22 March 2018

Critique: The Capricorn Experiment, plus: Font families

Today’s poster is about the Capricorn Experiment, not to be confused with the 1970s conspiracy movie, Capricorn One:

The only conspiracy in the new poster, from Vidhi Bharti at Monash University in Melbourne, is the justification for “Capricorn”. It’s supposed to be an abbreviation for, “Clouds, Aerosols, Precipitation, Radiation, and Atmospheric Composition Over the Southern Ocean.” The experiment should really be “Capracoso.” I mean, you just don’t get to make abbreviations out of any letter somewhere in the word! It would be like abbreviating the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley as “EXONE”.

But I digress. Let’s look at the poster, which you can click to enlarge!

Vidhi wrote:

I work on boundary layer meteorology, which basically deals with a lot of mathematical equations and unattractive diagrams. Therefore, presenting it all in an attractive package is a big challenge.

Vidhi does a good job of rising to that challenge with this poster.

I like the way this poster tackled the two column layout. While I normally would prefer the two columns to be even in width, when there are only two, having the two columns differ in width is perhaps not so annoying as when there are three or more columns.

Everything could use more space around it. I would try shrinking a lot of elements, maybe 85-90%, to give each bit a little more breathing room. The main text of the poster is so readable that it can afford to be a little bit smaller, so that the overall appearance isn’t so crowded.

The poster could also use a stronger sense of visual hierarchy. In particular, the author and institution names are bigger than the text below them. This causes two problems.

  1. The bylines chew up space that this poster needs to reclaim.
  2. The size indicates those names are more important than what the poster is about. With respect to the team, who I have no reason to think are anything other than fab human beings and scientists, the person reading the poster is probably more interested in the text of the poster than who wrote it.

The bottom of the “Analysis” box is driving me a bit crazy, because the bottom margin is obviously thinner that the top or left. The text on the right of that box occasionally strays a little close to the edge.

I like the fonts, but I noticed there were two of them: one in the main text, and another in the lower left box. I asked Vidhi if there was any particular reason to switch to a different font in the “Capricorn Experiment” box. She replied:

I derived the layout inspiration from magazine articles where they usually divide the sections into different columns and keep one highlighted box. For my poster, I wanted “Capricorn experiment” to be that highlighted box.

I’ve used callout boxes myself (see the 2012 Neuroethology poster here), and I applaud the idea. The execution might be improved with some different font choices. The two fonts are, to my eye, too different from each other, and they clash a little bit. What Vidhi needed was a font family: a set of complementary fonts deliberately meant to work together. Usually, they are all designed by the same person or foundry.

Here’s an example of a font family in action on an infographic I made for CBC’s Quirks and Quarks radio show (the version below was tweaked slightly after I submitted to the show):

There are at four or five different typefaces on that image. But they are all part of the same font family, Adorn. Adorn is an excellent example of a font family. In the case of Adorn, none of the edges are perfectly smooth. Every typeface, whether slab or Roman or script, has a hand-drawn feel, like it was created with ink and paper.

For Windows computers, Arial is a font family that many would recognize. It comes in a narrow, black, and rounded fonts.Not as different from each other as Adorn, but the idea is the same.

MyFonts, Fontshop, and other online font stores usually have bundles, families, or similar things for sale. Sometimes the fonts are simply different weights or styles of the same font (bold, italic, book weight, thin, etc.; see FF Tisa for an example). Sometimes, particularly with display fonts, the mixes of styles is more dramatic and ambitious, like Adorn or Phonema.

While I do think imposing limitations on yourself can be useful, the system fonts are that come on most computers are sometimes too restrictive. Times New Roman was a default font for a long time, and many people still use it for much text. Yet it still seems limited on many computers to a single font. There aren’t light or heavier weights.

While there is an initial cost outlay to buying a font family, just a couple of font families in your toolkit opens a lot of possibilities in design.

 Additional: Peter Newbury shared an example of fonts not working together:

It’s like somebody was trying to win at Font Bingo.

15 March 2018

Critique: Solid state hydrogen

Today’s poster comes to us courtesy of Mi Tian. Click to enlarge!

The individual blocks (like “Background” and “Research goals”) are good. I like the colour choices and the “pins” by the headings as graphic elements.

