20 June 2019

Critique: Quantum circuits

 It’s time to descend into the quantum realm...


Today’s contribution comes from Adam Kelly. Click to enlarge!


When I first opened this up, I could see a few things. I liked the colour. I liked some elements of the type. The organization is a little unusual, but clear. And it sure looks like a lot of reading.

I don’t know how much all the good things weighs against that last one.

This reminds me of a “News and Views” article in Nature or an “In Depth” piece in Science. The poster is divided almost exactly in half, like a two page spread in magazine. The sidebars and blocks of text feel like they are from a magazine article. The summary under the title, with the byline under that, looks like Nature’s house style. Here’s an example:


And this example from Science is similar. Big title, then short summary, then the author.

This is so common in magazines that I hadn’t realized that I almost never see this style on a poster. And now that I think about it, it’s damn clever. People are going to look at the title more than anything else. So this provides a good way of providing a teaser or summary exactly where people will look the most.

And with apologies to your ego, that content is more important than your name and affiliation (which is usually what goes right under the title), so the summary deserves to be above your name.

The amount of text is perfect for an article that you might have in the faculty or grad student lunchroom, where you could spend a half an hour working through the bits, then pick it up and re-read the next day to make sure you understood it.

It would make a great poster in a department hallway or classroom or lab for the same reason. People could see it over and over, and pick it apart as over a few days.

But in a conference? I would probably ignore this, unless I was very interested in quantum circuits. Not only is there a lot, but the type is small and hard to read from a distance. I can see the title, summary, and headings fine, but all the regular text text would probably fail the “arm’s length” test. Even if I was way into quantum circuits, I probably wouldn’t invest the time to read it if the presenter wasn’t there. I would want to talk to Adam personally.

To borrow a turn of phrase from artist Sam Keith, this poster is like Jimi Hendrix in the Beatles. It’s brilliant, but it might be in the wrong place.

External links

Adam Kelly

13 June 2019

Critique or makeover? I forget

This week’s poster comes from Hanna Isotalus. Click to enlarge!


This is a project that might be better served by a talk than a poster. With over a dozen complex graphs and images, this poster does not advertise itself as a quick read.

Hanna wrote:

There are a couple of blips I’ve already noticed. Mainly that the result figures go from A to B to D (who needs C anyway!). I would have the top two figures in B the other way around as this would have made more sense when presenting.

As it happens, Hanna put the headings (like “Result A”) in such light colours that they are hard to see anyway. I think the idea was to make the summary statements for each result “pop” more and be easy to find. But headings are high in the poster’s text hierarchy (second after the title), and the light colours de-emphasize the headings so much that they are pushed way down the visual hierachy.

Graphically, the poster’s strongest suit is the sophisticated use of colour. The colours work together. They are subdued, but even when the poster is shrunk down, their are light and dark areas and colours visible. It doesn’t all dissolve in a mush.

Hanna uses colour coding to represent different concepts. “Encoding” is blue, and “consolidating” is green, for instance. But with four concepts, it’s hard to know if it’s a helpful mnemonic.

What makes me a little crazy is the inconsistency of the alignment.

Hanna has a two column format, and it looks great. I’ll even forgive that the column widths are not even. I’ll even forgive that there are a whole bunch of boxes, because the boxes are drawn in light dashed lines and don’t draw a lot of attention to themselves.

But inside those boxes, it’s anyone’s guess as to what’s going on

The text blocks are sometimes centered, sometimes left justified.

I could forgive graphs in different boxes being unaligned, but even when you look at graphs in the same box, the tops don’t align. The bottoms don’t align. The widths are not consistent. The side edges don’t align.

The overall effect is that the boxes’ interior look chaotic, in contrast to the obvious care taken to create the individual graphs within them.

Here’s the “Results B” section.


In the image below, I drew lines along the edges of elements to see if any of those lines intersected with edges of other elements.


Only the bottom axes of the top left and center graphs align along the horizontal. I literally cannot find any other edge that lines up with anything. The highest point of the Y axis comes close to aligning with the text block on the right, but because it misses, and has a misaligned graph between them, it’s frustrating rather than hopeful.

