of money dedicated to keeping the student fed.

I’m a little baffled that the original tweet singles out tenured professors. A tenure-track professor is still probably making significantly more than any trainee. Indeed, thanks to salary compression and inversion, tenure-track professors may be making more than tenured ones.

A professor – regardless of career stage – is expected to be a team leader. A conference is a good opportunity for leaders to say, “Thanks for a job well done,” and a good meal or a few drinks at the pub are a welcome gift. Generosity is a good feature of team leaders.

External links

Tenured profs should pick up the check?

29 December 2016

Link roundup for December 2016

Who else got a Christmas present delivered in poster-styled gift wrapping?


Hat tip to Shit Academics Say.

Sometimes we have a best poster of the month, but this is probably the first nominee for best poster tube (click to enlarge):


Hat tip to Ashley Cambell for discovering the whiskey tube scientist. From a geology meeting. Naturally.

Post of the month for December goes to Scott Cole, who analyzed the attendance at 2,579 posters at Neuroscience.


It is disappointing to learn 17% of posters had nobody at them. But if you ever have more than two people at your poster, you’re in the top half! Hat tip to Adam Calhoun.

Your title is the headline for your poster. This article looks at how headlines matter like never before, particularly online.

(E)ven with the best-crafted headline in the world, for every person who clicks on it, there are hundreds, if not thousands, who see it, digest it, and simply move on. People get their news from headlines now in a way they never did in the past, just because they see so many of those headlines on Twitter and Facebook.

People are used to getting news from headlines. Pay attention to your title. Your title is 90% of your poster.

Julie Lee has several poster viewing tips she learned from her first Neuroscience meeting.

Posters > Talks

I was repeatedly told this by SfN veterans and I’m glad I listened. The few talks I went to (that were directly incredibly relevant) were fairly useful but I definitely got more out of interacting with poster presenters. Also, for presenting, I would almost unreservedly give a poster for the longer interaction it offers with attendees (five minute Q&A vs. Four. Whole. Hours.).
  • Keep your eyes open. Due to the aforementioned advice, I ended up getting more free time than anticipated, and was able to randomly wander around quite a few times. The most interesting things I saw at the conference were often not planned. A few times I ended up double-taking because the poster I just walked past was being presented by authors of papers I’ve used as inspiration for my work or read because they were doing very similar things. Additionally I ended up walking past some very interesting work that may not be relevant but were still cool to learn about.
  • Budget for only a few posters per session. For me, 3-5 posters per session was the sweet spot for really getting the time to engage with posters (15-30 minutes each). However …
  • Keep a back-up list. In case the posters are busy or withdrawn, or maybe turn out to be less interesting than you anticipated, save a list of 5-10 others of secondary interests or friends if you get the time (which I did, frequently).
  • Priority label your itinerary. With the above said, it’s super useful (if you’re over-organised like me) to label your posters by priority (you can export your itinerary to google calendar!). Sounds like overkill but this gave me a quick way to see how many posters were essential per session and ration my time accordingly. Perhaps most importantly, it also let me (once) see which morning I could give a miss after a late night..

Head scratch of the month goes to Magda Havas, who convinced editors to use this figure as a graphic abstract to a journal article:


Hat tip to Neuroskeptic.

In the last few weeks, “fake news” has been the topic of much discussion. Part of the issue is that design decisions are taken away:

Over centuries, print media developed a visual language of credibility that became second nature to most readers: crisp type and clean, uninterrupted columns communicate integrity, while exaggerated images, messy layouts, and goofy text inspire doubt. On a physical newsstand, it’s still easy to tell the National Enquirer from, say, The Atlantic Online, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between the two. ...

Over the last several years, upscale publishers that don’t draw a large percentage of revenue from banner display advertising, like Medium and Vice News, have embraced an extreme minimalist style that features text and blank white space above all else — the better to differentiate themselves from the noise of fake news and chum boxes. This visual austerity is the new mark of an upscale publisher.