The arrangement of the blocks on the page is not as good. The reading order is confusing. The little lines to the pins, plus the height on the page (i.e., closest to title), suggest I’m supposed to start with “Research goals”. But normal reading order would suggest I start with “Background.” I’d try flipping “Summary” and “Acknowledgements”, which would place those two blocks in positions that are more typical of where those are usually placed.

The poster feels very crowded. Tons of elements are almost touching each other.

  1. The “Summary” heading is almost touching the edge of the blue box its in.
  2. The pin by “Introduction” is almost touching the graph above.
  3. All the logos down in the corner are almost touching each other.
  4. The “Applications” heading pokes up higher than the text in the section above it (“>86 kg/m3”), messing with the clear division of sections.

Everything below the title bar would benefit from being shrunk a bit -- maybe 95-90%, at a guess -- to make more space between the elements.

In the “Applications” section, it’s not clear why “Polymer” and “Composite” are capitalized, when nothing else is at that text level. Similarly, if “goals” (in “Research goals”) is not capitalized, “Solid” in “Investigation of Solid H2” shouldn’t be, either.

The red and blue in the title image might be worth tweaking. Red touching blue can cause chromostereopsis, which a lot of people find distracting. It’s not bad, because the blue is dark, but still.

08 March 2018

#RSCposter 2018

The hashtag #RSCposter is short for, “Royal Society of Chemistry poster,” and it blew up on science Twitter this week. This was a seriously organized event, with rules as comprehensive as I’ve seen for some in person conferences.

Organizer Edward Randviir explains (lightly edited):

The goal of this is to provide a new innovative conferencing format that takes advantage of modern social media... We also wanted to gives presenters a free platform to present and discuss their work, and encourage particularly young researchers to participate in academic discourse to build their confidence. Twitter was the most appropriate social media platform. Many professionals across a range of sectors use Twitter for professional purposes, unlike Facebook or other social media outlets. Twitter limits the discussion to 280 characters, which challenges participants to be concise while communicating key messages from their work.

This was the fourth time the Society had done this, but it was the first time I’d noticed. Edward explained that the first two years (2015, 2016) had about 80 people contributing (using the hashtag #RSCAnalyticalPoster). It expanded in 2017 to none areas of chemistry, and participation jumped to about 220 posters. “Following on from that success,” Edward continued, “we brought in chemical engineering this year. With help from several Royal Society of Chemistry journals, we have seen participation increase again by around 12%. We hope to grow the event further in the future.”

Tweeting posters presents its own particular problems. Twitter is a mobile phone app at heart (as much as Twitter tries to make it the “everything machine”), and mobile phones are small screens, not big poster boards. I was viewing posters on big desktop computer. Even with a fairly high resolution computer screen, I worried about whether people would dump posters meant to be printed 2 meters across into a tweet and that it would be too small to see.

Lucie Nurdin noticed one workaround:

Opening the poster into a new tab allows to zoom on it and have a high resolution image. Glad I figured that out!

To my surprise, most posters were readable. But alas, not all were. This poster by Jinchuan Yang, fell into the trap of not making the text big enough for a Tweet. Click to enlarge (or any subsequent poster).

Progyata Chakma mostly did okay on the right and middle columns, but some of the left hand text is too small to read.

This, from GKalqurashi, is another example of a poster that wasn’t readable on my desktop.

Most posters were readable on my desktop, although some were often barely so.

Another problem with tweeting a poster is that when you post an image on Twitter, it creates a preview image that is resized and cropped down. It used to be 440 × 220 pixels (a 2:1 aspect ratio) in landscape format (wider than tall). I’m not sure that’s still true, because I saw a lot of square preview images. And many people use clients other than Twitter.

Regardless, most posters I saw were not optimized for preview images. I saw lots of posters in portrait format (taller than wide), which no app I know uses for Twitter previews.

Because of the cropped previews, the poster’s title – the most important part of a poster – were often hidden. This problem was mitigated a little, because the tweet itself could serving the job the title usually does: to entice the passerby. (Or scrollerby, in this case).

Luke Wilkinson’s poster caught my eye by placing a cute robot right in the middle, where it will be seen despite how Twitter crops rectangular images. Placing it in a circle also helps break up the rectangle monotony that you get when faces with scrolling through lots of posters.

Yuanning Feng took advantage of the format to make an animated poster. This does not look as good here on the blog as the original tweet, because of the hoops I have to jump through to convert a *.gif posted to Twitter – which Twitter converts to a movie – back into a *.gif.

