18 August 2016

Scott McCloud’s “Big triangle” and poster design

Posters are a visual medium. But not everything is equally visual. A picture of a real object is very visual, and the best thing to have on a poster. A scatter plot is less visual. And text is the least of all.

I was thinking about how I might make that point, um, visually, and I suddenly realized that I was just recreating one side of Scott McCloud’s triangle from Understanding Comics.

If you have not read Understanding Comics... oh, how I envy you. You have that to look forward to. It is a wonderful book. Even if you are the sort who thinks, “Ugh, superheroes,” get over it, read this damn book, and have your consciousness expanded. It is an undisputed classic book.

Here’s a except relevant to the matter at hand:

And that’s the point I was trying to make, except McCloud did it better over twenty years ago.

Received information is immediate; perceived information takes effort. This is why nobody likes posters with too much writing. It takes effort that, in a busy conference setting, nobody wants to give. And that you should not feel entitled to.

McCloud calls this left to right gradient a change in “iconic abstraction.” It forms one side of a triangle that he uses as a guide to the universe of visual possibility. McCloud explains his big triangle on his webpage here. (But the explanation in the full book is better!)

Here are three common elements of academic posters placed on McCloud’s triangle:

Text has great meaning, but it’s perceived information, particularly big blocks of text.

Graphs are visual, but are often abstract. So they move up along the abstraction side of the triangle, though they are not at the top.

You want to try to push as much as you can towards the bottom right corner of the triangle. You can move text to the left by writing less of it (remember, there are gradations along these axes). Show pictures if you possibly can.

External links

Scott McCloud
Undertstanding Comics (Amazon page)

11 August 2016

Lurkers and claques

Most of the readers of this blog are lurkers. They read, but they don’t feel obliged to make a comment, or send me a tweet, or email, or anything else. And that’s fine. I’m a lurker in many online spaces.

Some poster viewers are lurkers, too. They will see your poster during the poster session, and they are interested, but they will not approach you. Instead, they will often wait until you are giving a tour of your poster to someone else. Then, and only then, will they walk up and casually listen over the shoulder of the person you are mostly talking to.

I only learned about this during the last #SciFund Challenge poster class. Several of the class participants admitted that this was their poster viewing strategy. It’s understandable. Not everyone is comfortable walking up cold to someone they’ve never met before, and saying, “What’s to learn here?” (This is usually one of the first things I say to a poster presenter.)

What can you, as a poster presenter, do to reach out to the lurkers? First, be aware of your surroundings. Keep an eye out for someone on the edges, listening over the shoulder. If you see that person, make an effort to turn to them, engage them in conversation. Say something like, “This is my poster. Please let me know if I can answer questions. Or would you like a run through?”

But I have an even more cunning plan.

At a play one time, I was talking to one of the crew about how different the play felt depending on the mood of the audience. A big, enthused audience made so much difference. I commented, in what I thought was a joke, “It almost makes you want to hire people to show up, sit in the audience, and applaud.”

“Oh, they do,” she replied matter of factly. “It’s called a claque.”

Instead of waiting for people to walk up to your poster, find yourself a claque. You don’t need a big claque; you probably only need one person. You don’t need your claque to cheer and applaud, but just someone who is clearly listening to an explanation of the poster. Have that person at your poster to give the lurkers someone to eavesdrop on.

Your listener might be someone you know from your department, but not your lab. Ask someone you met earlier at the conference if they can come by your poster. Get your boyfriend or girlfriend or best friend to hear the tour of your poster a few extra times.

While posters are supposed to be “social objects” to facilitate conversations, having people around can act as an even more powerful social cue. If someone else is already there, it lowers the barrier for everyone else to walk up.

Plus, nothing succeeds like success. If people see a lot of viewers at a poster, they’re all the more likely to be curious to see what the poster is about.

Statue pic from here.

04 August 2016

New Nature article on posters

Nature magazine has a feature on posters up today. It features my co-instructor in the #SciFund Challenge poster class, Anthony Salvango.

Nature wants you to tweet your and ! Following that hashtag could be fun for this blog... I submitted this recent beauty as for #PosterWins and one of my own for #PosterFails.


Woolston C. 2016. Conference presentations: Lead the poster parade. Nature 536: 115-117. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nj7614-115a

28 July 2016

Link round-up for July 2016

Here’s the level of “attention to detail” that anyone who designs should aspire to:

This makeover from Rian Hughes is shown here. His website is well worth checking out. Hat tip to John Wick.

