17 January 2019

Critique: Lending low tech tools

Today’s poster contributor is Scott Johnson. Click to enlarge!

This is a great marriage of content and form. The content is about something that is unabashedly “low tech,” so the hand-written, slightly lo-fi (okay, low tech) look is completely right here. It adds character and interest.

Regular readers know that I personally am anti-underlining, and try to remove it in almost every instance I see it. But here, because it’s hand written, I can see the case for it. When people write by hand, they do underline for emphasis. I would experiment a bit with removing the underline, but I don’t know if removing the the underlines for headings and making the headinga a bit bolder would lose the look.

I appreciate the purity of the monochrome greyscale, but it does wash out from a distance.

I would like to see a little colour – even if subdued, and not everywhere. To keep the “low tech” look, I would suggest referencing some old photos, like daguerreotypes. They often weren’t pure shades of grey – certainly not as pure as here. Old pictures often have creamy or brownish overtones to them, as you can see in this picture of American write Edgar Allen Poe.

Edgar Allen Poe daguerreotype

Making the background of the page a subtle shade off-white or something might help.

Alternately, the poster might use a single colour to highlight a few elements, like duotone printing.
I'm thinking of maybe a very light yellow for the “sunburst” behind the building.

If the poster stays pure monochrome, it could use a little more contrast to make some portions stand out. I like how the lines around the house and title are heavier to make them stand out at distance. But the text, as mentioned, is fading a little.

Very charming work!

Picture from here.

10 January 2019

When posters fail

When a poster fails, it’s usually because it failed early in the design process.

Years ago, I showed this poster:

Poster overflowing poster board and spilling onto floor

It does not matter whether this poster does a lot of the detail work right. It does not matter how good the layout is, or how good the typography is, or whether the colour scheme is consistent and pleasing to the eye, or whether there is enough white space. None of that matters.

The authors of this poster doomed it at the very beginning, when they picked a page size... and got it wrong.

In my experience, there are two places where posters fail early on.

On the content side, people do not edit enough. They want to include everything, rather than focusing on one thing, and the poster suffers.

On the design side, people do not make a grid. They start drawing boxes without any underlying thought to structure, and treat their data like some sort of jigsaw puzzle to fit together.

I was reminded of the while I was making a poster for the Student and Post-Doctoral Affairs Committee (SPDAC) for the recent Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB) meeting in Tampa (#SICB2019 on Twitter).

This poster was not a typical data-driven poster. Authorship was on my mind, and I wanted to do some consciousness raising about this issue to early career researchers.

What struck me was how little the poster changed from beginning to end. You can see this in the animation:

Animation of SICB authorship poster creation

Here are a few frames from that process. I had created a six column grid template for a poster class I was doing for SPDAC:

I decided to used that as a basis for a three column layout. And I what kind of graphic I wanted*. And those were apparent in the very first stages of layout, shown below:

Draft one of SICB authorship poster

Even as the poster is filling out, the underlying structure stays the same:

Draft two of SICB authorship poster

And here is the final version:

Final version of SICB authorship poster

Looking at it now, I should have made the title bigger. Oh well.

I have noticed a similar pattern when I’ve created animations of my design process before (here and here). This first one from 2015 keeps the same five column structure throughout the design process. A second one (from 2017) has a little more movement early on, but quickly settles down.

While you can see in the animations that a lot of time is spent tinkering. But the late stage tinkering is the polish that will differentiate the “okay” from the “excellent.”

It’s the early stage decisions that make the difference between “competent” and “embarrassing,” “okay” and “crap,” “success” and “fail.”

* From this blog post

(T)wo chess pieces suggest conflict. But if you know how knights move in chess, the reality is that neither can capture the other. In other words, from the point of view of those pieces, it’s a “no win” situation.
I think that represents most authorship disputes pretty well.

Related posts

Posters should not be usable as drapes
A poster with no conference, or: What I made in that #SciFund poster class
Critique: Sand crab summer

03 January 2019

Critque and ruination: Antibiotic resistance CARD

For the first blog post of the year, allow me to ruin a poster. And even more ironically, I’m about to ruin an award-winning poster.