Feng’s animation seems to be getting him about three times as many “likes” as most posters.

But as of now, it seems one of the most popular posters was by Jo-Han Ng. (And once you visit that, check Errant Science’s riff on Ng’s poster!)

As I scrolled through #RSCposter, my overall impression was, “Oh, there are all the problems that I usually see on academic posters. Too much to read. Too many boxes, not enough white space. Photo backgrounds that make the main stuff hard to read. Colour overlead.”

“New bottles for old wine,” as the saying goes.

External links

Take part in a truly global scientific conference
RSC Twitter Poster Conference 2018

01 March 2018

Critique: RNA capping

Today’s contribution comes from Melvin Noé González. It was presented at an RNA meeting at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories. Click to enlarge!

He writes:

Through the years I experimented with various templates for poster presentation, and I’m proud to say I’m really happy with how this one turned out. As you will find, I used a piece of advice you mentioned in one of your posts regarding a short summary section — and people loved it! I was approached by several people just because they thought the layout was cool, even though I wasn’t related to their research.

I’m always glad to have feedback that advice works!

The title bar works well, by presenting everything cleanly. The logo is sensibly over to one side, and blends into the background. The authors names are prominent, with institution and contact information legible, but low key.

This poster is well organized, which helps walk you though what is maybe a little too much material. The numbers by each heading ensure you don’t get lost.

Some of the layout would benefit from a little more tweaking. The spacing between the boxes is inconsistent. The margin above the “Graphical summary” are wider than the margins between the “Background” boxes and the data boxes on the right.

There’s one place where this poster goes off the rails. Fortunately, it’s down in the fine print section, in the acknowledgements and references. While I appreciate how beautiful that three-dimensional molecular structure is, and how much it adds visually to the poster, it does terrible things to the text around it.

It’s tearing that text apart.

When we read, we expect related text to be close together. When I look at the “Acknowledgements,” I see two blocks of text that I want to read separately.

But how you are supposed to read the acknowledgements is far more complicated. What I thought was the first sentence of the first text block is the third fragment of the entire acknowledgements section.

Just when I think I have gotten used to the lines broken into two pieces, the second to last line gets split into three pieces.

The same thing happens in the references, with a DOI number danging far from the “doi:” text identifying it.

Wrapping text around an object can look graceful and elegant. But you cannot just “set and forget” a setting in your layout software. You have to be willing to go in and adjust things by hand to avoid these kinds of problems.

Nine is fine!

Happy blogiversary to me!

It is a little bit crazy for me to think that this blog has been running for nine years straight. And still going (reasonably) strong!

It is mostly thanks to my readers and contributors – which is to say, you. I appreciate your attention, and hope this resource continues to help you.

Thank you for stopping by.

Picture from here.

22 February 2018

Lab posters are not conference posters

When I wander through department hallways and professor offices, I often see posters like this, from Rottner and colleagues (2017; tweeted by journal here). Click to enlarge!

These sort of posters often feature cellular processes or biochemical pathways. They are often professionally done, attractive, and valuable teaching tools. But they are not good examples that conference poster makers should be trying to imitate.

A poster like this is meant for experts, so presumes a high level of knowledge. It is intended to be something you can look at for days, weeks, months, sometimes even years. They can show lots of fiddly little details that you can discover over that long period of time.

In a conference poster session, you have a few minutes for someone to absorb the work, not months. You can’t stuff in the same level of detail in conference poster that you can in a lab poster.

Hat tip to Prachee Avasthi.


Rottner K, Faix J, Bogdan S, Linder S, Kerkhoff E. 2017.

Link roundup for February 2018

Neuroskeptic asks whether conferences are hostile environments.

I have never been the target of a harsh question at a conference but one of my colleagues was, a couple of years ago.

08 February 2018

Critique: Sudden stop

Last week, I talked about the difference between gaudy and bold. Stacy Shield provides two examples of going bold in poster design. Click to enlarge!

Red, black, and white. Talk about a striking choice of colours. The limited colour palette gives this poster an almost “duotone” look:

It wouldn’t look out of place at a White Stripes concert:

Another poster from Stacy again showcases her strong sense of colour.

Stacy’s posters are not based on the same template, but are recognizably by the same person. It shows that you can develop a distinctive personal style in creating posters.

