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

    04 May 2019

    The Morrison billboard poster, part 2

    Since its debut on YouTube a few weeks ago, Mike Morrison’s suggested format has been getting a fair share of people trying it out. This one appeared in my feed via Hannah Hobson.

    I’m fascinated by this, because it shows how design can be like the whisper game. Things get changed with each repetition and you end up with something rather different (and sometimes incomprehensible) compared to the original.

    In Morrison’s original template, the entire content of the poster was contained on the left hand sidebar. The right hand sidebar is for extra supporting detail for superfans and ultraskeptics.

    This meant a presenter mainly has to help people on the left side of the poster. If the presenter is standing in front of it that right sidebar, it’s usually no big deal.

    In this version, the content is so much longer than the “structured abstract” that the content is split between the two sidebars.

     And to make matters worse, the break comes in the

    middle of the results section.

    As I have just demonstrated, unexpected breaks mess up your reading flow. Now you have to shift your physical location quite a bit to continue reading the results. You might have to dance back and forth between the start of the results on the left and the end of the results on the right to make sense of the whole thing.

    For the presenter, this version clusters audience members at both edges of the poster. The middle “take home” message becomes something of a dead zone. If there were meaningful content in the middle, you would walk people through in a continuous loop. But here, people have to jump over several feet.

    A good general guideline in graphic design is keep related content together.

    If you have so much stuff that you need two columns to explain it, keep those columns together.

    I’m also baffled by the QR code which says, “Take a picture to download the full poster.” Surely I can eliminate the middleman by just... taking a picture of the poster?

    Related posts

    25 April 2019

    Link round-up for April, 2019

    We’ve had many nominees for best poster, but this is one of the first for “best poster presenter.” Spotted by ForsGroup.

    My favorite poster I’ve seen so far at #ACSOrlando. I hope he’s giving a talk later...

    • • • • •

    Another reason you should keep posters after the conference is over: it can double as an emergency ice pack.

    Hat tip to Rebecca Clement and Milton Tan.

    • • • • •

    Inspired by adorable tiny glassware (so much tinyness), Lauren Gonzalez created this mini lab, complete with mini posters.

    So, who will be the first to stage a mini conference? Magnifying glass included with attendance fee.

    • • • • •

    This is an excellent analysis of a an excellent graphic abstract (that could have been a poster):

    Structure - although the graphic has a nice informal feel too it, the structure is sound. The dotted line are subtle, but help the eye realise where the sections are.

    The title - I like this a lot, the type, the fact that it’s on a a silhouette of a tetrapod, it stands out really well (despite not being at the top of the graphic).

    The section headings - notice the creative font use is restricted to titles, the shapes fit the type nicely, see how they’re all slightly different too, both in shape and colour. The language is simple and direct.

    Emma has visualised the Paleobiology database nicely, but rightly chooses not to force “Statistical & phylogenetic methods to mitigate sampling biases” into a graphic. The text communicates better than any icon could.

    Visit the thread for a Q&A with creator Emma Dunne. Hat tip to Anne Hilborn.

    • • • • •

    Chris Gunter asked “How does one travel with a poster tube?” and got many helpful replies.

    • • • • •

    In an age of global climate change, it’s worth asking if you need to fly to conferences. New research suggests not.

    (T)his preliminary evidence suggests that there may be opportunities, especially for academics who study topics related to climate and sustainability, to reduce their emissions from air travel while maintaining productive careers.

    • • • • •

    Oh, this figure is shocking. Make sure your figures do not become the brunt of internet humour.

    • • • • •

    Criticism is an integral part of this blog, and design. With that in mind, I think this attitude from Neil Gaiman is useful:

    It’s one of Gaiman’s Laws of Art: “When anyone tells you that they had a problem with something, they are very probably right. When they tell you how to fix it, they are very probably wrong.”

    From io9.

    19 April 2019

    Critique: Chemistry comics

    This week’s contributor is Purav Patel. Click to enlarge!

    Poster: Machine teaching enhancesperceptual fluency in chemistry

    Purav writes:

    It combines some elements from Mike Morrison’s better poster, Bret Victor’s Seeing Spaces poster, and my own touches.

    If displayed in physical form, I would print a very large poster to see the smaller cells more easily. The Post-It notes are for viewers to write some comments/feedback after the presentation. A template and associated files are on the OSF website.

    It’s interesting that Mike Morrison’s YouTube video is influencing poster creation even though it’s only been out for a few weeks. And we haven’t even hit peak conference season yet.

    This poster is an interesting attempt to fulfill the needs of different readers simultaneously: the ones who are happy to read on their own and the ones who want “the tour” from the presenter.

    I like that this poster cleanly and clearly separates the columns. The wide margins signal that each column is serving a different purpose. The headings on the left and right spell out what each column is for.