Titles matter. This article analyzes what titles of scientific articles get social media buzz. Funny titles don’t help. But making positive, definite statements about the results does. These data support the Columbo principle for writing titles: Show the murder. Make the audience wonder, “How can you prove it?” instead of “Whodunnit?” Hat tip to Neuroskeptic.

If you are conference organizer, one of your main goals should be encouraging interaction with students and more senior people. Andrew Thaler reports on a solution pioneered by the International Marine Conservation Congress:

Giving the only drink tickets to the students to hand out during poster presentations is a brilliant move.

One of my bugbears is how often people use idiosyncratic abbreviations and acronyms. I’ll let you have DNA, but otherwise, you’re almost always better off if you write words. The UK Government agrees:

Terms like eg, ie and etc, while common, make reading difficult for some.
Anyone who didn’t grow up speaking English may not be familiar with them. Even those with high literacy levels can be thrown if they are reading under stress or are in a hurry - like a lot of people are on the web.

Nature has an article looking at biological visualizations.

Scott Barinato’s new book is called Good Charts.

 Nancy Duarte interviews him here.

I sympathize with this note from Taking Apart Cats:

“Hm. poster is very busy. Will check later” *completely unable to find poster again*

What to wear, what to wear... If you don’t know, you’ll be pleased to know that Errant Science says you’re far from alone:

My theory is that everyone is basically confused at what to wear for conferences and so the end result is a mish-mash of different levels of smartness.

21 July 2016

Critique and makeover: Landfill bacteria

Today’s contribution comes from Patric Chua, who gave me permission to post this. Click to enlarge!

Patric had this to say:

Better Posters has been my guide for poster designs (Aw, thanks! - ZF), and I've followed the many ideas for this poster. I understand that PowerPoint is not the best tool, but I hope it will suffice.

The design of the poster is inspired by infographics - I did not want it to conform to the IMRAD template. Each section can be read independently and has its own method and results. However, I’m afraid that I’ve falling into the trap where I’ve placed too many information in. I also think that the poster lacks a strong entry point.

The piece de resistance is probably the bottom right corner where I followed the advice on Inviting interactions post. I plan to attach cardboard boxes and place comment cards in the first box to make it easier for the audience.

The amount of work that went into this is impressive. I’ve opened the file and seen just how many individual elements are incorporated into this poster. To work with that many parts in PowerPoint is a nigh Herculean effort.

The poster has a strong sense of organization. Although Patric says it isn’t doesn’t have to be read in a linear way, the poster leaves no confusion if you choose to go that route.

I agree with Patric’s own assessment: this poster has a lot going on.

The use of icons is a double edged sword here. Although they certainly add visual interest, I’m not sure they always make it easier to understand what’s going on. Icons should represent simple nouns, and here they seem to be used in several ways, sometimes seeming to represent steps in a process.

Even without changing any of the words, a few subtle design changes can help calm the visual noise and make it a little less intimidating.

Here’s the makeover. Spot the differences!

If this were a classic newspaper “Spot the difference” puzzle, I’d have the two side by side, and the answers printed upside down:

Here’s the side by side:

And thanks to this site, I can (almost) duplicate the fun of reading a print newspaper!

  1. ˙ɹɐq sʇᴉ uᴉ ɹǝʇʇǝq sᴉ ɹǝʇuǝɔ oʇ ǝlʇᴉʇ ǝɥʇ ɟo ƃuᴉuoᴉʇᴉsodǝɹ ʇɥƃᴉls ɐ s’ǝɹǝɥ┴
  2. ˙(ǝnlq puɐ ploƃ) oʍʇ oʇ (ǝnlq puɐ 'uǝǝɹƃ 'pǝɹ ʞɔᴉɹq 'ploƃ) ɹnoɟ ɯoɹɟ uʍop ʇnɔ uǝǝq sɐɥ suɯnloɔ ǝɥʇ uᴉ sɹnoloɔ pǝɹnʇɐǝɟ ɟo ɹǝqɯnu ǝɥ┴
  3. ˙ʇuoɟ ᴉɯǝp ɐ ɹo 'lɐɯɹou ɹǝɥʇᴉǝ oʇ ploq ɐ ɯoɹɟ uʍop pǝddǝʇs uǝǝq sɐɥ sƃuᴉpɐǝɥ puɐ sǝɯɐu s’sɹoɥʇnɐ ǝɥʇ uᴉ ǝɔɐɟǝdʎʇ ǝɥ┴
  4. ˙ɹǝuuᴉɥʇ ʎllɐᴉʇuɐʇsqns ǝpɐɯ ǝɹǝʍ suoɔᴉ ǝɥʇ punoɹɐ sǝuᴉl ǝɥ┴
  5. ˙pǝuoᴉʇᴉsodǝɹ ʎlʇɥƃᴉls puɐ ʞunɹɥs ǝɹǝʍ suoɔᴉ ǝɥ┴