The colours are so strong and vibrant that they leap out at you. But they are selected carefully. There are not many colours; just three carefully chosen ones. They don’t look like an“all over the place” clash that can make a poster look gaudy.

I would like to see that same discipline that is brought to the colour choices also brought to the content. These posters feature a lot of text and small graphics. The posters would be even stronger if they had fewer words and bigger images.

Stacy has two tricks that almost hide the amount of text, though.

  1. She interspersed the text with lots of small graphics throughout the poster, so the impression of “big intimidating text blocks” is reduced.
  2. She changes the colours and size of the text, particularly in the spider poster. For example, the title has two colours and three font sizes. In the second column, “Explaining the” is smaller than “Motion of the Spider.” The words become a graphic element instead of a purely textual element.

The posters are well structured to make it clear what order they are read in. The first poster has strong bands of colour, with white diving lines, that make it clear to read across in rows. The second poster is not as clear cut, because it switches from reading across (“Background”) to reading down (“Methodology & Testing”).

You would be hard pressed to walk by either of these in a conference hall and not notice these posters. They command that you take a second look, which is critical in a conference setting. I’m still not entirely convinced I that would read the whole thing if the presenter wasn’t there, though.

If the presenter is there, you’re in luck. Having met Stacy at the last Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting, I will say that she is definitely worth talking to!

01 February 2018

Subtle, gaudy, and bold

Last week, I showed a sweet poster from Desi Quintans. Desi added a great question in his email that I thought deserved its own blog post:

I noticed that the posters that did well in real life were made with strong, almost gaudy colours. In particular, the ones with very large blocks of strong colour were quickly noticed compared to the understated ones like mine. How can one walk the line between elegant design and the reality of grabbing a person's attention in a room that's already visually and aurally noisy?

Let’s look as Desi’s poster again, just for context. Click to enlarge!

Desi calls this poster “understated,” which is an apt description. As I wrote last week, I like this power a lot, but I think Desi’s description is apt. You might also call it subtle. What are the characteristics that give it that look? (Click to enlarge.)

A lot has to do with the colour scheme. There are a lot of earthy tones, particularly up in the title. Even when using primary colours in the graphs, they are not saturated, intense colours.

The typography is a straighforward sans serif. It’s very readable, but there is nothing distinctive about it. Indeed, that is the point of many book typefaces: they are supposed to fade away so that you can focus on reading.

Now let’s consider what looks gaudy. Something like one of those unsolicited flyers you get in your mailbox would count:

The choice of colours contributes to the feeling of cheap. These are bright, primary colours that are hard to ignore.

But it’s not just bright colours. It’s the business of it all. There are so many things on the page! There are a lot of fonts, in a lot of sizes and colours.

This is one of the major factors that make so many academic posters look gaudy: too much stuff, too small, too crammed.

There’s the sense that everything on the page is screaming, “Look at me!” 

But the lesson from the above is not, “No bright colours.” Lots of great movie posters and magazine covers mastered the art of being bold without being gaudy, with no loss of their ability to command attention.

This movie poster has lots of bright blocks of colours, high contrast black and white shapes. But it looks classy, not gaudy.

A bold design has focus. It tries to do a few things, not everything.

Bold designs don’t necessarily use a gold font. There may not be a lot of words in such a design, but they can be set in typefaces that are exaggerated in some way. It could be narrow font, a cursive font, a wide font, an italic font, or an engraved font.

Bold designs use lots of space. There is no compulsion to fill every inch of the page with something.

Some designs mix elements styles. Here’s a movie I can’t wait to see:

And here is an alternate design:

The posters for The Shape of Water are both very subtle in their use of colour: the palette is limited, and the contrast is low. But it is also bold in how it focuses on a single, striking image.

Your poster should be bold, not gaudy. This means that you need to edit. You need to find, as much as possible, a strong image that can represent the major point you want to make. You need to give that image space around it to breathe.

Related posts

Critique: Bugs and beans

External links

The hand drawn journey of the ‘Shape of Water’ poster
Gaudy vs. Glam: Guide to Wearing costume Jewelry without looking tacky

25 January 2018

Critique: Bugs and beans

Desi Quintans was kind enough to contribute his EcoTAS 2017 poster this week. Click to enlarge!

This is a sweet poster that I like a lot.

It is not crowded; there is plenty of white space to separate everything.

