02 July 2015

Critique: Galaxy quest

This week’s poster comes from Chelsea Sharon, and is shown with her kind permission. Click to enlarge!


Chelsea writes:

I feel like hardly anyone ever has useful design critiques for me, and I’ve certainly settled into a specific template.

I would try to calm down some of the type in the title and headings by removing outlines and underline. The title is particularly busy, with the title and the authors’ names and the authors’ institutions each getting a different combination of colour and outline: red with white outline, white with blue outline, blue with white outline. The outline of the authors’ names is making those two lines come perilously close together, touching in several places:


While the photo is reasonably subdued, it contributes to the overall feel of clutter. 

I’m not a fan of author photos on posters, but this one could be incorporated more smoothly. The picture breaks the symmetry of the title, and again contributes to the crowded feel. If you’re going to have a non-symmetrical layout, own it, by not centering the text. My revision might look something like this:


(You’ll have to image the background image of the radio telescope array.)

One other little point in the title bar is that Fabian
Walter’s name gets broken across two lines (as I have imitated in this paragraph). Where to put line breaks in text can be a tricky business, but it’s probably best not to break up an author’s first and last names if possible.

Travelling down to the main body of the poster, the underline on the headings could be removed.

The bullets are not bringing anything to the table. Bullets are effective for calling out short lists in larger blocks of text. Here, they fall victim to the Syndrome syndrome:



The amount of text is intimidating, and makes me wonder if some cutthroat editing might be in order.

Having most of the the main text all in the center of the poster helps provide a thread for the reader to follow through. Having the figures on the sides of that central column meas the reader has to weave back and forth between the text and the figures, but it isn’t too confusing. Maybe there could be few signals to link the text and the figure: some emphasis with bolding, and perhaps even a hint of colour?


Finally, those big heavy blue lines separating each block? Let’s see what happens if we remove those:

The poster seems to hold up fine without them.

Related posts

Mug shot

External links

Run ragged

25 June 2015

Link roundup for June 2015

The self-declared contender for the best poster. Not just academic poster, no.


Yes, that tap at the bottom? It works.


Coverage of this poster can be found here, here, and here. Probably other places, too. Hat tip to Jeffrey Bemis.

Back to science now, with a blog post about posters for Twitter.

This week on Twitter, I came across an image that was a hybrid between a science poster and an infographic. ... The simplicity of a tweetable poster makes it easy to highlight a project’s impact or identify solutions, and by sharing them on Twitter, the reach of these posters goes far beyond that of the traditional posters you find at conferences.

A reminder from Max Roser about why you should not use pie charts:


You will know the name from your font dropdown menus on your computer, all the way at the end: Zapf. An obituary of type designer Hermann Zapf is unexpectedly rich. Hat tip to Zach Seward and Amanda Krauss.

A poster! Hat tip to figshare.

A great look at science photographer Felise Frankel.

Frankel’s goal is to capture scientifically honest photographs that, in her words, “frankly, makes you want to look at it.” Since her first image ran on the cover of Science in 1992, her images have landed on some 30 journal covers.

While posters are generally static, there’s a lot to think about in this interview about turning nanoscale bioloical processes into movies:

In promoting the biomedical animations I should avoid overstating how accurately I have depicted the reality of the molecular world. It is vastly messier, random and crowded, and it’s physical nature is unimaginably alien to our normal perception of the world around us.

The Sociobiology blog has a post describing how to organize a fab small meeting. This particular meeting emphasized talks over posters, but I include it here anyway, since I am always hopeful conference organizers are lurking here.


18 June 2015

#SciFund poster class links

We’re in the thick of the #SciFund poster class now! One of the fun things for me about being involved is that we’re doing stuff that I haven’t covered in this blog.

In particular, Anthony Salvagno has written a lot about how to use Adobe Illustrator to make a poster. I had not used Illustrator before I started working on this class. It is powerful, but not simple. Anthony’s tips and suggestions are just the thing if you have been curious about using Illustrator for making posters.

You can download Illustrator and use the full version for free for 30 days.

I’m going to collect all the #SciFund poster class links here for archival purposes. As I post this, just two are up, but I will add the next three weeks as the become available.

#SciFund poster class links

Week 1: Focusing on message and getting started with Adobe Illustrator
Week 2: Developing a draft and building your wireframe with Illustrator
Week 3: Creating images and graphs
Week 4: Working with text
Week 5: The home stretch

11 June 2015

Critique: Shape perception

Today’s contribution comes from Arvid Herwig, and is shown with his permission. Click to enlarge!