This week’s contribution came from Sally Min. It was presented at McMaster Innovation Showcase, where it won the People’s Choice poster award. Click to enlarge!

When I first opened the file, I thought, “This is strong.” We have that intense White Stripes colour scheme. The diagonals add a lot of visual interest and make the poster look different than the usual rectangular format. There is not a lot to read, because the poster uses icons and flow charts effectively.

But those diagonals, which bring so much of the cool look to the poster, also mess with the poster.

They look like arrow heads. We expect to follow arrows.

At a glance, this is how I expect the order of stuff on the poster to flow.

But the numbers make is clear that this is the order the authors intended.

We don’t expect to go “left and up” from section 5 to 6, because there is stuff to the left we’ve already read (section 2).

Because those numbers are so helpful, it might be worth making them bigger or more prominent somehow. Maybe numbers inside bullets would make them more visible. Here’s a very quick and dirty version:

While I know intellectually what the problem is, I don’t know how to fix it in a way that doesn’t make the poster look worse.

My first thought was, “The top row is confusing. It looks like there is an arrow pointing right to left, from black section 2 to the red section 1. I’ll keep the diagonals, but reverse it so the implied arrow is consistent with the reading order.”

I tried that, but you have the same problem with the diagonals looking like arrows on the right side of the section 4, which pointed across to section 6, when the authors want you to go down to black section 5.

I tried to create a visual cue, another arrowhead made of diagonals, to show the authors preferred direction, and that’s a hot mess. The shape created by black section 5 is just a weird polygon that makes no sense.

Maybe the solution is to flip the content. Put the material in black section 5 where red section 6 currently is, and vice versa.

I think this style of design could work, but the back and forth reading flow would need to be built in at the beginning. Something like:

You end up with “half boxes,” which in this sketch I’ve used for fine print.

The thing is that after all this struggling, I’m actually not sure it matters much. This is still a sharp looking poster, and that the authors were smart enough to add the explicit guideposts by numbering each section. That means that I am only momentarily confused looking at the poster.

Presentation pic! The poster in real life...

27 December 2018

Link round-up for December, 2018

It’s a small link round-up for this holiday season, but I have one I want to share, particularly given that last week’s post was musing about how we train students in graphic design.

This article talks about teaching data visualization to kids. Fourth grade students, in fact. That’s what makes it a perfect holiday post, because kids love holidays. Or something.

We might be taught how to read line, bar, and pie charts in elementary school because they have been around longer than others and are used the most. ... I’m not foolish enough to think I could teach 30 kids an array of new graphs in one afternoon, but I could at least help them understand that there’s more to the world than line, bar, and pie charts.
The post also talks about a Match-It game for data visualization that looks interesting.

And for a lighter touch, here’s a graphic artist’s breakdown of all the Marvel movie posters.

That wraps up the year for the blog. Next year will be big for this blog. I have some very cool things in the work in the coming months!

20 December 2018

Should we train all students in graphic design?

This blog exists to help solve a problem: that academic conference posters are ugly. But I am under no illusions that this blog is going to fix the problem. So, what would move the dial the quality of conference posters?

When faced with this kind of question, I often see people say, “We should include this in our training for students!”

As an educator, I never want to be the person to say we shouldn’t train students. I’ve done it myself, often. I support this sentiment, but I’m wary of calls for “more training,” for two reasons.

First, suggestions for “more training” make me worry about mission creep. Over time, I’ve heard that students need more training in statistics. And in writing. And in ethics. And in grantsmanship. And in social media. And diversity issues. And in dealing with media. And in public outreach. And so on.

Don’t get me wrong, these are all worthy topics where I think training would be beneficial. But there is only so much we can realistically expect to make students competent in during their time in our programs. It’s hard enough to attain competence and eventual mastery in one discipline.

Second, graphic design is a professional skill that takes years of study and practice. “Training” research students in graphic design would probably end up being a few credit hours over a multi-year program, taught by a non-professional (e.g., a research scientist in the department who is smart enough not to use Comic Sans but never took a class in design) rather than a skilled graphic designer (e.g., someone from over in an art department who does this on a daily basis). (And I say that as someone who has been asked to do those kinds of classes and workshops. I mean, I’m that guy!) I worry that calling for training could trivialize the skills needed for excellent design and become a curricular box-checking exercise.