The use of wide margins and a few subtle reinforcing lines make the reading order clear: you read this across in rows.

There are plenty of different colours. Even though there are lots of primary colours (red, blue, green, and so on), they are low key enough that the colours are not competing with each other. Instead, it feels very harmonious. The colours are used not just in the figures, but in the headings to make them pop and reduce the “greyness” of the text.

There is only one place where I feel there was a missed opportunity. Unfortunately, it’s a critical one. It’s the title.

The culprit is the photo background. The photo and the title are in the same orange to brown colour range. By making the text box transparent to let the photo show underneath, the contrast between the text and background is reduced so much that the title is practically camouflaged from a distance. Even usual tricks like making the title bigger or bolder would probably not be enough to make the title stand out from a distance. That being said, the title could stand to be both bigger and heavier.

I also love the idea of the one sentence take home underneath the title. Again, though, the photo background robs the idea of the win by hiding the text.

Speaking of the title, Desi wrote:

I regret the generic title of my poster, but it’s what I gave to the conference before I even knew what I’d be presenting. The conference materials were already printed by the time I came up with the poster. In hindsight, no one cared about my title in the printed abstract and I should have gone ahead and changed it anyway.

Desi’s point is a good one: abstracts are submitted so far in advance that nobody expects them to be reflect what is on the final poster perfectly. While there is a case that changing the title might cause confusion, I think people usually find poster by the numbers of the posterboard. Changing a title probably does not make it difficult to find.

Related posts

Your title is 90% of your poster

18 January 2018

Critique: Let’s compare

Today’s contribution comes from Richard McGee. Click to enlarge!

Before I get to the critique, Richard has a word of warning for us. Here he is presenting his poster. See any differences in the photo below compared to what is above on your screen?

For me, the right triangle and the bottom triangle are clearly different in the top image, but almost the same blue in the bottom one. Richard writes:

The printer I went to couldn’t print it to the size I wanted. It ended up being smaller than anticipated. Also, the colours looked different on printing than I had expected, based on the computer screen and my trial run on A4 paper.

This is why professional artists get proofs from the printer before going into production. Both the printer and artist should be sure that reproduction is as expected. Unfortunately, academics sometimes don’t have the time or money to go through a proofing stage.

This also means that the text, which is mostly readable, in the top version gets lost in the printed version. The darker colours are making it harder to pick out the black letters. This is a slight problem in the top version, particular at the bottom, but looks not so great in the printed version.

Richard continues:

I had a specific goal in creating my poster in having it stand out as a bit different and generating interest, so more like an advertisement rather than providing a synopsis of a paper.

I have noticed that students beginning a project give among the best talks and posters, because they are not burdened down by data. This is true of this poster, too.

Not having to fit in a lot of text let Richard to use a big, bold colour patches of colour. Because they are all in the same region of the spectrum, down in the blues and greens, the colours aren’t clashing and being an eyesore, which is always a risk with big blocks of colour.

And I like that those big bold blocks of colour are in triangles! The text blocks could have easily been three rectangles, but the triangles make this so much more distinct. It’s a good example of harnessing the power of diagonals, which Ellen Lupton talks about in her book How Posters Work.

I like the use of the “1, 2, 3” in the central circle to indicate the slightly non-standard reading order. If you’re going to use a slightly non-standard reading order, it’s only polite to guide the readers through it. I don’t think anyone would be confused by the order here.

It is a shame that the printer did not quite come through for Richard.

05 January 2018

The view from SICB 2018: "The effect of..."

I am in San Francisco for the annual Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting. At every meeting I go to, I am looking for trends in poster design, either good or bad. This year, I have noticed this on posters more than usual: poster titles that begin with some variant of "The effect of,,,"

And no, "Impacts on" is not better.

This is a bland, worthless phrasing for a title. Practically every scientific study is trying to find the effect of one variable on another. Surely you have some idea of what the likely effect is, either from your hypothesis or from your data, so why not tell us what the effect is? Do X increase Y? Does X decrease Y? Does X benefit Y or does X inhibit Y?

If I might ancitipate the excuse -- that the conference abstract deadline is so far in advance that we don't know what the results are yet -- my reply is, "Change the title of your poster." There is nobody checking to ensure that your abstract title and printed poster title match perfectly,

Comic Sans on posters census: one so far. Well done, SICB poster makers, for keeping that number so low!