My first reaction to this poster was incredibly positive. It’s an interesting mix of the bold and the restrained. The dark red bands surrounding each section are very large and visually dominant. Yet there are so few of them, and they are placed so precisely, that they don’t feel overwhelming. The muted background also helps calm the overall design.

To give an idea of how important those colour choices are, here’s a quick and dirty replacement of the brick red of the lines with a straight red, and the light gray grid with straight white:



Suddenly, the warmth is gone and you have a look that has all the appeal of a traffic sign.

The logos are corralled down in the corners, making them unobtrusive.

I’m impressed by how well the images and text fit within the section borders. Circles and triangles are not easy shapes to fit text or graphs into, but there is little wasted space here. The text and images follow the contours of the shapes very nicely.

The one problem I had was when I started to read it. I immediately read it the wrong way. I went from 1 across to 3, instead of from 1 down to 2. It seems that a major challenge for this poster is how to signal that it should be read in columns, not rows.

The first cue,spacing of the sections, tries to guide me. Section 1 and 2 are closer to each other than 1 and 3.

Part of the problem may be the labelling. The callout for “01 Introduction” is about the same distance, or maybe even a little closer, to “03 Methods” as it is to “02 Objective”.

Second, the labels for 01 and 03 point in the same direction. This provides a subtle cue that the two sections may be related to each other. I tried this alternate, making the headings for the first two sections match, attempting to strengthen the link between those two.


While I’m not sure this makeover works yet, I think the theory is sound. If you can get the reader to go down in the first instance, the rest falls into place.

Overall, some quite lovely work here.

04 June 2015

Critique: Many-body dispersion

This week’s poster comes from Jan Hermann, and is used with permission. Click to enlarge:


This is quite lovely. Everything is aligned. The text boxes are not enclosed in heavy lines. The colours are attractive and subdued. Even the institutional logo is done in a way that doesn’t detract from the rest of the poster.

There’s just one thing that I have mixed feelings about: that big “Summary & outlook” box.

There are several visual cues that this bit is important. The box is placed right in the middle. Its dark brown background contrasts with the much lighter background surrounding it. This is a well known trick for drawing attention. Look at this example (from here).


The summary box is like the Volkswagon in the ad above: it’s hard not to be drawn to it first. In some ways, this is good. Because it is a summary, you want people to be drawn back to that point.

There are some down sides to this. The summary box breaks the expected reading flow. You tend to look at the summary first, which is good. It’s not too hard to figure out where to go next: upper left corner. So far, so good.

Where the summary box loses some of its appeal is when I’m making my way back though the results. It creates a break. Two related text sections are forced far apart:


When I hit the left text box highlighted in the image above, the next thing I expect to look at, based of its place in the poster, is the top figure (1).

But the position of the graphs is not closely related to their references in the text. The call to examine Figure 1 is closer to Figure 2, and Figure 2 appears in the reading order before you reach the reference to it.


Thus, I have to do a bit of work to connect that text box split across two columns, because of that summary box in the middle. It’s certainly not a fatal flaw. The benefits of that strong summary may outweigh the inconvenience of trying to work out the reading order.

01 June 2015

Interview at Crastina

I did a short interview over at Crastina, which bills itself as:

A networking platform for the exchange of knowledge, skills, experience and opinion regarding scientific communication and science dissemination.

I like it. Check out the site beyond the interview!

28 May 2015

Link roundup for May 2015

I love this deep meditation on pixel-based art from video games. Even though it’s slightly off-topic for the blog, this is my “must read” of the month. It’s revelatory to read someone who know details of animation and art show the pros and cons of using pixels. The comparison of two takes on the Street Fighter character Chun-Li is wonderful:


When they see SFIII or KOFXIII, they don’t see the unbelievable craft that went into it, or if they do, they have to first reconcile what they see first, which is the magnified image above. They have to pay the pixel tax.

Here’s the rub, and a lesson that applies to conference posters:

Nobody owes us their time or attention. As such, when someone gives us their time, an implicit agreement is made and we are now in debt to that person. We owe it to them to deliver value for their time, and to deliver it efficiently. ... Speak in a language people can understand so that they can actually see what makes your work great without a tax.

Hat tip to Jeff Alexander.

