25 February 2016

Link roundup for February 2016


I often use highways signs as metaphors for conference posters. This article describes the typeface selection for highways signs in the United States, and the decision to return to an older (possibly inferior) typeface. Hat tip to Amanda Krauss.

Speaking of highways signs, here’s how they might look if designed by academics:



Photo from Dan Taber at the recent AAAS meeting. Hat tip to Jamie Vernon.

The National Science Foundation has announced the winners of the annual visualization challenge, the Vizzies.



There are some nice ones there. I think this baldderwort image is close to the sweet spot for an academic conference poster.

What is it about pie charts that bring out the worst in design?



Vice magazine should know better than to make the thing above. Hat tip to Arthur Charpentier and Dawn Bazely.

Lenny Teytelman caught this rebellious moment:


There’s a longer post about the often confusing social media policies of research conferences here.

I just learned of Jane Richardson, who created a now standard way of drawing protein structure. Computers do it now, but her hand drawings are so lovely:


It’s a lovely example of how you have to think deeply about something to create a good graphic, but that good graphic can clarify so much for so many. Here’s a blog post and an interview with Richardson. She says:

Producing a good image is always a lot of work, making a single illustration that shows a point really well is always a challenge.

I still have to review Ellen Lupton’s How Posters Work, darn it. Meanwhile, here’s a summary of the book.

A list of logos that make good use of negative space. I do hope the UTRGV Vaquero starts making those lists one day.

18 February 2016

Critique: Manta ray thoughts

This week’s contribution comes from Kenneth Chin. Click to enlarge!


Let me get to a couple of good things before moving to the ways it could be improved. First, the title is big and cannot be missed. If a title truly is 90% of your communication effort (as I’ve argued elsewhere), this poster is ahead of the game.

Second, there are lots of pictures of charismatic animals, including up at the top at eye level. It helps to have a subject that people generally like. I don’t know of anyone who hates manta rays.

Third, the main organization is a simple pair of columns. The reading order is not confusing.

That said, there are more frustrating things on this poster than good things. This poster is a compendium of common pitfalls.

There is way to much text, way too close together. That the poster is so dense calls attention to awkward dead spaces in the poster, shown in red below.


I tried a quick and dirty edit to move sections apart by shrinking the text and images a bit. I also took away the box around the conclusions and bar chart.

Even though the edit creates its own problems (makes alignment worse), it now has a little room to breath.

In the edit above, I flipped the order of the figures. Originally, Figure 7 appears on top of Figure 6. Also, there are two diagrams labelled “Figure 5.”

While the text is a clean sans serif, the bulk of it would be better in regular type instead of italics.

This poster needs to go back almost to the very beginning. The strongest course of action would be to give this poster a ruthless edit. Cut down the amount of material dramatically. Keep one big picture of a manta ray, show one graph of data, and list one to three major conclusions instead of nine(!).

But there is room for improvement even without going back that far in concept. Take off almost all the text and pictures. Make a grid. Draw lines for two evenly spaced columns, with a wide space between them, and wide margins. Make all those text and picture edges line up perfectly. Make sure every text block is an inch from pictures, and vice versa.

A clean two column layout is hidden deep in this poster; I can see hints of it. A disciplined adherence to a grid would reveal it, and leave an acceptable poster.

After I wrote all of the above, but before Kenneth had read it, he sent me a new version of his poster:


We’d converged on many of the same solutions! The major one is that the poster is now in two clean columns. Regarding the italicized text, he’s suffering form some mystery software glitch: they’re not supposed to be in italics.

17 February 2016

Present your geology poster online!



Signal boost!

The American Geophysical Union just tweeted out  a link to a virtual poster competition for undergraduates. You have to sign up my 3 March 2016 for the spring round. Anyone who wants their poster critiqued beforehand... my email address is not hard to find.

Additional: When I retweeted the link, Terry McGlynn responded:

AGU meets in San Fran, too $$ for students. The fix? Just put them on the internet. They need a real network too!