    The downside of “two posters in one” is that there is a lot here, and it does not look like a quick read.

    Fortunately, Patel isn’t afraid to leave some white space down at the bottom, which provides a bit of lightness to the poster. All the logos and QR codes are sensibly placed down in the bottom corners, too, where they won’t distract from the main content.

    The left and right corners mirror each other, which is a nice touch. I don’t mind the redundancy, because it does mean that if someone is working on the left side of the poster, someone on the right is easily able to snap a QR code without disturbing the other reader.

    The downside of this style is that the central point, “Machine learning enhances perceptual fluency in chemistry,” gets a little lost. That title is in a bigger block than the headings on either side of it, but it’s short-changed by the diagram on the right taking up space. The diagram isn’t adding a lot of context or information.

    Extending the blue title bar and putting the diagram on top of it makes the title carry more visual weight, and solves an alignment problem at the same time. All the bars now align on the right.

    Revised poster: Machine teaching enhancesperceptual fluency in chemistry

    The low contrast between the purple on blue downplays the diagram and creates some unintended striping effects. Either a different diagram or a little colour change might help. I am tempted to removed the diagram entirely.

    The brush-style type is clearly taken from the “Seeing spaces” poster, referenced above. In the “Seeing spaces” poster, the brush font is paired with a more traditional “speedball” comic lettering for the main text. The comic font has no lowercase, but it does allow for emphasis.

    Lettering sample: "I think about seeing on THREE LEVELS -- three progressively more powerful ways of seeing."
    Notice how “three levels” is a little bolder and a little more slanty. (The “I” should have crossbars on top and bottom, though.)

    In Purav’s poster, the brush-style is used throughout, and it hurts the poster’s readability. It’s a much narrower typeface, which tends to make sentences look more like grey lines a series of words. The font has no lowercase. The font has no emphasis or variation.

    Lettering sample: "We acuire perceptual fleuency via inductive, nonverbal processes. It's like learning your first language by trial and error."

    This poster is further from the comic style than the “Seeing spaces” poster, so there is no strong reason to use a typeface that emulates hand lettering here. A condensed font with lowercase letters might be a better choice.

    11 April 2019

    Critique: The Morrison billboard poster

    A couple of weeks ago in the link round-up, I featured a video from Mike Morrison. Mike’s year-in-the-making video attracted plenty of attention, and is at the bottom of this post in case you missed it. Eugene Ofofsu has already used this format on a prize-winning poster.

    Let’s have a look at Morrison’s template.

    Sample billboard style poster developed by Mike Morrison

    Morrison’s design has four components.

    1. An extremely large take away message in the middle. This is the biggest difference between Morrison’s design and most academic posters.
    2. A structured abstract in a sidebar on the left.
    3. Fiddly bits for superfans and aficionados in a sidebar on the right.
    4. A QR code in the bottom middle.

    While I don’t share his deep pessimism about poster sessions, particularly presenting (“nothing's worse than presenting a poster”), Morrison’s design is thoughtful.

    In particular, it takes the principle I have often espoused that “Nothing should compete with the title” and “The title is 90% of your communication effort” and runs with it. The central take home message acts as the title of the poster.

    Morrison does include space for “Title” on the left sidebar, but a title is superfluous with this massive take home message. Besides, most titles are not one word, and the space any typical poster title would use in that left sidebar would probably be significantly larger than shown here.

    I admire the push to summarize the work in a single sentence. But let’s be honest. Getting to that single sentence is... very hard. Many academics, trained in nuance and exceptions, struggle to cut words.

    The design does make a few assumptions that might not always hold.

    First, near the end of the video, Morrison simulates a “walkthrough” of a poster session with this billboard format.

    In the next screen, a few real academic posters are going to move past you at a walking pace. See how much information you can absorb. Now try these same posters you just saw translated to the new design. Now, this is gonna be a little unbelievable and jarring at first, because when people see this, they don’t believe that these clear findings came from the posters they just saw, but they did.

    Here’s a screenshot of this demo. Notice anything? Anything missing?


    There are no people. There are no presenters or audience members. This is an empty room. In most sessions, there will be people that can potentially block the view of the bulk of the poster, where Morrison recommends putting the take home message.

    Morrison’s portrait version of the poster fixes this.

    But it looks much more like a more familiar poster format.

    Second, Morrison proposes colour coding the backgrounds.

    I think it would be extra efficient to use colours that prime people’s expectations about what type of poster they're about to see, because they’ll notice the colour first. Like, we could use green for empirical studies, because they’re the most common; blue for theory; red for methods, and; yellow, the most attention-getting color, for that rare and wonderful intervention study.

