04 February 2016

Critique: Gull movements

Today’s poster is courtesy of Christine Anderson. This was presented at last year’s World Seabird Conference. Spoiler alert: this poster contains seabirds. Click to enlarge!

Christine wrote that she was a blog reader, and posts like this and this inspired her.

Many things work on this poster. Neither the big, big title nor the picture of the gull can be missed. The picture being in a circle helps draw in the eye. The choice of colours, I think determined by the maps, is generally harmonious.

One of the unusual things about this poster is how it handles the author list. There are six authors, but the lead is quite a bit bigger than the others. I am guessing that Christine was the presenting author, and thus the only person at the poster during presentation time. This might have some advantages for the reader, as it allows you to identify who the presenter is quickly. On the other hand, having the presenting author’s name larger than those of the co-authors might be viewed as a downplaying of the contributions of the other authors.But then again, just the ordering of names does that.

This technique probably can’t work if the presenting author is not the first author. It would look dumb if the author list was:

Christine Anderson
Mark Mallory
Grant Gilchrist
Rob Ronconi
Chip Wesloh
Dan Clark

There are two things that might improve this poster.

First, almost everything could do with some more generous margins. The poster looks a little crowded. The Figure 1 legend looks like it’s just about set to bump into the latitude numbers on the neighbouring map.

Second, the recommendation for a little more spaciousness also applies to the text. The crowded feeling isn’t helped by the bullets. If you’re going to have bulleted lists, I like them set with hanging indents, like this:

I also added 6 points after each paragraph.

Christine wrote that the poster got a good reception, which I am always pleased to hear!

Related posts

Critique: fetal movements 
Critique: Rein it in
Bullets versus sentences

28 January 2016

Link roundup for January 2016

We have a new contender for “worst graph ever”: the pie cloud.

What... I mean... Why... I... I give up. Shudder. Hat tip to Andrew Gelman.

Pieter Torrez has an article on how to create a beautiful scientific poster.There’s good advice on use of colours, text, software tools. The only thing I’m not sure I agree with is adding a picture of yourself.

Eve Heaton decided to use the trick that every conference vendor learned long ago to attract passers-by:

Hat tip to Colin Purrington.

Because PowerPoint is so often used to make posters as well as presentations, I have to link to this long, thorough analysis of PowerPoint’s history and use. The history is impeccable, although the analysis of PowerPoint’s importance is variable and sometimes told in fancy academese instead of plain English. Here’s an excerpt I like (that applies to poster presentations, too):

Rich Gold, manager of the Research in Experimental Documents group at Xerox PARC and self-proclaimed PowerPoint maestro, characterized presentations as jazz. Slides are merely the starting point, the “bass rhythm, and chord changes over which the melody is improvised.” ... Reading from notes or slides violates the expectation that a speaker can lay it down fresh every time, connecting with the group around a commonly held artifact.

Check out the list of 2015’s most popular fonts. Plenty of gorgeous fonts, though quite a few would only be good in very small doses on an academic poster.

21 January 2016

Critique: Thale cress RNA

Today’s poster is from Andrzej Zielezinski. It was shown at the twentieth annual meeting of the RNA Society last year. Click to enlarge!

This poster feels very contemporary and in tune with the times. The style is very close to “flat design” seen a lot on the web: clean, primary colours, sans serif type, very little shading. (Indeed, the website mentioned on the poster has a similar aesthetic.) I love how the core of the poster (the intro, methods, and results) looks.

The abstract is problematic. At a distance or shrunk down, that big rectangle in the upper left just dominates the poster’s visuals. It draws you in, and give you... blocks of text as a reward.

I would have tried to lighten up that block so it isn’t so visually dominant. In this quick and dirty redo, I’ve made the text that nice green, for emphasis, but put the box into a lighter, more neutral grey.

It’s not quite right, but I think the balance is a little better. The better solution would be to remove it entirely!

The grey stripes in the background are subtle enough that they are not overwhelming. Like the abstract, however, they might be lightened up around the edges f the poster a bit. The stripes are running at three different angles, too: the set running across the bottom is not lining up with the upper left. And if the stripes are going to radiate out from the center of the poster, maybe they should do that in all the corners.

The title bar is unusual: very few people right align their titles, because that’s not where we are trained to read. In this case, because you have that big abstract block in the upper left, having the title on the left too would have been far too much. Having space around the abstract block helps the overall look of the poster.

The title text feels a little light. Because it is set in a low contrast light green in a thin font, with a few grey stripes behind it, it might not be easily readable or noticeable from a distance.

I’m a little puzzled that a website link shows up in two places: under the authors’ affiliations, and down in the bottom green bar. I would be tempted to have it in one place alone. My instinct would be to cut the top one, so I could make the title and author’s section a bit roomier, or maybe larger.

Similarly, I can’t quite figure out why two logos are sensibly corralled in the bottom, while one is taking a primo spot in the title bar. I’m guessing the one in the title is the institution and the others are funding agencies?