This is a valid point. Is a “virtual poster session” the academic equivalent of the “kiddie pool”: intended to be a safe environment, but kind of demeaning at some point?

External links

American Geophysical Union virtual poster showcase
Conferences need students: make them affordable

12 February 2016

Critique: Autotune

This week’s poster from Chris Cummins (used with permission) is not about correcting pop stars who cannot sing on key. This was presented at the computer science conference HiPEAC 2016. Click to enlarge!


My first reaction when I opened the file was, “A magazine cover!” The title band, the big graphic central graphic surrounded by short bursts of copy all look like a magazine to me. The biggest visual clue was the “5X speedup!” circle is very reminiscent of the sort of thing you see on magazines all the time. You can see this on this MacUser cover:


I enjoy the overall appearance of the poster so much that the tweaks I might suggest are fairly small.

The red highlights in the text are dark and potentially difficult to read. While it doesn’t do it in this case, red on blue together can cause an effect called stereopsis:






I tried lightening the textual highlights (“expensive,” “automate,” “Omnitune” just a bit to match the red in the “5X” circle:


The difference is subtle, but the reds aren’t vanishing into the dark blue behind them quite as much as before.

There are at least four fonts in play on this poster, which is more than I normally recommend. It works, though, as the you often see a lot of play on fonts in magazine covers.

The subheadings seem to be set in Impact. I might have tried looking for a different font, because Impact has been used so much in recent years that it’s starting to look a bit tired. Worse, Impact is almost universally used in LOLcats and memes, so that font might signal silliness more than serious scholarship. On the other hand, memes do say “Internet and computers,” so that might not be a bad thing for a poster on computation.

Like last week’s poster, this one doesn’t treat authors equally. Instead, it emphasizes who is the presenting author in two ways. First, it uses colour. Not only is the presenting author’s name in a highlight colour (red), the other authors’s names are put in alight gray, rather than white. Second, it uses contact information to emphasize who you should send questions to: only the presenting author’s name gets an email address.


Like a good magazine cover, this poster is great at saying to conference goers, “Hey you! Yes you! Come across the hall and read me!” The potential problem is that in a magazine, you can flip into the covers to find more depth and details in the actual articles. A poster can’t provide that. It’s difficult for me to tell whether an aficionado has the key details that he or she would like.


Stereopsis slide from here.

04 February 2016

Critique: Gull movements

Today’s poster is courtesy of Christine Anderson. This was presented at last year’s World Seabird Conference. Spoiler alert: this poster contains seabirds. Click to enlarge!


Christine wrote that she was a blog reader, and posts like this and this inspired her.

Many things work on this poster. Neither the big, big title nor the picture of the gull can be missed. The picture being in a circle helps draw in the eye. The choice of colours, I think determined by the maps, is generally harmonious.

One of the unusual things about this poster is how it handles the author list. There are six authors, but the lead is quite a bit bigger than the others. I am guessing that Christine was the presenting author, and thus the only person at the poster during presentation time. This might have some advantages for the reader, as it allows you to identify who the presenter is quickly. On the other hand, having the presenting author’s name larger than those of the co-authors might be viewed as a downplaying of the contributions of the other authors.But then again, just the ordering of names does that.

This technique probably can’t work if the presenting author is not the first author. It would look dumb if the author list was:

Christine Anderson
Mark Mallory
Grant Gilchrist
Rob Ronconi
Chip Wesloh
Dan Clark

There are two things that might improve this poster.

First, almost everything could do with some more generous margins. The poster looks a little crowded. The Figure 1 legend looks like it’s just about set to bump into the latitude numbers on the neighbouring map.

Second, the recommendation for a little more spaciousness also applies to the text. The crowded feeling isn’t helped by the bullets. If you’re going to have bulleted lists, I like them set with hanging indents, like this:


I also added 6 points after each paragraph.

Christine wrote that the poster got a good reception, which I am always pleased to hear!

Related posts

Critique: fetal movements 
Critique: Rein it in
Bullets versus sentences