28 August 2014

Link roundup for August 2014

“Only one idea.” Although this post from Terry McGlynn is about giving oral presentations, I think there is something to apply to posters, too:

When I gave the talks that (at least I suspect) kicked butt... They were all short on data and they only had one idea. ... I intentionally pared back on the data and the overarching research agenda. I just wanted to speak to an idea and wasn’t too concerned about how it made it me look. And, it turned out, the result was that people thought I gave a really good talk.

21 August 2014

Critique: Megafauna

This week’s poster is from Benjamin Seliger, and is used with his permission. Click to enlarge... or perhaps I should say, “megasize.”


I would stop at this poster if I saw it at a conference. There is much to like about the design. The visuals are very strong and very prominent. I love the pictures of the megafauna, the plants, and the maps. There is not too much text.

This poster accidentally demonstrates the power of proximity and white space. When I glanced at this poster, I thought, “This is a very nice two column layout.” But I should have thought, “This is a nice two row layout.” This poster is meant to be read across first, not down, which is the opposite of what I thought from a glance.

I am supposed to see the poster elements in this grouping:


But instead I see this grouping:


The problem arises because there is a wide, generous margin between the columns, but almost none between the rows. We group things that are close together. The authors have tried to signal that these are in rows using horizontal dividers, but the “signal” from the wide margin in the middle is completely overpowering that from those skinny little lines.

That the headings are not that much bigger in size than the subheadings is not helping matters. Compare the size of “The data” to “Joshua tree” underneath it. The “Joshua tree” and “Honey mesquite” subheadings are reinforcing that this is a two column layout instead of a two row layout. I also wonder if flipping the text position (above the animal picture, but below the plant picture in the top row) is contributing.

Fortunately, the solution is simple. Make the margins between the rows bigger than the divisions between the columns. Here’s a quick and dirty revision:


Margins beat lines and boxes in signalling the organization of your material.

14 August 2014

Critique: Protein simulations

I was asked to look over this poster (click to enlarge). Now, this is a draft poster, so some of the large empty spots are deliberately empty, because the data were not in when the draft was tweeted to me.


Have I mentioned lately how much I hate photographic backgrounds on posters? I can’t recall ever seeing one that was effective. If the image is good enough and recognizable enough to show, why would you cover is up with text and data?

The gray photo background picked here is a recipe for disaster. The text is hard to read already, and the gray background will make it almost impossible to read at an distance. It’ll be worse if lighting is dim.

Even if the bothersome background is removed, I doubt this poster will pass the arm’s length test. The main text – and to a lesser degree, the headings – on this poster would both benefit from being bigger. This might require some judicious killing of darlings, but the poster will be better for it. One thing that might help is to make the acknowledgements smaller (make it “fine print”) so the conclusions can be bigger. The conclusions are more important, and one way to signal that is how much space it takes up on the page.

I don’t know what’s going on with that blue thing in the middle of the title bar, apart from it distracting me from the title, and making the title harder to read.

The colours in the methods flowchart seem to be picked almost at random. Kuler is a very useful too for picking harmonious colours.

While I can’t tell for certain with this low res image, but it looks like a lot of things aren’t aligned. The heading boxes definitely do not line up with the images in the lower left.

07 August 2014

Critique: P7C3

Bhavna Guduguntla asked if I could help a friend with this poster (click to enlarge):


A few weeks ago, I mentioned that your title (headline) is 90% of your communication effort. This poster would benefit greatly by taking that one board. The title here is probably one of the least visible things on this poster, for two reasons.

First, it’s competing with a bunch of logos, which are sitting in the poster’s prime real estate: the upper right corner.

Second, the title is thin white text on a light gray background. Those facts alone make the title inconspicuous, but it’s made even worse because it’s surrounded by several black elements: one of the logos, and the authors’ last names. Your eyes are drawn to the highest contrast elements, and it’s not the title. And darn it, you should see the title.

I like the way the authors’ last names are set in black. The last names on a scientific poster are important, because scientific papers are normally referenced by last names. If the names were properly subordinate to the title, this would be an nice design choice.

The main text looks crowded and ill-chosen. The boxes have so much text that the words seem ready to burst out of their boxes. Then, the text is sometimes centered, and sometimes left aligned. Consistency always helps give the appearance of considered, ordered decisions, which is what you want for a research poster. Stick to one format for all text!

The molecule between the two columns is distracting. It sits uncomfortably between the introduction and the data, but doesn’t clearly belong to either section. It’s also crushing up against those other sections.

There are two columns in the middle of the poster: “Log” and “Activity”. I am wondering if these are supposed to be one table? If so, they should touch, and not have a solid band of the background colour between them. Tables are generally not the best way to show data, and I wonder if there is any way to show that as a graph.

I am worried that the graphs at the bottom ones will be hard to see. They are on a coloured background, which reduces their contrast and visibility immediately. And the situation is made worse by the very fine lines used for the graph.