Yet questionable outlets are starting to adopt these very same aesthetics of reliability, albeit on a delay of several years. Sites like Civic Tribune and the satirical National Report look no worse than The Huffington Post or Drudge Report, which are seen as legitimate publishers, more or less. Some, like the semi-satirical Real News Right Now, have even echoed the clean, gridded layout and decisive typography of sites like Digg and the defunct Atlantic Wire, an aesthetic that once suggested value-added aggregation.

Hat tip to Ellen Lupton.

This segues nicely into a look at the importance of the low design of the Trump campaign hat. Designer Matt Ipcar is quoted:

It was easy for me, as a Brooklyn-born creative director, to describe the hat as bad design. But the hat was worn. It was simple, unisex, familiar, and practical during a summer of hot crowded rallies throughout the South. Design-wise, it was lazy and loud, but also deceptively brand-aware and unmistakably Trump—a brash and calculated brand extension for a house whose luxury properties are awash in Gotham, understated bling, and lots of white space.

Another thank you to Ellen Lupton.

Ann Emery shares six ideas for displaying quantitative data in a more visual way, including putting faces with quotes and icons with text. Hat tip to Katy Kennedy.

And that, my friends, is that for 2016. Here’s a picture that reflects what many of us think of 2016:

 Hat tip to Hilda Bastian.

23 December 2016

Critique: Water balance

Today’s poster is up a little late because the contributor asked that it be shown after the conference ended, and totally not because of bad time management on my part. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Anjuli Figueroa just got done preseninting this poster at the annual American Geophysical Union fall meeting. Click to enlarge version 1!


My first reaction was, “This poster looks like it’s yelling.”

I wanted the typography to calm down a bit! There are multiple fonts, multiple sizes, multiple methods of emphasis (size, colour, bullets). I suggested trying to pare down the number of styles, and using sentences instead of bullet lists. Similarly, the headings are big enough that underlining for emphasis was not needed and just contributed to making the poster look “shouty.”

Another thing made the poster feel loud is that lots of things are pushed right to the edges of space.

  • The maps in section 4 are almost crowding out of the box they’re in.
  • The text in section 2 feels like it’s crushing the globe underneath it.
  • The title is ramming into the poster number divider.

More white space would calm the poster, so I recommended using blank space to divide the poster instead of lines.

The biggest request, though, was probably to fix the, “1, 2, 3, 5, 4” reading order. It was just  frustrating. I suggested breaking section 4 apart, and putting the top half where 5 was, and the bottom half of 4 where top half of 4 was.

Anjuli sent back version two:


I thought this was already much improved, but that it could go even further. I’m not a fan of underlining, and have rarely found reason to use it. Here, it drew attention to inconsistencies like whether spaces or punctuation marks were underlined.

Similarly, using bold plus red for the key results still seems like “crushing a walnut with a sledgehammer” emphasis.

Version number three was the one that hung on the conference posterboard:


I hope the conference goers were happier to see version three on that board than version one!

18 December 2016

No more slidesters, part 7: Inkscape

Inkscape is a free software that creates vector-based illustrations. As such, it’s the freeware answer to Adobe Illustrator and CorelDRAW.

Inkscape has been on my radar for some time, but I hadn’t had a chance to sit down and use it seriously until the second #SciFund poster class earlier this year. We had used Adobe Illustrator in round one of the class, but this year, we decided to let people try Inkscape in case they didn’t have access to Illustrator.

At one point, I had read that Inkscape followed some of the same conventions as CoredlDRAW rather than Illustrator. I’ve used CorelDRAW for a long time, so I expected to be able to pick up Inkscape quite quickly. This was about 50% right.

Drawing was reasonably straightforward. Making objects and layering was much like I had encountered in other programs. Making a grid was not intuitive, but I chalked that up to unfamiliarity and interference from previously learned software.

It was working with text that drove me nuts. On posters, you often have to work with paragraphs of text, so this was a major sticking point. In most graphics programs, you put text into a text box. In PowerPoint, there can be a lot of automatic resizing to make the text or box fit. In CorelDRAW, you can opt for “paragraph text” that fits inside a box you define.

