25 August 2011

Critique: Geese and swans

At the recent Ecological Society of America meeting (covered here and here), this was one of the posters that “popped” out at me. Click to enlarge:

This poster interests me greatly, because there are many things that I would normally pick at on other posters, but don’t bother me here. For instance, I normally tell people to limit themselves to two colours; there’s at least four on display here. But it works.

When speaking to the presenter, Dan Brooks, about it, I discovered something unusual: he had not made it. It was made by Marcia Hoang, a professional graphic artist who works with the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Marcia graciously agreed to answer some questions for me about this poster and design.

Q: Because you’re a designer, not a scientist, have you ever been to a scientific conference before and seen the posters?

A: I have never been to a scientific conference before, but I do work at the Houston Museum of Natural Science as a graphic designer for exhibits. I think that helped me a lot when designing this poster, knowing what points to emphasize and what points were less important for viewers to see at first glance.

Q: Could you describe the process of working with the researcher, Dan Brooks, on this? How much of the text and graphs does he give you, and how much do you create?

A: Dan Brooks was great, because he had all the information he wanted on the poster ready to go, as well as a resource of images and graphs. Although Dan provided me with graphs and pie charts, I wanted to redesign them so that they were more easily read and had the same look and colour scheme as the rest of the poster.

Q: What software did you use to put the poster together?

A: I used Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator.

Q: One of the things that is very striking about this poster is the use of colour. I often advise people to stay away from many colours on posters, because it seems easy to do more harm than good! Was there any sort of plan behind the choice and use of colours?

A: I think colour is very important to a poster if used correctly. I chose colours that came from the goose to inspire the rest of the poster. I then used these colours to separate sections of information from each other.

Q: I see on your website that you’ve done other science-based graphics, like “Biggest stars” and “Skull wall.” Is designing a scientific graphic any different than other projects?

A: Yes, both of the projects you named were for the Houston Museum of Natural Science at Sugar Land. Designing a scientific graphic, especially for education, has many restrictions. Often times, the type must be quite large for audiences of all ages to read it, and color schemes have already been set by the subject of the graphic, i.e., the stars in outer space already glow with certain colors. While certain design liberties are not accessible, it is part of a designers job to push these boundaries, to be creative, to be able to catch the viewer's eye.

Q: Do you have any advice to help a scientist making a poster? Putting it another way, what are the pitfalls that people not trained in design fall into over and over again?

A: I often see lack of hierarchy in text. Hierarchy is very important so that viewers may scan a large poster with an abundant amount of information and be able to know the general points it covers.

Another mistake many people make is putting photographs that are pixelated or are not well photographed onto their displays. We are very visual, so beautiful images tend to be the first thing to draw the eye.

Q: Straight graphic design geekery now: Do you have a favourite typeface?

A: I usually lean towards thinner typefaces. I am a big fan of Archer. And to add to the previous question: please stay away from Comic Sans, Papyrus, Courier, and the likes. Stick to something easy to read and you will be all right.

Thanks to Dan Brooks and Marcia Hoang for generously sharing this with me!

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Harry A said...

Great interview. Wish it could have been even longer. This blog is a great service to the academic science community!

Zen Faulkes said...

If you have questions for Marcia, put them here, and I’ll draw her attention to them!

fstony said...

Thanks. I don't really do posters, but there's one I have to do right now. This gives me courage.