16 October 2014

Critique: Astrophysics code

Today’s poster is contributed by Alice Allen, and is used with her permission. Click to enlarge:

She wrote:

Under 100 words on this poster... or so I will claim since the screenshots are there to illustrate the points! (Not counting the authors' names, I think the count is 89 words.) This poster is for an online resource that people at the conference are familiar with, and is to inform people of recent changes to the website.

This poster wins points for simplicity. It can be read with a few glances, which is a definite win for any conference poster.

I’m always curious to see what improvements people make on their own. After she sent her first email but before I replied, Alice sent along another iteration.

I think the changes you made for the second version are good ones. Making the title more prominent, and getting rid of the outline around the “Over 900 codes!” were both good moves.

I can see why the screen grabs were rotated as a design element. I’d be tempted to tinker with the amount of rotation. I might try bringing the central screen grabs a little closer to horizontal (though not normal straight up and down).

Tiny little typesetting detail. In the right box, the field “See also” is in quotes, but the links, “Previous” and “Next” are not in quotes. There might be a case for putting “Previous” and “Next” in quotes, too, for consistently. I’m not sure what a style guide would recommend; perhaps there is some subtle stylistic difference between a field and a link.

09 October 2014

Critique: Affective feedback

Today’s poster comes from Mary Ellen Foster, and is used with her permission. Click to enlarge...

I like the main body of the poster a lot. It’s clean, big, uses lots of graphics, and is well-organized. The one thing I would try would be to crop the middle photo, rather than having other pictures overlapping on top of it.

While I appreciate that there is very little text, this may have been pared down just a little too far. I can’t tell two important things:

  1. What’s the question?
  2. What’s the answer?

As a browser, I often want a take home message.

This isn’t helped by the weak title, which represents most of your communication effort. “Studying the effect of” in a title is bland and uninformative. Every academic thing is “studying the effect of” something. A question would be better, and an answer would be better still.

I’m always sort of surprised that people still try to incorporate institutional logos on their posters as often as they do, given how often they cause problems. This poster is a great example: every logo here weakens the poster.

The logo on the left causes problems because it is too close to text, and it messes up alignment of the authors with the title. That it’s a big dark block makes it draw too much attention away from the title and the authors. The logos on the right just look thrown together and messy.

Hiding among the logos is a QR code. This has a few problems, too. The QR code is high on the poster, which might make it inconvenient to scan, depending on how the poster is mounted. But more importantly: why should I scan it? What does the QR code lead to? It’s always good practice to tell people what they will get!

Related posts

Detective stories: “Whodunnit?” versus “How’s he gonna prove it?”
The epic logo post
Your title is 90% of your poster
Take me home tonight

External links

02 October 2014

Critique: Hard problems

Today’s poster come from Ciaran McCreesh and is shown with permission. Click to enlarge!

My first reaction was, “Nice work!” I like the colours and the clear organization.

Personally, I would try removing the boxes around each section, maybe creating boxes around each column (so there are no horizontal bars).

I’d also want to fiddle with the lower right box to make the bottom edge align with the other two boxes. This poster does such a nice job of keeping things clean and aligned that little things like that stand out!

I like using bold to emphasize key points, but I wonder if there might be a little too much bold. The less you have, the more punch each instance has. It’s diluting some of the impact.

The very top box is a nice attempt to introduce the problem, with sort of a sub-headline. But it doesn’t have any other clear signals to its importance apart from its position. It comes across as a small sliver of text, and your eye hops over it to the first box in the top left. It might benefit by being made larger, or using something else to distinguish its place in the poster’s information hierarchy.

Looking at this from a distance, it feels off kilter, because of the asymmetries in layout. There are uneven columns, and the logo on the right is also breaking the symmetry. I suspect that the title is truly symmetrical when measured with a ruler, but it looks like it’s too far to the left. The normal expectation is that the title will line up with the central column, which is pushed right because the right column is narrow. I suggested making the title aligned to the left (perhaps enlarging a little), and putting the authors and institution on one line below that. Then it could be roughly the same height as the institutional logo.

Here is Ciaran’s revised version:

He wrote:

I followed your suggestions, except for removing the horizontal bars: I couldn't get that to look right. I ended up coming second place in the vote at CP 2014 (http://cp2014.a4cp.org/), which was a pleasant surprise.


25 September 2014

Link roundup for September 2014

Andrew Maynard included this as an example of a “more radical” poster design in his post, Creating Poster Presentations that Tell Stories:

Andrew goes on to write:

To me, a poster presentation for me is an aid for story telling – to be used by an in-person narrator. The reality though is that sometimes the poster needs to be able to at least hint at that story without your in-person input.  This creates something of a design-conflict.

He also says:

Coward that I am I should note that the posters aren’t great, but hopefully illustrate process

Over at Southern Fried Science, Chris Parsons has penned Mr Darcy’s Guide to Conference Etiquette – Part 1, which includes thoughts on posters:

Posters give one a unique ability to talk directly to conference goers, often while they are well flown on a glass or two of wine, in a depth one cannot achieve with the audience at an oral presentation. A single good, well-designed poster is also very memorable, much more so than dozens of slides in an oral presentation.

This also prompted this Twitter exchange about poster sessions.

Keith Bradnam is a person after my own heart, doing his bit to improve conference posters. He has a nice post called The problem with posters at academic conferences. And the problem, according to Keith?

The problem here is not with the total amount of text — though that can sometimes be an issue — but with the width of the text.

A new paper in PLOS Computational Biology by Rougier and colleagues offers ten guidelines for better figures, which can be an important component of better posters. I would put their rule #5 much higher on the list...