What I would like to see is something more like this. Now, this is a very ugly revamp if you click to enlarge, because this was done just by stretching individual parts of the image.


This could no doubt be better by revising the size and position of the axis labels. But the key point is that when you are placing graphs, line up the X and Y axes. Because the axes form lines, they automatically create a strong sense of a directional edge, much more do than the axes labels.

External links

Archived poster on Open Science Framework

06 June 2019

Critique and makeover: Something in the water

Today’s contribution is by Francesca Rubino. Click to enlarge!


Francesca writes:

I recently presented the attached poster at a public health conference, but it seemed to be a flop with the audience (mostly professors in public health).

“Boo!” to professors in public health. It’s always tough when a poster doesn’t connect with an audience.

This poster has a good amount of visual appeal. The backdrop is used to position text blocks on top of on circles. While this causes text blocks to flow from right to left, the background helps signal the processing in a logical way. The background is faded enough that it never obstructs the images on top or competes for attention.

But while the background creates opportunities for cool design, it also causes some issues, too. Because Francesca decided to let the circles in the background determine the position of most of the text, everything else has to revolve around them.


This poster could be improved by following a common graphic design principle: keep related things close together. Proximity is a critical organizing cue, and in some cases, related things are far apart.


In the second section, the numeral “2” is split up from the text by a question mark icon. The question is short and clearly a question, so the icon isn’t needed for clarity. It could be removed or moved outside of the “2.”

After you read “2”, you look for “3,” and it’s kind of missing in action. The number “3” isn’t in some of the places you would expect it to be.

The placement of the two main graphs both suffer from placement issues.
  • The survey data is a long way from the section describing it (4a). 
  • The microbe graph might have fared better because it is closer to the section describing it (4b), but its shape pushes the corner much closer to section 5.
I feel like Francesca might have realized there was a problem, because she has connector lines between the graph and the text, but it’s not enough. The visual weight of the graphs is stronger than the connecting lines.

The fast revision below tries to address some of these issues.

 
It’s not perfect, but it shows the direction I would like this poster to move in.

Besides the proximity issues, the data graphs themselves seem a little complex, particularly the microbe analysis. I wonder if that might have been better served as small multiple graphs instead of a double Y axis graph with stacked bars and multiple symbols.

30 May 2019

Link roundup for May 2019

In our semi-regular “Best poster I’ve seen” dredged from social media, Fabian Roger calls this “absolutely brilliant”:


Poster by Therese Karlsson, who said, “Never had as much fun making a poster as this one!”

A longer post analyzing this poster is coming!

• • • • •

Mike Morrison’s billboard format poster continues to generate discussion. My Cousin Amygdala wrote:

This whole Instagram-a-fication of scientific posters movement is my least favorite science trend right now. It misses the entire point of scientific posters, which is to facilitate networking and scientific discussion. Your poster isn’t a popularity contest or a memory test. You present a poster at a meeting to facilitate discussion with your peers. It isn’t a passive process. No one is going to “discover” your poster.

You are presenting at a scientific meeting, be proactive about using your poster as a networking tool. Tell interested parties about it beforehand, nicely, and that you would appreciate their input. If you are a student your mentors should assist you with this process.

I have attended countless poster sessions and thrown away enough poster handouts to cover the earth three times over.

I do not remember the contents of any single poster, but I absolutely remember & have benefited from the peer interactions that posters facilitate.

The conversation continues in retweet. Hat tip to Dr. Becca.

Here is a short thread from Kathryn Vaillancourt. Excerpt:

The #betterposter seems like an overstep in the right direction.

There is also lots to consider in Julie Blommeart’s thread. Hat tip to Milton Tan.

• • • • •

Speaking of Mike Morrison, he is interviewed about conference posters here. Excerpt:

I’m very personally invested in improving the rate of discovery across many different fields. As for the poster, it’s something that I could take a swing at on my own. There are much more damaging bottlenecks, like the scientific article publishing system, peer review inefficiencies, etc. But those will take teams of well-funded people to fix. The poster was the lowest-hanging fruit.