The genus and species names (Arabidopis thaliana) are not in italics anywhere. My reaction:

15 January 2016

Critique: Sea turtles eating trash

This week’s poster is like those “Spot the difference” cartoons that used to appear in the classified ad section of newspapers (dating myself there). Qamar Schuyler sent me a work in progress, so there are two versions. You can click either to enlarge!

There’s a lot to like. The sea turtle provides a clear cue as to what this poster is about. I wonder if a picture of a turtle ingesting debris might be an even better indicator of the poster’s topic. The trade-off could be that a poster of a turtle in trouble might be disheartening and a turn-off to a potential reader. Maybe the healthy, charismatic turtle used here is the right choice.

The main data, the maps, are up front and center. The big coloured map is placed just where it should be: right in the upper middle. The caption for it, though, is a little problematic, because it’s been severed from the image it describes.

In general, you want to place descriptive text as close to the image it’s linked to as possible.

A similar problem occurs with the smaller maps. While they don’t have to be read in any particular order, they do wind around, snake-like, between the colour map and the captions.

Part of the problem here is that five maps are the same size, and one – for Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle – is narrower. I would still try to put these in a more consistent two by three grid, and just suck up that the last one isn’t a perfect fit. Perhaps the figure caption could slot into the extra space, maybe like this:

Or this:

Of course, I’ve cheated in the sketches above because I haven’t relocated any of the text. Repositioning the figures would require a massive revision of the right side of the poster, perhaps moving the “Results” section into the upper right corner.

Here’s Qamar’s tweaked version. Spot the differences!

Some of the differences I caught (not intended to be an exhaustive list):

  • The box around the conclusions has been given a red border to “pop” the take home message. I like it.
  • A graph has been added to results. I like this, too. Visuals are better than words.
  • A poster number has been added. I’m very mildly against this, because I’m not sure it does much besides take up space. On the other hand, it is unobtrusive and might help someone.
  • The proportions have changed a little.
  • The “Contact me” box in the lower right has been tweaked a bit, and is better aligned with the box above it. I would like it more if it was the same width as the box above, though.

You can see this poster with Qamar at the Ocean Sciences meeting in New Orleans in February. If you can’t make it to the Big Easy, you can read the pre-print of the article here.


Schuyler QA, Wilcox C, Townsend KA, Wedemeyer-Strombe KR, Balazs G, van Sebille E, Hardesty, BD. 2015. Risk analysis reveals global hotspots for marine debris ingestion by sea turtles. Global Change Biology: in press. http://dx.doi.org10.1111/gcb.13078

07 January 2016

The view from the floor of SICB 2016

It’s been a while since I’ve been to a conference, but this week I was at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology in Portland. These were things that I noticed while looking at the posters.

Fabric posters are still a minority, but I think you can always count on seeing a few. I finally saw a fabric poster made by Spoonflower. I’ve blogged about this service, but hadn’t seen one “in the wild,” so to speak. The presenter was generally happy with how it looked, although was putting in quite a bit of effort to make it hang right. It is a very stretchy fabric, almost like spandex, so tends to sag. If you are going to have a fabric poster, remember to iron it before bringing it to the session.

I ran across multiple posters that tried to say something about differences that were not statistically significant. I read text like, “The experimental group was slightly higher than the control (p = 0.07).” No! If the difference is not significant, saying anything more about the relative values of the averages is meaningless. Because if the difference is not statistically significant, you are saying that difference is due to chance, which mean that the difference you are describing could just have easily been in the opposite direction.

I referred multiple people to this blog post, “Still not significant.”

Too many titles were hard to read from a distance. The poster sessions are busy, with a lot of browsers, so your title should be visible from the moon.

I bugged many presenters about their error bars. Most posters I saw had at least one bar graph with error bars, and about 80-90% of those had no indication anywhere on the poster of whether the bars were standard deviation, standard error, or something else. This matters a lot for interpretation.

Update, 8 January 2016: My efforts to make a graphic for this post backfired. I’m leaving the image here, but several people busted me on an insufficiently nuanced quote about p-values. I’ll pick this blog post from Scientist Sees Squirrel for further discussion.

While the image here could be better, I think the larger point still makes sense: if your model says your results are probably due to chance (however you set that model up), describing experimental conditions as larger or smaller doesn’t make sense.

31 December 2015

Link roundup for December 2015

I’ve been tracking hacks for videos on posters for some time. Now, Pieter Torrez is working on another version of interactive posters. Read more about this here.

This poster was nominated (informally) as the best poster of the Dutch chemistry conference:

Hat tip to Vittorio Saggiomo and Megan Lynch.

The poster above tries to make use of readily recognized symbols. But how hard is it to make a symbol that is universally recognized? Learn the origins of... Helvetica man.

Hat tip to Atlas Obscura and Ed Yong.

In Baby Attach Mode ponders whether a student should go to a conference alone. Some students have gone to conferences without me, and I’ve been fine with that. Others, I would not have suggested they go to the conference if I thought they would go on their own.

Is simplicity in design overrated?

