04 June 2009

Review: Preparing Scientific Illustrations

When I was starting this project, I thought, “I should read what books there are on the subject.” And I came up nearly empty. One of the few to pop up when searching for “research posters” or “scientific posters” was Preparing Scientific Illustrations. The subtitle includes the title of this blog, so how could I not look at it?

This book was written in the mid 1990s, and it has not aged well. There are many references to computer and printing technology that is almost dead and buried. For example, I haven’t thought about Letraset or lettering machines in ages, but they feature here.

As for posters, this book was pretty clearly written before the introduction of many large plotter printers into universities and graphics shops. The underlying assumption seems to be that a poster will have to be produced and tacked up piecemeal. “Piecemeal” also a good description of some of the examples of poster layout shown (this one from page 144):

There is little indication that the author is thinking about a grid, which is the foundation for poster layout. The layout shown is scattered and disjointed, with strange gaps between sections and uneven columns. The flow of reading is certainly correct.

There is good advice in this book. For instance, there is a reminder for posters that many of the audience have reached “bifocal age,” as Briscoe puts it, so making lettering large is of the utmost important. Nevertheless, once you sift through the outdated information, the advice that is left feels insubstantial. There are many declarations, but no exploration of underlying principles of graphic excellence. Consequently, Preparing Scientific Illustrations does not fare well when compared to something like Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.


Briscoe MJ. 1996. Preparing Scientific Illustrations: A Guide to Better Posters, Presentations, and Publications (2nd Edition). Springer-Verlag: New York. Amazon

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