A fairly good one sheet from Elsevier. Hat tip to Mike Taylor:


StressMarq Biosciences has a twelve point guide to making a poster. I agree with about 10 of those points. Their template is too busy, bullet points are rarely better than short paragraphs, and I don’t know why they recommend the PNG format for pictures. It’s still a pixel-based image; vector images are always better.

What can scientists learn from designers? Quite a bit:

Scientists need to remember that they are deliberately designing a product for an end-user.  This focus on an audience may seem obvious, but it is surprising how many scientists forget about their target audience.  We say “it is time to submit the paper to the journal,” or “we need to make a poster for the conference,” and we often forget that we are really creating products for people.

Jonathan Owen wants to help you decide when to use quotation marks. Hat tip to Mike Taylor.



“Once you understand the design of flags... you can understand the design of almost anything.” This nice TED talk makes a reasonably convincing case for that thesis, and there are lots of lessons for poster design, too. Hat tip to B. Haas. This gives me an excuse to show this flag, because it’s well designed, celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, and is my nation’s flag:


Compare to the flag of Milwaukee:


Far too many posters look like the Milwaukee flag.

Laura Bergalls talks about what a walk in the wood taught her about getting attention.


You may have heard that making something hard to read makes it more likely you will understand it. One fancy way of saying this is “cognitive disfluency.” Turns out... not to be the case. Hat tip to Emily Willingham , Janet Stemwedel, and Aatish Bhatia.

Mad Max: Fury Road and Captain America serve as reminders: some things are visual media. John Wick explains (original emphasis):

Watching (Mad Max: Fury Road) made me think of that meme going around with Captain America lecturing Spider-Man. It’s nearly three pages long and it’s just Cap quoting from a book. Quoting from a book.


Not only did this bore me to tears, but it also stunk like a burned out writer looking to fill page count. Now look, I’m a huge Alan Moore fan, so I’m used to verbosity in comics, but Moore understands that comics is a visual medium. This kind of exposition doesn’t belong in a visual art like comics or films. Moore gets that. So does George Miller. Everything in this movie communicates in such a powerful way that dialogue is almost unnecessary. Cap is a man of action, not a man of lecture.

Conference posters are also a visual medium.

I often use other people’s images in my posters. A new source of of high resolution public domain images can be found at the State Library Victoria. Many of these are old vintage black and white photos, which can give them a lot of visual interest. This pic of Wendy the Wombat is proof. This post is better because it has a picture of a wombat. Hat tip to my mate Ely Wallis.


Designing a new typeface is a challenge, and Japanese particularly so. Here’s a peek into a Japanese type foundry, where they are still designing each character by hand. (Original article, with images but paywalled text, is here.) Hat tip to Garr Reynolds and John Meada. http://t.co/QIiNl2N4Cm


Devony Looser on the joys of academic conferences. It includes tips:

Do not write or revise your paper or poster at the conference. I’ve seen junior and senior colleagues make this tactical error all the time. You must have your paper finished before you come to the conference... You do not earn any points with anyone by saying, “I can’t go because I have to go to my room and finish my paper.”

On the flip side, we have Christy Wampole, who is tired of conferences.

Academic conferences are a habit from the past, embraced by the administrativersity as a way to showcase knowledge and to increase productivity in the form of published conference proceedings. We have been complicit.

But... counterpoint! David Perry replies to Wampole and argues we should save conferences:

Everything I have ever published has direct origins in one or more conferences, a lineage I can trace through my CV, mapping the formal and informal ways that academic gatherings have shaped my work. And I know I’m not alone.

The book How Posters Work by Ellen Lupton is coming out soon (and you better believe I’ll be reviewing it!). Here’s an article about the exhibition the accompanies the book:

“Posters are the only genre of graphic design that is explicitly created to be stuck on a wall,” Lupton told me in an email. “Many people are more comfortable displaying posters in their own homes or work spaces than they are with more formal or serious works of art. Posters are part of everyday life, so they feel approachable and real.”

Here are 27 jokes for graphic designers. Hat tip to Garr Reynolds.

An even better joke for graphic designers is the #DrunkTufte hashtag on Twitter.

In last month’s link roundup, I pointed to an article about the perils of bar graphs. This month, I’m pointing to a round-up of the reaction to it.

Quote of the month from Lindsay Waldrop:

That thing where you said you’d do a poster and then completely forget about it until the day before you leave. o.O