• • • • •

Meanwhile, in the, “Don’t be that person who makes graphs like this” department:


This... seems like a lot of work to go through for two numbers. (I duplicated this in Excel, and it took a long frickin’ time.) Hat tip to Louisa Smith and Justin Kiggins.

• • • • •

I have been to India. The women are not as tiny as this graph makes them appear.


I have no such first hand knowledge of women in Latvia, however. Hat tip to Bill the Lizard.

• • • • •

Zombies are hot in popular culture, but should not be in research conferences. Nature has an article about how to avoid becoming a “conference zombie” ( person who has no energy and does not notice what is happening around them).

Plan. Take breaks. Sleep.

• • • • •

Nice article about using colour in data visualizations. Tips include colour coding for bad news:

For negative results red, orange, purple and generally darker and muted colors often feature in data visualizations.

Hat tip to Nancy Duarte.

• • • • •

Speaking of colour, if you organize or recognize books by colour, you are not alone. Helen Rosner wrote:

When I worked at a bookstore, the number of customers saying, “I don’t remember the title but it had a purple spine” points to color actually being a pretty good organizing principle. What my books look like is absolutely part of how I mentally catalog them. At home, I tend to organize by category and subcategory and then by size and color.

(V)irtually all books spend more time being looked at than being read. And the more books you have, the more likely it is. Spare me the wrath of the book snobs who believe any whisper of aesthetics undermines virtue.

I think this is a great reminder of how powerful the visual element of something is more than the words.

23 May 2019

Critique and makeover: Snap, the magic dragon

Today’s contributor is Mathilde Mousset. She sent along two posters and said I could use either, but I thought, “Why not both?” Click to enlarge!


Portrait style posters are often tricky beasts, and this one embraces the format well. It uses coloured bars and fine lines to signals that it is read across in rows. It uses a narrow typeface for headings to make best use of limited space. I like the lightweight type for the main text, which makes the bold emphasized words pop even more.

The take home message at the bottom essentially repeats the point the title makes. While repetition can sometimes be useful, I usually find that removing redundant elements reclaims space that I can use to make things larger, and that turns out to be more helpful.

While this poster is typeset and laid out very well, the most visual part of the poster is the methods section in the middle. This is a little less than ideal, because it is a bit below eye level. I’m surprised that a grayscale illustration of a snapdragon is used instead of a full colour image.

Many of those same features are found in the second version of this project.


Mathilde wrote about this second poster:

Because I had little time, the second heavily re-used stuff from the first, except I added some boxes because I felt it needed a stronger structure. Surprisingly, I kind of prefer the output with the boxes (usually boxes in posters make me feel as in a prison).

While I have complained about the overuse of boxes many times, Mathilde’s boxes work. First, they are not black. They are either light yellow, or a darker shade of the background colour (the blue in the bottom box). In either case, they aren’t drawing a lot of attention to themselves. Second, there is a good amount of white space between the boxes and the text, so nothing feels crowded.

The typesetting is perhaps a little less successful on the second poster than the first. Mathilde uses a modified bullet point list, only using a chevron instead of a bullet.


But the point of having a symbol is to be able to scan down a list in a column. So right justifying bullet lists kind of defeats the purpose of a bullet list.

Here’s a quick revamp keeping those bullets aligned.

At the top of the poster, the second level of bullet points also run into minor alignment issues. Again, if you want people to scan down from one symbol to the next, you want to keep the space between those symbols clear of interference.


Neither the first or second level are set with hanging indents. The first level has lines running back to the chevron symbol. The second level is worse, because the second line of text runs back not to the secondary symbol (a dash), but all the way back to the primary chevron symbol.

Here is how I would like to see those paragraphs set up:


Much easier to scan down the list!

None of these changes alters the number of lines of text. The revisions fit in the space, so they don’t require reworking the rest of the section around the changes.

16 May 2019

Critique: Child care

Today’s contribution comes from Mary Bratsch-Hines. Click to enlarge!


