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.

29 November 2018

Link roundup for November, 2018

This month’s contender for “Best conference poster” was spotted by Greg Fell:


Clever!

• • • • • 

If you have a fabric poster, Crystal Lantz can show you how to turn that ol’ science communication into a lovely tote bag!


She’s got detailed instructions, but you’re on your own for the sewing machine. Hat tip to Crystal Lantz and Caitlin verder Weele.

• • • • • 

I missed these tweets from Suzy Styles about poster club back in August, when there was discussion about harassment in poster sessions:

The First Rule of Poster Club is...
🤛🏻you 🤛🏻do 🤛🏻not 🤛🏻 talk🤛🏻about...
🤛🏻the presenter’s appearance
🤛🏻the presenter’s phone number
🤛🏻who you think ‘actually’ wrote the code
🤛🏻basically anything other than the poster and relevant scientific context 🤷🏻‍♀️

The Second Rule of Poster Club is...
🤛🏻you 🤛🏻do🤛🏻not
🤛🏻try to look down the presenter’s top
🤛🏻stand unnecessarily close
🤛🏻touch the presenter 🙅🏻
🤛🏻block the presenter with your body
🤛🏻talk about anything other than the poster and relevant scientific context

The Third Rule of Poster Club is...
🤛🏻be aware that if you are much taller, standing close can be intimidating
🤛🏻be aware that if you are more senior, standing close can be intimidating
🤛🏻check - am I being a jerk atm?
🤛🏻do not talk about anything other than the poster++

• • • • • 

Phylopic is a great resource for biology presenters. It provides silhouettes of different animals. I tried, “Crab.”


Weirdly, I tried clicking Callinectes sapidus, which has an icon next to its name, and found there was no image of that species! But with a little more clicking, it provided this outline of Liocarcinus vernalis.


The “illustrated lineage” feature is also pretty nice. Hat tip to John Vanek.

• • • • • 

More conferences should use magnetic name badges, says Jennifer Rohn.

OMG - a magnetic name badge so you don’t have to pierce your expensive clothes! Where have you been all my life?

• • • • • 

This blog post mainly about bootstraps (in the mathematical sense) but also contains warnings against the problems of bar graphs and error bars.

(T)here is no substitute for a scatterplot, at least for relatively small sample sizes. Also, using the mean +/- SD, +/- SEM, with a classic confidence interval (using t formula) or with a percentile bootstrap confidence interval can provide very different impressions about the spread in the data (although it is not their primary objective).

• • • • • 

John Burn-Murdoch has a nice analysis of this wide-distributed graphic of US election results.


With that constraint gone, you can label them all directly! Immediately more readable.

• • • • • 

Kathleen Morris gives us a list of free graphics resources.



Hat tip to Lisa Lundgren and Emily Rollinson

22 November 2018

Critique: Stimulating brain to lower pain

Today’s poster comes from kindly contributor Emma Taylor, who was generous enough to share her honours project. Click to enlarge!


Quick thoughts.

  • Good structure that lets me know I read in rows.
  • Visual hierarchy is generally good.
  • Looks crowded. Would benefit from more space around everything, but particularly between text and edged of blue boxes they are in.
  • Underlining text in discussion would probably be better as bold or italic text.
  • Another editing run to cut more text might help. (I know, that bit is hard.)

15 November 2018

Critique: Digitized manuscripts

This blog mostly uses sciences as examples, so I am always positively delighted when I get contributions from the humanities. Today’s contribution is from Cornelius van Lit. Click to enlarge!


One of the things like about getting other people’s posters is they try stuff I would never do. I’d never put my title in the middle of the poster. And yet, it works here.

The poster is a great example use of using size to indicate reading priority. That large text in the middle makes it very clear where you are supposed to start reading. Nothing competes with that title.

The downside of having the title in the middle is that there is some potential confusion about how you are supposed to read the remaining text. But it’s okay here. After reading the middle introduction, people will jump up to the upper left corner (which starts “Scholars use digitized manuscripts...”) because that’s just where you look first when you read English.

After reading that section, I think most people will read across to the top right (which starts, “In one chapter...”), because of the proximity of the text. Having that big title in the middle stops you from looking down and trying to read in columns. If the title and introduction were at the top, people would get lost. (But with only four sections, they wouldn’t get lost long.)

I tried making two changes, both subtle, in the revision below.


First, I moved the author information and the QR code from the top of the poster to the bottom. I really didn’t like how the QR code was sitting “corner to corner” in the first version, so I lined it up with the map below. Besides, both bits of material looked like “fine print,” and fine print is more logically placed at the bottom. It might also be easier for shorter people to scan the QR code if it’s lower rather than higher on the poster.

Second, I added a very subtle neatline around the map in the lower left corner. (You may have to enlarge to see it.) Three sides of the map have segments with clear straight edges, but the left side doesn’t, making the map a strange, irregular shape. By using a thin, light gray line, the shape of the map becomes more consistent with the shapes in the other three corners.

External links

Among digitized manuscripts

08 November 2018

Blackout: Poster protests travel ban

You are not supposed to take pictures on the poster session floor of the Neuroscience 2018 meeting.

Photography, video, filming, tape recording, and all other forms of recording are prohibited during the poster sessions, lectures, symposia, minisymposia, nanosymposia, courses, workshops, and on the exhibit floor.

