17 October 2020

Critique: Dawn of the mammals

This infographic by Nuria Melisa Morales García could just as easily go onto a poster board at a conference. Click to enlarge!

"Reptilian physiology revealed in the first mammals" infographic

The highlight of this is clearly the skill of rendering. I love the mammal head and teeth over on the left. I love how callouts and arrows are used to guide you through the left half. I love the hand being used for scale to show the size of the animals. I love the icons in the line graph on the right. 

The left and right feel a little disconnected, in part because the title ends very close to the central divide. I would like to see the title bigger and running further across the top. This might means the logos got the bottom instead of the top.

Under the title is a summary:

Unexpectedly long lifespans tell us that the first mammals had low basal metabolic rates, akin to reptiles, and were not warm-blooded like modern mammals. Their activity levels were lower than modern warm-blooded mammals.

Currently, this mainly says the same thing as the title, just in several sentences instead of one. I might reword this to a narrative:

Modern mammals are warm blooded and have shorter lifespans than modern reptiles, but ancient mammals had longer lives, from which we conclude their metabolism was like modern reptiles.

Over on the right, the two graph have many nice parallels. They are both line graphs (even with similar trendlines!), both use the same colour scheme, both have icons for the animals. I wish they were even more similar.

The leftmost graph sits higher than the rightmost graph. I so badly want the graphs to be aligned, so they two X axes sit at the same height. I just want to grab the rightmost graph and move it up so it sits side by side with its left partner.

The leftmost graph has a summary statement above it, but the rightmost graph has a question above it. 

The left graph has a picture above and below the graph, but the rightmost graph only has a picture above it. 

I might tackle this by removing the Kuehneotherium in the left graph. It doesn’t appear anywhere else in the graphic, so its role is a little bit unclear. The would create the space to move the left graph down to the same height at the right one. A little text editing would be able to make the text above and below the graphs fit the new space better.


Newham E, Gill PG, Brewer P, Benton MJ, Fernandz V, Gostling NJ, Haberthür D, Jernvall J, Kankaanpää T, Kallonen A, Navarro C, Pacureanu A, Richards K, Brown KR, Schneider P, Suhonen H, Tafforeau P, Williams KA, Zeller-Plumhoff B, Corfe IJ. 2020. Reptile-like physiology in Early Jurassic stem-mammals. Nature Communications 11: 5121.https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-18898-4

08 October 2020

Picking up a poster

A couple of years ago, I was out of my usual surrounds and up in the northeast of the US. I had a conference coming up, and no access to the department’s printing services. So I have a poster printed commercially by MegaPrint. They do a lot of research posters. 

I looked at the address, and realized it was... pretty close by, all things considered. Cheaper and more fun to get it instead of having it shipped by courier.

So I drove over and picked up the poster, because I was kind of curious to see a place that handled so many conference posters.

I missed the sign the first time and had to turn around and go back.

MegaPrint sign by highway surrounded by trees

Their business is a little ways out of town, nestled into trees.

Inside, calm, unassuming, with rows of large format plotter printers.

I got a chance to talk briefly to their founder Jay (since retired) about how they got into doing so many research posters. A friend of his mentioned scientists were always making posters, so that became a big part of their business. 

And I got my poster!

Poster laying on table

It was nice to have a moment of connection to a business that has, in a quiet way, been so integral to so many presenters at scientific conferences.

01 October 2020

Journals need to set a better example for posters

I recently ran across a figure in a journal (and a journal I respect) that made me look sideways at it. I am suspicious of composite, multi-panel figures at the best of times. But oh boy.

First, this was the layout of the elements in the figure.

Nine elements should be easy to lay out. Make a three by three grid heights and widths. Instead, we get this bizarro layout where only two elements are the same height or width (bottom right corner). The five and eight sided polygons in the middle are making me cringe. 

But based on the blocking of the elements, I thought I might be able to go through the figure in a sensible way. It looked to me like I should go across, then down.

But no. When I looked at the numbering and figure legend, I found I was supposed to read the figure in this order.

So the actual reading order for this figure is a drunkard’s walk that includes right to left transitions and backtracking across previously covered terrain.

At least the ordering starts in the upper left and ends in the lower right.

I can understand authors making a figure like this. Scientists are not graphic designers. But what I can’t understand is why a journal editor didn’t have something to say about this. Something to say as in, “Redo that figure.”

Posters are deeply influenced by journal articles. They almost always have the same elements as a journal article, even though there is rarely a need to imitate the format. So slipshod graphics in journals have a ripple effect. They sets a poor example that readers who later make posters might imitate. People think it’s published so it must be okay.

It could be so much better.

I get the impression that a few journals have dedicated graphics staff who often work with authors on their illustrations. I wish that professional graphics designers were employed more widely by journals, and that the journals advertised that.