Is it as clear as it can be? Then no one cares how complex it is. Build complex things if you need to build complex things. Just put your good design chops to work and make them as clear as you can. It’s the one thing you can do every time.

Part of a conference is about asking questions. Here’s a guide on how to do it well. Hat tip to Toby Lasserson and Anna Sharman.

Designer Ellen Lupton talks about design processes here. I like that even experienced designers still have issues picking typefaces:

Ultimately, you end up going with your gut, but looking at history and context can be a starting point.

Speaking of which, do designers ever realize they’re bad? The Dunning-Kruger effect suggests not, but this Quora thread has some interesting insights on design just the same.

Carolina Gómez reminds us that academics are unfriendly:

in a scientific congress, it’s always harder to approach the “big heads”. It’s not impossible, but circles are so established that breaking into them can be extremely difficult and truth be told, they are not very inviting to let you join. Talking with several of my friends who have left academia, I realized the feeling is a very common one. ...

The other thing about scientific conferences is the patronizing/condescending tone that some people (big wigs or not) take when asking questions after your presentations. There is always this “frenemy” vibe to these interactions: laboratories that are working in similar fields will ask questions that are aimed to throw you down, rarely to make your research better. It’s not that the questions are destructive per se (sadly, some are) but there are questions charged with dismissal of other people’s work.

What can we do to make scientific conferences more welcoming to newcomers?

Prof-Like Substance reminds us not to make figures in PowerPoint.

I just may have gotten a smartwatch in the past week. So I was primed for this story on how Fossil is going about trying to enter the smartwatch arena. I was fascinated by how clearly they prioritized design (my emphasis).

Fossil split its team in two. One team worked closely with Intel on the raw technology, making something as small and usable as possible. Another worked on the design and identity of the products themselves. If there were ever conflicts between the two, the tech team lost.

24 December 2015

Lessons from the Miss Universe 2015 pageant: behind many fails lurk bad design choices

Anyone performing live dreads screwing up. At least in theatre, it’s unlikely to be recorded. But on television, those epic fails will live on for a long time.

This weekend, everyone was talking about this year’s Miss Universe pageant. I am not particularly interested in these events, but host Steve Harvey made an astonishing mistake on live television. He named the wrong winner.

It was just terrible for everyone concerned.

But soon after the event, the card Harvey had to read was posted:

Although this article says, “it’s safe to say it wasn’t the cue card’s fault,” it’s not that cut and dry. When the card was posted on Facebook:

The post has received almost 5000 comments, many agreeing it was understandable he misconstrued the order.

Suddenly, the path to the screw-up seems much more clear. This card did not help Harvey. And the problems with this card are ones that I see on posters all the time.

First, the card doesn’t follow our expected pattern for reading. Instead of the list running from top to bottom, after two names, it suddenly veers right into unknown territory. As this article put it:

(W)hy would they put the winner all the way down at the bottom, underneath “2nd runner up” and “1st runner up?” Everyone knows what “1st” means, and that’s just confusing(.)

There’s actually a term for the phenomenon of tending to ignore things that are placed over to the right: banner blindness. In this time of high Internet use, we’ve gotten used to mostly irrelevant stuff being shoved over to the sides, so people don’t look there very much.

The positions of the three slots on the card becomes more critical when you consider the circumstances when the card is read.

Harvey first reads the card when three finalists are standing to announce the second runner up. Then, to announce the winner, Harvey reads the card when two finalists are standing. When you have two people standing, it’s easy to make the link from the two people to the two words on the left, USA and Colombia. And which one are you going to read? 

And there’s one more problem:

“Philippines”... is printed precisely where a user would likely place their thumb.

Second, the size of the text doesn’t signal importance consistently. The best design feature of this card is that “Miss Universe 2015” is set in a large point size. But the critical word, the winning contestant, is far too small. It just vanishes off the page.

If “Philippines” had been the same size as “Miss Universe 2015,” I think the chance of a mistake would have dropped way down.

One other possibility would have been to make one separate card that declared the winner, with nothing else on it, so you could not confuse the sequence. But it’s easy to say that in retrospect, knowing that Harvey made a mistake.

I like this redesign:

Another redesign is here.

This card may well become one of the most intensely scrutinized pieces of design since the “butterfly ballots” in the 2000 American presidential election.
Everyone would like to think that they could read a card like the one that was posted. It wasn’t as though the text was unclear or incorrect. All you had to do was read. But the reality is that people make mistakes, and the way you expect someone to read a card is not necessarily the way they will read it.

External links

Look at Steve Harvey’s Card – He Was Set up to Fail
Would you be confused by the Miss Universe winner’s card?
Here’s A Look At The ‘Miss Universe’ Ballot Card That Caused Steve Harvey To Malfunction 
Steve Harvey Didn’t Ruin Miss Universe, Bad Design Did
We asked design experts if Steve Harvey's Miss Universe flub can be blamed on the ballot card
Don’t Blame Steve Harvey: Bad Design Caused the Miss Universe Fiasco
Last night’s Miss Universe screw-up could have been prevented with good UX

Hat tip to Sakshi Puri.