31 March 2009

Design is as important as driving

There are certain things you’re generally expected to be able to do as an adult in our society. Like balance your chequebook. Like drive. Why isn't graphic design one of them?

Seth Godin asks why you aren’t good at design. Yes, you, personally, right there! Don’t look around behind you!

(I)n a world where it is expected that professionals will be able to make beautiful powerpoint slides, handsome business cards, clever bio photos and a decent website, (design is) as important as driving. And easier to learn and do, and requiring less talent.

And because Seth is such a mensch, he created a quick little resource page at Squidoo.

This does raise the question of, “What is design?” Off the top of my head, I’d say it’s a working knowledge of typography, graphs and charts, colours, and layout. But this is a topic for deeper exploration in later posts.

I’ll also point out this TED talk to try to convince you of the importance of design. The bio accompanying the talk notes:

Jacek Utko is an extraordinary Polish newspaper designer whose redesigns for papers in Eastern Europe not only win awards, but increase circulation by up to 100%.

26 March 2009

Will it scale?

Posters are big. That's why they’re posters, not pages.

This means that posters generally are not WYSIWYG. No matter how you set your computer monitor, you can’t really see how your poster going to look full size on the paper until it’s printed. (An exception might be if you’re making your poster by tiling together a series of smaller, individual pages.) This is an issue that PowerPoint presenters never have to deal with – they can see on their screen if the graphics are coming up short.

If you have any graphics in your poster at all, this can be a problem. Graphics that look fine on the computer screen can look really bad when printed full size, if you’re not careful. This can be avoided if you understand the two basic kinds of graphics out there.

Vector graphics (top) describe shapes mathematically. Because the underlying equation for a square or circle or line never changes, as you increase the size, the image is displayed at the best resolution the printer or screen is capable of. Probably the best known vector format is *.wmf or *.emf.

Bitmap graphics (below) create images from many small, square pixels. This means that as you zoom in or enlarge, eventually you will hit the point where you start to see jagged edges. This is why high pixel numbers are one of the desirable features that people look for when buying a digital camera. There are many different bitmap file formats, but the best know are *.jpg, *.gif, *.png, and *.tif.

Currently, pixel based graphics rule the roost, thanks to the web and digital cameras. Search Google Images for anything, and you will find images made from pixels. Although there is a recommended format for vector graphics on the web, it’s very hard to find any examples on the web.

Many people make the mistake of taking a low-resolution bitmap image from a website – commonly a university or company logo – then put it on a poster and print it at several hundred times the size it was intended for display it. The results are invariably horrible, jagged images.

If you’re likely to be doing poster presentations routinely, you should invest in a graphics package that can create and edit vector-based images. Unfortunately, these tend to be the more high-end, specialty programs like Adobe Illustrator and CorelDRAW!. But the results are worth it.

19 March 2009

The background

Most documents have a few core elements that they share, like words and pictures. One is so basic that it’s easy to overlook: the background, or the blank page, that you’ll be working on.

There are a couple of basic questions to ask about your background.

First, how big will it be?

There are usually two factors that go into answering this question. One is how big the conference’s poster boards will be. Conference organizers are usually very good about making this information available at the outset. The other is determined by how you plan to physically print the poster. If you are planning on using a plotter printer that prints on 36 or 42 inch rolls of paper, don't plan on making a poster that is 48 inches high.

Second, what colour will be it? In the vast majority of cases, the answer should be, “White.”

Many people fear black on white is boring, and want to make something more “eye-catching.” This often results in disaster. This may be a good time to bring in a guideline for making posters for presentations.

Never do anything that interferes with communication.

I am a big believer that people should make beautiful, gorgeous, luscious conference posters. I want to write a lot in this blog about how to make the most attractive posters possible. Nevertheless, communication should always be the first, most important goal of a poster.

If this means that the poster looks “boring,” this may not be a bad thing. Think about your favourite book. The way it is laid out on the inside is probably pretty boring. There is a reason that most books are printed with black text on a white background: it just works.

12 March 2009

Poster or talk?

Most conferences have opportunities to give talks and posters. When is it better for you to give a poster rather than a talk?

