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)