In Inkscape, a regular text object forms a single line. A paragraph will make for a long line. You can put that text into a box, but the text and the shape are always two separate things. You have to create your text, create your shape, then flow the text into that shape.

Inkscape allows you to have text fit into any shape you choose, which seems quite powerful on the surface. But I was constantly struggling to have my text appear how I wanted it. Resizing the shape didn’t always treat the text in the way I expected, leading to weird placements. Rather than moving or resizing shapes, I would draw a new shape, cut the text out of the old one, then place the text into the new shape.

When you look at the Inkscape gallery, it’s clear you can get some fantastic results from this program. But when you look at the examples, you’ll notice very few of them have much text.

My experience with Inkscape makes me unlikely to use it again for posters in the near future. Microsoft Publisher remains my software tool of choice, hitting the sweet spot between power and ease of use.

Update: Luke on Twitter said:

Inkscape does have text boxes though – created by click and dragging the text tool. Resizing is trivial then!

I will look again, but still. I cannot figure out why I was fighting so much.

Related posts

No more slidesters, part 2: Three Publisher tips




Text wrapping in Publisher, or, “Why are you still using PowerPoint for posters?”

External links

Inkscape
Inkscape manual

08 December 2016

Critique: Epigenome reorganization

Today’s poster comes from Corey Duke. His Neuroscience poster got lots of love when he posted it on Twitter. (In flagrant violation of Neuroscience meeting rules, I expect.) Click to enlarge!


Corey generously shared a lot of commentary on creating this poster. He wrote:

In the work we present here, we put a great deal of thought into determining exactly what stories we wanted to highlight. When dealing with large data sets, there is a delicate balancing act in trying not to overwhelm or detract from the larger broader story lines, while still presenting the interesting findings that are more “in the weeds”. With audiences at meetings like Neuroscience being so broad in background and knowledge, our general goal with this poster was to strike that balance, to give brief captivating broad overview presentations, particularly to those less familiar with the field, while still presenting the more detailed findings that experts would perhaps find most interesting. Although it is overwhelming at first glance, I believe we were able to achieve that here, and in a way that we found alluring.

With all of that in mind, we chose to build the poster around the large circular plot we present in the middle (a circos plot), which shows the specific location of the genomic changes we were interested in across the genome. We wanted to blow it up to emphasize just how robust the changes we observed were, and to highlight some of the interesting analyses we performed in the middle of the circos plot. Because it was so large, we were able to add quite a bit of detail and make it intricate without fear of it being too small to read or pick out. It also became quite fun, as attendees could search for genes they knew out of the ones we highlight in the middle, and follow them down to the bubbles to learn about what they were doing. This was much more captivating than for instance presenting gene lists in a table, etc. Although I’m not always a fan, once we tried the plot on it we fell in love and had to go for the solid black background.

In general, I avoid posters that are walls of text, and we tried to minimize it here. Because we didn’t have much of it here though, aspects of the poster would have been difficult to understand were I not there to present it. I really like our methods section diagram, as it was simple, straightforward, and easy to understand and refer back to as I presented, which really helped to keep the larger picture in mind as I went through our results. I also think all the circular data presentations go beautifully together. We had another earlier version of this poster where all of the data is represented through circular plots, and the way it all came together was stunning. In the end, we elected to swap that out for the plots on the right side though, as we thought that told a few more interesting arcs than the circles.

We made the plots using several software programs and several of our own lines of code, but we put it all together in Adobe Illustrator. Overall, we’re very happy with how the poster turned, and everyone seemed to love it. I had 3 different run-throughs depending on the audience: 2 mins, 5-6 mins, and 10 mins. I think being able to cater the presentation so readily to the audience’s interest, background, and attention span was appreciated by all, and allowed for many people to be drawn in who were from different backgrounds. Because the poster was so aesthetically pleasing, we drew quite large crowds at Neuroscience. When you devote so much effort to the science, it’s unjust not to devote yourself to the presentation as well.

Hat tip to Caitlin Vander Weele.