A talk is often better for small conferences, as you are potentially able to reach a higher percentage of the audience. A poster often becomes more attractive as the conference gets bigger, because you’re actually more likely to hit your target audience. I’ve never given a talk at the massive Neuroscience meeting, for example. You have only a 15 minute window for a talk versus a 4 hour window for a poster. And given how many things are going on when a conference has tens of thousands of people, you stand a better chance of connecting the longer you're up there.

A poster is often a better option when a project is partially completed. You think you have a good story, but you’re not quite sure if there are missing pieces. You have a puzzle, and you’re not sure quite sure if the next step you want to take is the logical one. This is where a poster presentation can really benefit the presenter, because a poster presentation really lets your audience talk to you. As I wrote elsewhere:

A presenter is very close to the audience (typically only a handful of people at a time), which is much more conducive to audience members asking questions, volunteering ideas, etc. Poster sessions are lively places, with many warm greetings, casual conversation, and jokes in addition to the exchange of technical information.

Slide presentations are monologues (sometimes brilliant ones, to be sure); poster presentations are conversations.

Finally, some people are so terrified of speaking in public that they will always opt for a poster. A poster presentation is usually a much more low key and low stress affair.

05 March 2009

Don’t hate beauty

Over at the TED website, Paola Antonelli talks about science and design in a recorded presentation from the EG conference.

I found this quote very, very interesting (it’s about 8:20 into the talk):
Scientists are starting to also consider aesthetics. We were discussing this with Keith Shrubb this morning the fact that many scientists tend not to use anything beautiful in their presentations, otherwise, they’re afraid of being considered dumb blondes. So they pick the worst background from any kind of PowerPoint presentation, the worst typeface. It’s only recently that this kind of marriage between design and science is producing the the first pretty, if we can say so, scientific presentations.
Maybe this caught my eye because I spent the last week in one of my classes talking about scientific posters. I was talking to my students about design, and went back to a lot of things I learned from working on a student newspaper. There is a great body of theory, principles, and thought associated with layout and typography. I’m sure that more researchers have never really studied these at all, based on the apparent disregard for even a simple grid. I see poster after poster where you’re lucky to see two objects out of twenty on the paper align with each other. Part of the problem may be that scientists think that making something beautiful means decorating it like a wedding cake. Just as most wedding cakes start to be about matching the bride’s gown and stop being about the point of a cake (delicious eating), maybe scientists think that making something beautiful inherently means losing the integrity of their information. Admittedly, people might think that aesthetics corrupts, since so many “artsy” posters are hamfisted, amateurish and horrible to look at from both a scientific and graphic design point of view. But don’t judge the field by its worst practitioners. Scientists never get formally trained in this. It’s much better to study and embrace what professional graphic artists can teach us, and strive for graphic excellence in all presentations. Surely making ugliness a virtue is the wrong way to go. [Originally posted here at NeuroDojo]

01 March 2009


Why a blog about poster presentations?

I’m a professional scientist. I’m also interested in presentations, because I have to give a lot of them, both as a teacher and as a researcher.

Like many other people, I’ve been to a lot of really bad presentations. And I’ve been pleased to see resources, like Garr Reynolds’ great Presentation Zen blog and Nancy Duarte’s fantastic book Slide:ology, devoted to providing resources and discussion for how to do presentations better. There are entire conferences about giving better PowerPoint presentations. I give advice on presentations quite a bit on my main blog, NeuroDojo.

When I was writing a recent post about how many people abuse PowerPoint to create posters, I wrote:

(M)aybe it’s time for a few dedicated individuals to take up the cause for poster design.

I went looking for such resources, and was disappointed. There were lots of websites with suggestions for posters, but nothing like the sorts of resources that are available for PowerPoint and KeyNote presentations. The sites I found were typically short, static, not updated, and cut and dry. Many websites tended to treat posters as a problem that could be solved by following a standard “cookbook” solution, that there was One Right Way™ to lay out a poster. Few talked about the actual verbal part of the presentation, the “tour” as people sometimes call it.

Poster presentations may be less frequent than slide presentations, but they are not rare. The 2004 Society for Neuroscience conference is pictured here as one example. There are tens of thousands of poster presentations given at that one meeting alone.

I’ve seen a lot of really poorly made posters, just as I’ve seen many poorly designed slides. There is as great a need to promote excellence and craft in poster presentations as there is for oral presentations. I hope that this blog will start to fill that niche.