Instead of expecting academics to become one person bands, we should try to create more access and respect for experts in other fields and be willing to use them, credit them, and pay them.

Picture from randychiu on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

13 December 2018

Lessons from battle scenes: It’s all about the build-up

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers features a fantastic battle scene: the battle for Helm’s Deep. There’s a lot of reasons why it works. The scale and physicality of it is awesome. But there is one factor that is underrated.

In the DVD commentary, director Peter Jackson talked about watching famous sieges and battles of film, like Zulu. He said that what he learned from those was that the secret was all in the build-up.

The movie spends a lot of time making sure that the audience understands the situation. The fortress is literally set against a mountain, creating the impression of “backs against the wall.” The city is outnumbered, with hundreds of defenders against thousands of attackers. 

And you see that army of thousands marching in. Not doing anything at first. Just standing there. Then thumping their spears and yelling.

More waiting.

And then the army charges and all hell breaks loose and it is on. And when those orc charge and start throwing ladders up against the fortress walls, you are invested and ready to see what happens next.

The battle itself is only about ten minutes of film. It would have been easy to not show the orcs doing their “haka” and charge into the action, particularly in a movie that asks you to stay in your seat as long as the Lord of the Rings films do.

On a poster, the Results section is like the action part of the battle, when arrows are flying, axes are wielded, and explosions are going off. Too many poster makers want to charge into the action. Many poster presenters want to get to the stuff they find exciting as soon as possible.
But an audience member has to care. They need the set up. They need to know what the stakes are. They need to know the landscape the project is set in.

That means you should spend a lot of time thinking about the first part of your poster. This is important both in the design of your poster, and how you are going to talk about your poster. How are you going to bring someone who has never thought about your subject on board and interested in the outcome?

By telling them what the conflict is. By telling them the complication you are trying to solve. By setting up a scenario, then throwing in a “But...” moment. You have to be crystal clear in that introduction. If you can do that, people will follow you through the battle to see the resolution.

External links

15 years later, no one’s matched LOTR’s Battle at Helm’s Deep

06 December 2018

Critique and makeover: Buffer it out

Today's poster is a contribution from William Elaban. This was not for a conference, but a class. Click to enlarge!

Now, I have to apologize to William here, because my first reaction to this poster is not a kind one. But sometimes, my first reaction to a poster is:

“Blow it up. Blow it all up. Blow it all up and start again.”

This poster has deep structural issues. There is too much text. The reading order is all over the place. When the problems are that big, you want to see a fresh page.

But first impressions can lie. Then I calm down and start tinkering. And by following some of the usual design principles, the poster slowly but steadily gets better.

The first thing I did was get rid of lines. Underlined text and boxes were immediately banished. Headline case was replaced with sentence case.

Next, I tackled the table. I gave it a more standard format, with just horizontal lines separating the top, header, and bottom. I cut the large number of decimal places down to a more reasonable three.

Getting rid of the long numbers in the table made it more compact. I started pushing the elements around so I could line up the left edge of the table with the text blocks above. I did the same with the figure on the right. Columns started to take shape.

All the headings were made bold.

The text was a mix of Calibri and Arial, so I made it all Arial. I continued to try to make the text the same point size whenever possible.

I justified the text blocks to emphasize that things are aligned on the page now instead of scattered higgildy piggildy.

The deep problems remain – to get rid of those you really do have to blow it up and start again. But I’ll be darned if the poster doesn’t look noticeably better. And there isn’t anything complicated about what I did here. It mostly boiled down to:

  1. Get rid of lines and boxes.
  2. Line things up.
  3. Put space between things.
  4. Make the text consistent.

Sometimes, I’m kind of amazed by how much the appearance of a poster can improve with simple fixes. It’s not crazy complex stuff. It’s like how getting a good haircut and a little makeup can take years off someone’s apparent age.