But people broke the rules to take pictures of this poster.


Here’s a closer look at the one visible section of text:


It reads:

Unfortunately, due to the travel ban imposed on citizens of Iran and other countries I am unable to be here to present my poster. My supervisor and I therefore decided not to present the poster at all. Science should be about breaking down barriers not creating new ones. I hope to be able to make the next SFN conference in 2019.

This situation has been brewing since August, according to co-author Chris Dayas’s Twitter timeline. Starting 20 August:

My PhD student who was so excited to attend her first SFN has been denied a visa to enter US based on her nationality... very helpful to progress science in all countries and break down barriers

On 8 September:

Disappointed that @Neurosci2018 @SfNtweets won’t refund my students membership to use at another conference in a country that won’t deny her entry based on her citizenship.... I asked nicely twice ....

On 20 September:

I just spoke with the Executive Director of SFN. He explained SFN's position re membership to SFN V meeting registration i.e. Thus, although she joined solely for attending the meeting only the latter would have been refunded based on her VISA denial @SfNtweets @Neurosci2018

(I’m a little disturbed that the student is almost erased in this discussion. Her name doesn’t appear on by her picture or her words, and Daya never refers to her by name in his tweets. I am guessing she is the first author, L. Akbari.)

This was not unique. Moataz Assem wrote:

It's not just Iran, my turkish wife also didn't get the visa to present her poster. it sucks.

The Lim Lab tweeted:

So far we’ve seen many withdrawan posters due to the travel ban, at #sfn2018. Add many more who even didn’t bother to submit since they knew they won’t be able to attend. This needs to be addressed by @SfNtweets. Stand by #ScienceForAll #NoBanInScience #NoDiscriminationInScience

Matthew Leavitt has a spreadsheet to collect the names of neuroscientists affected by the ban. I’d also point out that this blog recently featured another story of a denied visa.

But back to the poster, and why it is so effective. Click to enlarge!


I’ve seen notices of withdrawn posters before. Usually, someone sticks a page of letter-sized paper with a hand-written note explaining that the poster has been withdrawn. It gets no attention. Making a full-sized poster of the fact that there is no poster has gotten attention.

And it’s not just the “no poster” aspect that gets attention. This is a smart design.

First, you have a bunch of question marks in the left hand side, where people will look first. Any viewer would be wondering why there is not a typical poster with boxes and graphs and data to see here. The image acknowledges, “Look, I know you’re confused. Let me explain.”

Second, the image fades pretty quickly to black around the sides. Black is often used to represent censorship, whether by black redacted lines in text or the word “blackout” itself.

Third, the message from the author is placed on the right, the “bottom line” area. It’s placed at eye level, against the darkest part of the poster so it pops out.

Fourth, when you look closer, you can see the outline of a poster underneath. A scientific ghost of what could have been, which drives home the frustration that there was something ready to go, that could have been presented.

If the author had been slated to give a talk, what could have been the equivalent statement? The session chair would have just said, “The speaker cannot come because of the travel ban. We’ll resume in fifteen minutes.” Even if a co-author would have put up a slide like this poster for those fifteen minutes, nobody would have paid attention. People would have carried on with their business, going to another talk or checking their email while they waited for the next one.

This poster makes a point better than any talk.

Posters have been used for political purposes far longer than they have been used for academic communication.This poster harkens back to that earlier and more common use.

Photos by Lionel Rodriguez, Chris Dayas (poster co-author) and Fergil Mills.

Related posts

Critique: Virtual conferencing

01 November 2018

Critique and makeover: Middle Earth sea temperatures

No, I haven’t gone full Tolkien this week. Mediterranean means “Middle of the Earth,” right? This week’s poster about the Mediterranean Sea comes from kindly contributor Francisco Pastor. Click to enlarge!


Francisco is a repeat customer of this blog. One of his earlier poster was reviewed here last year, but this iteration is in Spanish. One of the things I like about graphic design is that you don’t always need to be able to understand the exact language to be able to offer advice! (Though I’m not sure what I would make of a poster in Korean or Hindi.)

Francisco’s aims were to “increase importance for graphical info and reduce text. I also tried to highlight conclusion sections and added a screenshot to publish our sea surface temperature website.” Compared to the previous poster, I think this version is more successful at meeting those goals. The images are bigger and the take home message is more obvious and cleaner.

But some problems that were in the previous poster are still creeping in on this poster. They’re small, mind you. But again, alignment is driving me crazy. Some elements are almost aligned. But not quite.

I’ve added a few black guidelines on this version of the poster so you can see more easily if you click to enlarge.


These sorts of little details are the monsters you see out of the corner of your eye: they almost escape your notice, but once you catch a glimpse of them, suddenly you see them everywhere. I first thought, “Oh, the conclusions don’t like up with the web portal.” Then I spotted another. And another.

In the revision below, I just moved a few pieces around to square things up.


In general, if you are working with rectangular elements – which is the most common thing on posters by a long way – align objects by their edges. And be super obsessive about it.


This can become tricky when you have maps and graphs that have small axis labels or other annotations, because you might think the edge is defined by the text. In some cases, it will look better if the edges of the blocks are aligned that exclude the text. I tried this down in the lower right corner. The maps for such strong visual impressions that you want to see the edges of the maps aligned, latitude and longitude markings be damned.


Related posts

Critique and makeover: Hot Mediterranean