02 January 2015

Interview with visual information specialist Karen Nelson

Conference posters are typically made by amateurs (and boy oh boy, does that ever include me!). It’s rare to find someone who makes posters as part of their job, who is not an academic, and who has training in design.

This makes Karen Nelson rare as the proverbial hen’s teeth. Her email signature describes her asa “Visual Information Specialist” for the United States Forest Service. She graciously agreed to answer some questions and show a couple of her posters. (Click to enlarge the posters!)

Q: Tell us a bit about your background. How did you become a “visual information specialist”?

A: I graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a B.S. in Art (and an emphasis in typography and graphic design). After graduating, I was hired by the U.S. Forest Service, Forest Products Laboratory (FPL), as an entry level “Visual Information Specialist” (Graphic Designer). My skill sets improved over time, and I’m now a senior designer.

Q: Before you started designing posters, had you been to scientific conferences and seen the posters?

A: I did not attend scientific conferences before I started to design posters. However, I saw many research posters created by a former designer at the Forest Products Laboratory, who was my mentor before he retired.

Q: Do you go to conferences now? If so, what’s your general impression of the state of conference posters?

A: Due to budget constraints, I do not travel to conferences. However, I do review posters presented at conferences hosted on-site by my employer. My general impression of conference posters is that they are usually “journal articles on a large piece of paper.” Posters are overloaded with text, charts, tables, etc. Color choices are poor. Proofreading is overlooked. Primary messages are lost due to information overload.

Q: Describe the process of working with the researchers. How much of the text and graphs do they give you, and how much do you create?

A: The researchers are responsible for providing text and graphics. I ask researchers to provide (1) conference guidelines for the poster (2) text in Word, (3) charts (with data) in Excel (whenever possible), (4) tables in Word or Excel, and (5) original, unaltered, copyright-free photographs at the largest file size available. If it’s necessary to use a copyrighted image, the researcher must obtain permission for use. I specifically request that they do not embed photos, charts/graphics, and other elements in a Word or PowerPoint document. I work more efficiently when I receive individual files, and I think that quality is lost when I have to copy/paste an image from Word into Photoshop.

I begin the design process after I receive all content. I work directly with the researchers to eliminate unnecessary information. I’m a good proofreader and copy editor, but I consult with an on-site technical publications editor as needed. If the photographs are low resolution, I request different files (or I will look for them myself). I frequently re-create graphs and artwork (flow charts, diagrams, etc.), especially when I receive low-resolution image files that are not editable.

After a draft poster is done, I meet with the researcher(s) for review, corrections, etc. I usually output a small but readable print for markup. Sometimes, simply emailing a PDF will suffice for review.

Q: What is your poster design process like? Is it purely digital? What software do you use to put posters together?

A: Yes, the design process is fully digital. If a poster contains tables, I use Adobe InDesign for layout (InDesign is great for importing and editing tables). If a poster contains charts and vector graphics that need to be redrawn, I use Adobe Illustrator (Illustrator’s graphing tool is also very helpful when data is provided). I edit and color correct raster images in Adobe Photoshop. We have an in-house large-format printer.

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: KISS! In a room full of 100 or 200 or 300 posters, let yours stand out and attract attention. Portray the main message and important results – not all of the journal article details. Make the design process easy – use large, pertinent photographs, succinct graphics, and a minimal amount of text.

Don’t use dark or brightly colored backgrounds. Instead, keep the background white or use a light, neutral color so that your graphics and photographs can pop.

Don’t use boxes! Instead, leave plenty of white space between columns and sections of information. If you “need” boxes, you have too much information.

Please avoid 3D charts and gradient fill patterns! Remove all “chart junk.” Read Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information to learn more. Choose a limited color palette and a limited number of fonts and font sizes.

Consider a handout or a business card with links to sources for more information.

Q: What other kinds of visual information are you charged with making in your work? How do the design considerations differ?

A: My work is divided between technical/research-related items for the scientists and other design products for semi-technical and public audiences. I have designed technical manuals, including all graphics contained therein, figures for journal articles, technical brochures, research-related PowerPoint presentations, and some web graphics. On the other hand, I create items for public consumption such as semi-technical handouts, fact sheets, web graphics, PowerPoint files about Forest Products Laboratory, and posters/displays that again are general in nature. The design considerations (principles), to me, are the same for both audiences, yet designs for public consumption allow for more creativity.

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

A: No! It depends on the subject and audience. For research posters, I like Myriad Pro Semibold for titles and heads. It’s an easy-to-read sans serif face. I also like Cronos Pro (sans serif) and two serif font families (Minion Pro and Adobe Text Pro).

Thanks to Karen for taking the time to answer some questions!

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Cronos Pro sample from here.

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