31 July 2014

Link roundup for July 2014

Posters need not just be paper. Louise Hughes made good use of her 3-D printer. This picture by Sam Barry, with a hat tip to Biochem Belle.


More than a few conferences have restrictions about photographing posters. Richard Pearse has something to say about it. The society seems to support him. Hat tip to B. Haas.


This Nature news article about the drafting of a consensus statement on Earth’s tipping point for politicians. It unexpectedly takes a turn that highlights the importance of design:

(California governor Jerry) Brown wanted it classic looking, not flashy or cluttered. They went back and forth on formatting, even where to put the signatures. And the font was key. Brown wanted a simple clear font, Franklin Gothic, with the words ‘scientific consensus’ highlighted in red.


Hat tip to Aerin Jacon. Franklin Gothic image from here.

Terry McGlynn reflects on how to have conversations at conferences. His take home message (his emphasis):

A conversation should never be a mere placeholder.

SlideProof claims it “Spots any kind of inconsistencies. SlideProof identifies wrong font types, sizes or colours. It checks for alignment, margins and bullet types and even detects of wrong page numbers and many more.” is Given how many people create their posters in PowerPoint, this piece of software might be valuable. Hat tip to Chris Atherton.

Although Apple has tended to get the most acclaim for its attention to type, Microsoft and Google have both done a lot of very interesting work over the years. Google’s most recent type project is an overhaul of its typeface Roboto. Hat tip to Ellen Lupton.

(T)ype has become one of the hardest working elements in today’s interfaces, which have been stripped of ornamentation in order to create breathing room for the increasingly complex functions they have to perform.


The case against the bar graph and other summary statistics. The summaries of the data below are the same, but the distribution is quite different. This is the same argument made by Anscombe’s quartet.


If you want to make a cool poster, first, you must know what is cool. Hat tip to Garr Reynolds.

  1. Cool is a social construct.
  2. Something is only cool compared to something else.
  3. Cool is positive.
  4. Cool is unconventional.
The article further explores that last one. You have to be different, but not too different.

24 July 2014

Critique: Immune cells

Matteo di Bernardo reached out to me on Twitter to ask for feedback on this poster (click to enlarge):


My first and fiercest reaction is, “Ditch the abstract!”  Shorter text and a visual may entice people more than a big block of small text, which sucks away energy like a tombstone in a graveyard.

Likewise, the conclusions seem to have a lot of writing for only a couple of data figures. The conclusions are written as a long list of bullet points. An alternative is to turn the first level of bullets into subheadings. Then, there are a few short bullet lists instead of one massive list.

I had a hard time figuring the main take home message of the conclusions. The poster shows a bunch of evidence, but doesn’t make a single definitive statement that ties it all together. (Matteo replied that the data was not very conclusive, making a punchy concluding statement difficult.)

Speaking of headings, the underline should be removed from the headings. Bold does the job.

I am never crazy about logos bookending the title, although this is not the worst case I’ve seen.

The references are chewing up a lot of space, so I would look for ways to abbreviate them. Perhaps they could be shortened with an “et al.” instead of a complete list of every author, or omitting titles or articles. Remember, the point of a reference on a poster is to allow someone to locate a citation unambiguously, and you don’t need every piece of information in a journal reference to do that.

The figures would benefit from captions. Currently, I have no idea what those images mean.

I would also try lightening the dark box around the western blots. The line could be thinner and more subtle, perhaps with a gray instead of a hard black. Similarly, I might try removing or lightening the horizontal lines in graphs, and changing the red in the bottom graph to something in the blue/green palette the rest of the poster is in.

Matteo asked, “Does the color scheme work? Seems a little bland to me...” I replied, “You want bland. Or, if you prefer, subtle. Colour is very, very easy to overdo.” It may be better to use colours in the images on the poster, rather than bringing it on the background and text.

I do like the ample space on this poster. The use of space is done well enough that I would remove the three boxes around the columns, and just let the margins divide the text.

17 July 2014

Critique: a poster about posters

This was up at this year’s annual American Association of Law Libraries conference: a poster about a poster (click to enlarge).



I like the idea of this, but I don’t see it as a terribly well designed poster. Too many colours, and too few elements are aligned. The reading order is chaotic, starting with a column, then flipping to rows.

The big red suitcase dominates the poster, but it seems to be one of the less important points of information.

Some of the content is also weak. “Choose software for layout,” for example, has little indication of what software is better than others, or why. Why not use Microsoft Word? (At least, I’m guessing that is what they are trying to convey with the barred red circle.) Further, I have no idea what the middle two icons are.

The poster is 41 inches high, and the (sideways) text on the right suggests that it couldn't be carried on several American airlines. Most of my posters are 42 inches tall (width of our plotter printer in our building), and I’ve never had to check my poster tube.

The fabric poster shows why I still prefer paper posters: fabrics are hard to get to hand as cleanly as paper posters.

Hat tip to Megan Lynch for drawing my attention to this, and to Sarah Glassmeyer for taking the picture.