Okay, okay, here’s an easier to read set of answers:

  1. There’s a slight repositioning of the title to vertically center it in its bar.
  2. The number of featured colours in the columns has been cut down from four (gold, brick red, green, and blue) to two (gold, for the start and end, and blue, for the main text).
  3. The typeface in the authors’ names and headings has been stepped down from bold. The type is now either normal, or a demi font instead of a bold font.
  4. The lines around the icons were made substantially thinner (from 6 point to 1 point, which might be too fine).
  5. The icons were shrunk and slightly repositioned.

Any individual one of these is not that a big of an improvement. But I think the sum total results in a poster that is a calmer on the eyes overall.

Here’s how the poster looked on the day of presentation:

And here’s a close up of the “Comments section”:

14 July 2016

Critique: Rhizosphere round-up

Today's contribution comes from Larry York, and is used with his permission. Click to enlarge!

Larry’s own review of this poster:

There is too much text on the bottom of my poster, but the overall idea of the poster was a review of my recently published and ongoing work.

One thing this poster does well is direct the reader through the the tricky portrait format. It’s clear that this poster is meant to be read across, in rows.

Another thing it does well is the choice of colours. The blues and greens are clearly related to the colours happening in the figures. The background colours are subtle, although the greens might even be just a little lighter.

I agree with Larry’s own assessment that this poster has got too much going on, particularly in the bottom. But it’s not just the text. The overall feel of this is “jam packed,” but not in a good way. Less stuff and more space between everything would surely improve the appearance of this poster.

There are many complex graphs. The layout within each row is sometimes slightly confusing. In the first box, I have three graphs on top of text on top of a picture. The graphs don’t have any caption below them, so I am left to try to make sense of them by reading the text. Maybe the text should come first.

Similarly, on the left side of the top box, I’m forced to zigzag back and forth around the (nice but complex) pictures.

Short of a ruthless edit, there are things that might help out. I tried a couple of quick and dirty revisions. First, I put the title in a more prominent location. The title is 90% of your communication effort, and people will start reading in the the top left. Let’s put the title there instead of logos. I shrunk the logos a little to create a bit more space.

On the first box, I removed the thick blue lines to see if just colours would allow you to follow the flow of the poster. I didn’t do this for the boxes below, because... well... then this would no longer be a “quick” makeover.

The combination of the green box plus shadows would allow you to follow the reading order, but removing the heavy blue lines helps open up the poster and make it feel less cramped.

07 July 2016

Critique: Anther colours

I won’t say this is the best poster from the recent Evolution 2016 meeting, but it is my personal favourite. Click to enlarge!

This poster is by Emily Austen, who was kind enough to send me the PDF and give me permission to share it. I asked Emily if she had comments about the design. She wrote.

First, when I visit posters, I have way more fun if the presenter explains the poster to me than if I try to read it. I tried to make a poster that would encourage conversation.

Second, while designing, I was very inspired by this awesome poster by James O’Hanlon, which I am pretty sure was featured on your blog before. (It was! - ZF) That poster is brilliant.

This poster is also pretty brilliant. Of all the posters I saw at the meeting (and I saw all of them), this was the only one that stopped me in my tracks.

I love this poster. I love the full bleed flower picture. I love that the colours in that picture are carried throughout the poster. I love that each graph has a simple, short sentence describing the point it makes.

The only things I might change are truly minor.

The red used for Emily’s name under the title makes her name harder to read, not easier. I know it’s trying to carry through with the red and yellow used elsewhere in the poster, but it is too dark.

When I first looked at the poster, I thought the bottom “answer” might need just a tiny bit more breathing room, or be placed in a more prominent location. I might have tried the Columbo method for the title (make a statement instead of asking a question).

The acknowledgements in the left corner are are handled well, but the very first line comes close to the edge of the petal in the picture. Similarly, a petal and the word “trout” in the title come close to touching. Either separate edges or overlap them. For example, the middle petals look fine with graphs are on top of them because the graphs are clearly deliberately placed. The overlap shows that the graphs are meant to be on top of the picture. Objects that nearly touch create an uneasy tension.

But these are quibbles. This poster is gorgeous. Not every poster is going to have this built-in visual component (it is about colour, after all), but it understands that a poster is a visual medium and pushes it to a high level of design and even artistry. I think my next creation is going to borrow a few ideas from this one.

Related posts

Link roundup for March 2015
Detective stories: “Whodunnit?” versus “How’s he gonna prove it?”