17 January 2019

Critique: Lending low tech tools

Today’s poster contributor is Scott Johnson. Click to enlarge!


This is a great marriage of content and form. The content is about something that is unabashedly “low tech,” so the hand-written, slightly lo-fi (okay, low tech) look is completely right here. It adds character and interest.

Regular readers know that I personally am anti-underlining, and try to remove it in almost every instance I see it. But here, because it’s hand written, I can see the case for it. When people write by hand, they do underline for emphasis. I would experiment a bit with removing the underline, but I don’t know if removing the the underlines for headings and making the headinga a bit bolder would lose the look.

I appreciate the purity of the monochrome greyscale, but it does wash out from a distance.

I would like to see a little colour – even if subdued, and not everywhere. To keep the “low tech” look, I would suggest referencing some old photos, like daguerreotypes. They often weren’t pure shades of grey – certainly not as pure as here. Old pictures often have creamy or brownish overtones to them, as you can see in this picture of American write Edgar Allen Poe.

Edgar Allen Poe daguerreotype


Making the background of the page a subtle shade off-white or something might help.

Alternately, the poster might use a single colour to highlight a few elements, like duotone printing.
I'm thinking of maybe a very light yellow for the “sunburst” behind the building.

If the poster stays pure monochrome, it could use a little more contrast to make some portions stand out. I like how the lines around the house and title are heavier to make them stand out at distance. But the text, as mentioned, is fading a little.

Very charming work!

Picture from here.

10 January 2019

When posters fail

When a poster fails, it’s usually because it failed early in the design process.

Years ago, I showed this poster:

Poster overflowing poster board and spilling onto floor

It does not matter whether this poster does a lot of the detail work right. It does not matter how good the layout is, or how good the typography is, or whether the colour scheme is consistent and pleasing to the eye, or whether there is enough white space. None of that matters.

The authors of this poster doomed it at the very beginning, when they picked a page size... and got it wrong.

In my experience, there are two places where posters fail early on.

On the content side, people do not edit enough. They want to include everything, rather than focusing on one thing, and the poster suffers.

On the design side, people do not make a grid. They start drawing boxes without any underlying thought to structure, and treat their data like some sort of jigsaw puzzle to fit together.

I was reminded of the while I was making a poster for the Student and Post-Doctoral Affairs Committee (SPDAC) for the recent Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB) meeting in Tampa (#SICB2019 on Twitter).

This poster was not a typical data-driven poster. Authorship was on my mind, and I wanted to do some consciousness raising about this issue to early career researchers.

What struck me was how little the poster changed from beginning to end. You can see this in the animation:

Animation of SICB authorship poster creation

Here are a few frames from that process. I had created a six column grid template for a poster class I was doing for SPDAC:


I decided to used that as a basis for a three column layout. And I what kind of graphic I wanted*. And those were apparent in the very first stages of layout, shown below:

Draft one of SICB authorship poster

Even as the poster is filling out, the underlying structure stays the same:

Draft two of SICB authorship poster

And here is the final version:

Final version of SICB authorship poster

Looking at it now, I should have made the title bigger. Oh well.

I have noticed a similar pattern when I’ve created animations of my design process before (here and here). This first one from 2015 keeps the same five column structure throughout the design process. A second one (from 2017) has a little more movement early on, but quickly settles down.

While you can see in the animations that a lot of time is spent tinkering. But the late stage tinkering is the polish that will differentiate the “okay” from the “excellent.”

It’s the early stage decisions that make the difference between “competent” and “embarrassing,” “okay” and “crap,” “success” and “fail.”

* From this blog post


(T)wo chess pieces suggest conflict. But if you know how knights move in chess, the reality is that neither can capture the other. In other words, from the point of view of those pieces, it’s a “no win” situation.
I think that represents most authorship disputes pretty well.

Related posts

Posters should not be usable as drapes
A poster with no conference, or: What I made in that #SciFund poster class
Critique: Sand crab summer

03 January 2019

Critque and ruination: Antibiotic resistance CARD

For the first blog post of the year, allow me to ruin a poster. And even more ironically, I’m about to ruin an award-winning poster.

This week’s contribution came from Sally Min. It was presented at McMaster Innovation Showcase, where it won the People’s Choice poster award. Click to enlarge!


When I first opened the file, I thought, “This is strong.” We have that intense White Stripes colour scheme. The diagonals add a lot of visual interest and make the poster look different than the usual rectangular format. There is not a lot to read, because the poster uses icons and flow charts effectively.

But those diagonals, which bring so much of the cool look to the poster, also mess with the poster.

They look like arrow heads. We expect to follow arrows.

At a glance, this is how I expect the order of stuff on the poster to flow.


But the numbers make is clear that this is the order the authors intended.


We don’t expect to go “left and up” from section 5 to 6, because there is stuff to the left we’ve already read (section 2).

Because those numbers are so helpful, it might be worth making them bigger or more prominent somehow. Maybe numbers inside bullets would make them more visible. Here’s a very quick and dirty version:



While I know intellectually what the problem is, I don’t know how to fix it in a way that doesn’t make the poster look worse.

My first thought was, “The top row is confusing. It looks like there is an arrow pointing right to left, from black section 2 to the red section 1. I’ll keep the diagonals, but reverse it so the implied arrow is consistent with the reading order.”

I tried that, but you have the same problem with the diagonals looking like arrows on the right side of the section 4, which pointed across to section 6, when the authors want you to go down to black section 5.


I tried to create a visual cue, another arrowhead made of diagonals, to show the authors preferred direction, and that’s a hot mess. The shape created by black section 5 is just a weird polygon that makes no sense.


Maybe the solution is to flip the content. Put the material in black section 5 where red section 6 currently is, and vice versa.

I think this style of design could work, but the back and forth reading flow would need to be built in at the beginning. Something like:


You end up with “half boxes,” which in this sketch I’ve used for fine print.

The thing is that after all this struggling, I’m actually not sure it matters much. This is still a sharp looking poster, and that the authors were smart enough to add the explicit guideposts by numbering each section. That means that I am only momentarily confused looking at the poster.

Presentation pic! The poster in real life...