    While colours do have things that they suggest, colour associations are usually derived from nature (reds and oranges and yellows are “hot” because they’re the colour of sunlight and fires; greens and blues “cool” because of plants, sky, and oceans) or associations drilled in from an early age (red for “stop” and green for “go”).

    I think you would get confused looks if you asked people, “What colour do you associate with ‘theory’?”

    The coding system suggested by Morrison would be arbitrary. The only way they would be meaningful is if the organizers set them out in advance, and aggressively enforced them. Most conference organizers are very “hands off” with posters.

    This sort of colour coding isn’t very friendly to people who are colour blind. (Hat tip to Alex Merz for the reminder.)

    Third, it assumes no audience member ever plans what posters to visit in advance. In Morrison’s description, the only way people find posters that interest them is by wandering the halls. There are no online lists of titles and abstracts ever mentioned.

    As an audience member, you have the power to make best use of your time by searching out what posters you want to visit before the conference. As a presenter, you have the responsibility to respect people’s time and be able to tell them what’s going on in a few minutes.

    Morrison wants someone to walk through a poster session and quickly get something meaningful from every poster. But there are meetings where the sheer number is still going to make that impossible (like the massive geology and neuroscience meetings). Preparing in advance is almost the only way you can get something meaningful from the meeting.

    Fourth, Morrison puts a lot of stock in QR codes. I have written about them often on this blog. I have seen far more people put QR codes on posters than I have ever seen people taking pictures of them. Whatever their value in theory, they seem to be little used in practice.

    In his PowerPoint template file, Morrison says of the “ammo bar” on the right hand side, “Keep it messy! This section is just for you.” If you truly want something that is “just for you,” keep it off the poster. Put it in a notebook or leave it on your tablet. Otherwise, people can see it, they will look at it, and they will be judgey about what is there.

    It’s like an artist who shows work they are not happy with in an exhibit or display. If you show bad work, people will think it’s because you can’t tell the difference between the good and the bad. It’s not a good strategy.

    Morrison, like many academics, is very focused on written content. Yes, there is a lot of paring down that written content to the essentials, but it’s still reading, and reading is hard. And when you see his walkthrough of a poster session, the overwhelming impression is sentences on blocks of colour. And all the type is the same basic sans serif. It is visually dull.

    Morrison’s approach underestimates the appeal of visuals. I suggest pairing the big take message with a big inviting picture.

    In this revision, I have moved the title up, so it’s always visible above people’s heads. The space saved is used for a big, bold picture that relates to the topic, so people can tell visually what the poster is about. The colour of the title bar is picked up from the picture with the eyedropper tool. The QR code is moved over to the “fine print” are in the lower left.

    And while we’re at it, let’s move the typography out of the 1980s and into the 21st century by replacing tired old Arial with Source Sans Pro.

    Both fonts are straightforward sans serifs. Source Sans Pro has the advantage of making the differences between some letter forms more distinct, notably lowercase “L” and capital “I”. You could certainly make bolder type choices that might give the poster more personality.

    Also note that in revising the poster’s take home message, I was able to shorten it from twelve to eight words, a 33% savings, with no loss of meaning. Being concise is hard, even when you are deeply focused on it.

    I suspect that some will argue that a poster should be all about the data.

    So why do I suggest a photo and not the all important data? Because data alone usually render a poster anonymous.

    Both this poster and the one before it might be about lobster size, but you can’t tell that at a glance from a scatter plot.

    Reading words is hard. Interpreting graphs is harder. A scatter plot can represent ten thousand things. Data doesn’t signal at a glance what the topic of the poster is. See the discussion of Scott McLeod’s “big triangle” for more.

    A wall of data points is not better than a wall of text.

    See also threads by Amy Burgain, Aresny Khakhalin, and Juliane Fenandes.

    Mike has provided templates here, and is working on a study validating this design. He is looking for grad students to participate. You can email him at Mike.A.Morrison@gmail.com.

    Update, 19 April 2019: I received reports of this poster “in the wild” from Jeremy Cain:

    Jeremy is not an academic, but his girlfriend is. He relayed her experience:

    She told me that for the whole time she was standing at her poster, presenting, she wished her graphs and plots were larger. ... Every one of those posters, she actually didn’t know what they were about right away because there was no title at the very top and people were standing in the way.

    Julie Shapiro’s experience was more positive.

    Emily Kane also shared another variation of the format in the wild.

    04 April 2019

    Better Posters Twitter account is back

    After a few days suspension, the automated Twitter feed for this blog is now back up and running! Please follow @Better_Posters if you want updates of new posts.

    Thanks to Twitter customer service for not taking too long in reviewing the appeal.

    Sigh. All because I was just trying to add a new header graphic to the Twitter account. Hat tip to Cecil Adams’s Straight Dope for the tagline.