  1. Know your audience
  2. Identify your message
  3. Adapt the figure to the support medium
  4. Captions are not optional
  5. Do not trust the defaults
  6. Use color effectively
  7. Do not mislead the reader
  8. Avoid “chartjunk”
  9. Message trumps beauty
  10. Get the right tool

While this poster leaves something to be desired graphically (too much stuff), I enjoy the title. Hat tip to Nick Loman and Mike the Mad Biologist.

18 September 2014

Critique: Microsponges

This week’s poster comes from Steven Harris Wibowo, a postgrad student at one of my old stomping grounds, the University of Melbourne, Australia.This poster was shown at the IUPAC World Polymer Congress in Thailand; click to enlarge!

He writes:

The organizer asked for a portrait A0 poster. After some soul-searching and brainstorming I came up with this design/concept. I love a dark background and for me, nothing trumps a simple black background if you can do it cleanly. I have also been inspired by neon colours (the movie Tron to be exact) and that's why I picked those bounding lines!

Steven didn’t say if he’s an old school 1982 Tron fan:

Or a fan of the more recent Tron: Legacy, which had an even more limited palette:

I’ve talked before about the power of pastiche; imitating something you like. When I do that, I can get quite obsessive in trying to match things. I would have looked at these images and used an eyedropper tool to match up shades exactly.

Steven didn’t go that route, as you can see by comparing the overall colour scheme in his poster to these images from Tron movies. He’s mostly gone for orange and green on a dark gray over Tron’s signature cool blue over black.

I like that the lines are clearly a design element in the poster, rather than boxes trying to impose order on the poster.

Dark backgrounds can be tricky: ink bleeds in to white spaces on paper, while light shines out of white spaces on screen. I worry that the print might be a little too fine to read. A very slightly heavier type might have worked a bit better.

Steven goes on:

I don’t particularly like to put too many words/explanations into my poster and would rather have spaces between my results and have a brief caption.

This is always a good choice, although this is still a complicated looking poster with a lot of data. Complex multi-part figures are not as intimidating as a block of text, but they come close.

The flow of text is reasonably clear, although it gets a little complicated in the middle. While there are still clearly rows, the combination of the taller box plus the circle in the middle obscures the reading order a little. The use of low-key numbering is helpful here.

This design worked well for him:

The judges and other participants loved the poster, which allowed me to win the best presentation prize!

Nicely done, Steven!

Related posts

11 September 2014

Critique: Fetal movements

I often say that when I critique posters on the blog, I am looking at the design of the poster and not the science or technical content of the poster. That is particularly true for this one, submitted by reader Josefine Kühberger. It’s not that there is anything wrong with the poster, but I cannot read German! Click to enlarge:

Here is Josy to provide a little context:

It’s about qualitative aspects of fetal movements. To express that the focus is on maternal sensations and interviews, I used a drawing of a pregnant woman and put a “word cloud” inside her stomach.

This poster is excellent.

The simple image of the woman is so strong, yet so evocative of the subject matter, that anyone walking by should be able to grasp what this poster is about immediately, even from a distance.

The word cloud is a simple way to present text in a visually interesting way. Placing it in the woman’s silhouette is very clever and effective. If you want to make word clouds:

This poster is not cluttered. There is no fear of empty spaces, particularly down at the bottom. That is something that too many poster makers fear. They think every inch of the poster must contain ink. As this poster shows, it does not.

There is a simple, consistent colour scheme to both the text and images. The red in the title looks a little brighter than in the woman’s figure, and I might have wanted to make them the same. But it’s very minor. Red is a very powerful colour, but the combination of a slightly darker, almost brick red on the muted background prevents the red from being overwhelming.

I also love the dual headings, with the black bar on top of bold red text. I don’t how how the text is divided between those two elements, but it is very striking.

Josy says that this site had a hand in the creation of this poster (aw, shucks):

I had to create a poster (my first...) and found your “better posters” instructions on internet... which was a great help. The poster won the first prize. So I want to say “Thank you”!

04 September 2014

Critique: Mouse lungs

This week’s poster from reader Irena Feng, and is used with her permission. Click to enlarge!

The mouse picture provides an immediate and powerful entry point into the poster. The direction of the mouse’s head draws attention away from the (unnecessary) abstract, and into the introduction and methods, which is a more relevant starting point. The text wrapping around the mouse’s whiskers and body is not perfect, but certainly better than if it had been left square.

Putting the authors above the title is a bit of a risk. It works because the title is set in very large type. Plus, the lightened band of colour under the title makes it higher contrast, thus keeping the title the focus of attention.

I would have liked to have seen a little more consistency in the headings’ size. The “Results” heading is larger than the others. Plus, the headings in the text don't match those in the title.

The poster is meant to be read in rows, which is clearly indicated by the use of changing green backgrounds to group the rows together. The green seems to have been selected because many of the micrographs showing in the results are green. I worry about the green being a little dark, however, particularly the first row containing the introduction.

The width of the “Conclusions” section is less than ideal. Typesetters aim for 10-12 words per line of text, and these are at least double that. One solution might be to split the “Conclusions” box into two: one “Conclusions,” then a second that says,  “Next step,” and highlights the last line.

Irena wrote:

I received a lot of attention and a few compliments, with one comment describing it as “better than any grad student’s poster I’ve seen” (I’m a high schooler, so that comment was especially appreciated).

Those compliments are deserved. This poster hits most of the marks you want in a conference poster, and avoids most of the pratfalls that you don’t want.