Mary writes:

I’ve realized that although I have removed the boxes, it still feels boxy. This is likely because it’s laid out like a manuscript.

The “boxy” style that Mary mentions is not necessarily a bad thing! Paper is rectangular, and lends itself to rectangular layouts. It is true that it can feel a little boring, particularly with repeated use, but it is better a little dull than something that jumps off the rails trying to be different.

If you are every faced with the choice between boredom and confusion, pick boredom!

Mary’s poster is an excellent example of why so often I end up recommending a three column layout to people. It just works. While there is room to improve on this poster (more on which in a moment), nobody would cringe looking at this poster or think it was an accident gone horribly wrong.

What stuck out at me was how little the poster stuck out at me. The overarching sense you get from this from a distance (or at small size) is greyness. And the few patches of colour are all stuck far away from eye level at the bottom of the poster.

A few things I’d try:
  • Put the picture in the right at the top of the column instead of burying it at the bottom (the Cosmo rule).
  • Crop said picture so that it’s column width. The tighter the grid, the close to God.
  • Put the “Results” heading in line with the headings of the other columns instead of under the figure.
  • Make the title and headings heavier and blacker.
  • Make the graph the width of the column.
Here’s a revision with those changes:

    There is more visual contrast and variety in this version of the poster. Even shrunk down, the title and headings are now bringing in some black to break up the greyness. The grey wall of text is broken up vertically instead of all being at the top.

    This is, as always, a quick and dirty revision. If you enlarge the image, you will see the text in the graph’s axes are distorted. To make the bottom center graph column width, I just grabbed is a stretched the whole thing. This is not the correct way to make the graph fit. It should be resized to the correct proportion in the original graphing software.

    The revision above is much better, but the left side still felt like it was fading away into nothing. So I broke up the greyness by colouring the flowchart boxes.


    I picked yellow because the map to the right of it had a little yellow. In fact, the map could stand to do with a little colour, although we’re probably reaching the point of diminishing returns in adding more colour to combat the greyness. A better step would be to do a ruthless edit to reduce the word count.

    If you think the difference between the first and last version is a big improvement (and I’m vain enough to think that it is), remember how easy it was.

    Six changes.

    That’s it. The poster became much visually punchy and attractive with just six changes. Remember that if you ever feel like, “I don’t have time to make this poster better!” You probably do have time: you just have to know enough to make the right ones. And those are not particularly tough things to remember. In this case, those guides are:
    • Line things up.
    • Put graphics at eye level.
    • Make important things bigger and bolder.

    09 May 2019

    More than just visual cheesecake

    I want academics to create objects with high quality graphic design. But I imagine there are people who might admit that a well designed conference poster (or what have you) may be nice and all, but it’s just visual cheesecake. Sure, you get some personal aesthetic pleasure out if it, but that’s about all. If the content is solid, some might say that good graphic design won't help you meet career goals like job offers, tenure, or promotion.

    I personally cannot think of any anecdotes or data supporting the contention that excellent graphics have significantly advanced or hindered individual researcher's careers (e.g., grants or papers rejected just because some aspects of typography or design were so bad). If anyone knows any examples, I would love to hear them!

    On a larger scale, some might argue that the quality of graphic design has neither significantly advances or substantially hurt science communication. Here, there may be some examples of the importance of strong graphics.

    Climate scientist Michael Mann’s graph of historical global temperatures might be an positive example where a technical graph helped the cause of science communication by breaking into public awareness and advanced political discussion.



    This visual made the point stick with people in a way that “unprecedented rapid change in earth’s temperature” never did. It was so memorable that even it got a nickname (the “hockey stick” graph).

    On the negative side, Edward Tufte’s short book, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint (later incorporated as part of Beautiful Evidence), provided a compelling case that the default design of PowerPoint slides may have contributed to the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.



    Tufte’s argument is that the design of the slides are so bad that they diverted attention from the deep problems facing the Challenger launch. While there were clearly a lot of management problems at NASA the contributed to the explosion of the Challenger and the death of her crew, the argument that this contributed isn’t easily brushed aside.

    External links

    PowerPoint does rocket science