30 April 2009

Critique: Turbine tips

The following poster comes from Design of Scientific Posters, where it is billed as “well designed.” (Click to enlarge.)

Indeed, there is much to like about this poster. There’s not a lot of text, and the layout is straightforward. There is, however, room for improvement.

I appreciate that the authors attempted to lay the poster out in a grid. But the columns are uneven, with the middle slightly wider than the outer ones.

The spacing problems are vertical as well as horizontal, notably in the left column. The text threatens to intrude upon the bottom figure, which is puzzling given the conspicuous gap after the first figure. It would have been very easy to move the text between these figures up. thus evening out the space.

The text describing Figure 4 at the bottom of the middle column is separated from the actual Figure, at the top of the right column. This is one would be quite hard to fix. If the small bit of text goes into the right column, a gap is created at the bottom of the middle.

The authors have tried to enhance the distinction between the headings and the main text by colouring the headings. The concept is good, but enhancing the typographic differences between the two would be more effective. This could be done by making the sizes more different, making the headings bold, or even set in a different font.

Some of the text could be tightened up, too. For instance, one heading says, “Tip size dramatically affected cooling.” “Affected” is vague. Why not, “Tip size dramatically increased cooling,” or “Tip size dramatically reduced cooling.”

The composition of this poster is solid. It just would have benefited from one last, final tweak. It is a little frustrating, however, that a poster with these sorts of problems is put up as an exemplar. Even if it is much better than most.

23 April 2009

Set your own

Most posters for presentations are made by amateurs. They are made by researchers or students or other professionals who have never learned how many picas to an inch.* That’s perfectly understandable, and I don’t expect every poster presenter to embark on a detailed study of typography before drawing up a poster. But recognizing that there is a body of knowledge, a discipline of serious craft around typesetting and layout created by disciplined practitioners must only help.

QuotesHere is a list of things that make professional typesetters cringe, over at FontFeed. This list includes capitals for emphasis, incorrect dashes, dumb quotes (smart quotes shown), and more.

The one guideline that is contentious for poster layout is whether or not to justify the text. On a large poster with multiple columns, there may be advantages to the crispness of justified text. The trick becomes finding a good balance in column width and font size. More on this later.

* Six.

16 April 2009

Break from the herd

If you’re looking for a way to set your poster apart from the pack, splurge on a font.

The vast majority of computers, particularly Windows machines, come with a standard set of fonts. People rarely change them. When I grade student papers, I can guess with pretty high accuracy whether they use Windows Vista or XP by what font they used, since the default changed between those two versions of Word. This means that if you use something other than the fonts that came with your computer, it will give the poster a slight, subtle distinctiveness that can serve well.

For example, the font Helvetica was widely used for decades. There was a point were it was overused, and became nearly synonymous with standardized, depersonalized corporate imagery. But when TrueType fonts were added to Windows 3.1, Microsoft chose a different sans serif font as its standard, namely Arial. Personally, I think Helvetica is the more elegant font of the two. Among graphic connoisseurs, Helvetica’s reputation is undiminished, albeit controversial. It may well be the only font to ever have a feature length movie made about it

Since Helvetica isn’t a Windows standard font, you don’t see Helvetica as much any more. And there’s the opening for making a poster that is clean, readable, but ever so slightly distinctive. You can easily buy Helvetica online. (Other fonts providers are available.)

If you’re one of those who thinks Helvetica is too clinical, there are many other sans serif fonts to pick from. How about Univers or Futura?

Of course, I’ve used Helvetica as just one example. If you like serif fonts, how about trying something like Garamond or Baskerville instead of Times New Roman? (Actually, Alley recommends against Garamond, arguing it is too fine. I generally agree that san serif fonts generally suit posters better, but that is a topic post for another time.)

There are thousands of fonts out there to choose from. Picking one good, solid, simple, readable font that 95% of the other presenters won’t have on their computers might be a good investment and one of those little subtle tweaks that helps to move a poster from good to gorgeous.

(Additional note to typography purists: I just learned that I am probably using “font” in this article when I probably mean “typeface,” or vice versa. I'll try to do better in future.)


Alley M. 2003. The Craft of Scientific Presentations: Critical Steps to Succeed and Critical Errors to Avoid. Springer: New York. Website.

Related links

Cure for the Common Font, a Flickr photostream of How magazine article

09 April 2009

The importance of alignment

If anyone learns just one thing from this blog, I hope it is this:

Make a grid.

Let’s look at this award-winning poster, found at Creating Effective Poster Presentations. (Click to enlarge.)

There is much to like about this poster, but the layout could be better. Let’s look at it with a few gridlines superimposed. For best effect, click on the image to open it at a larger size. I’ve added these gridlines by hand to try to align to what is actually on the poster, and not put on a mathematically regular, even grid. A few arrowheads call attention to some of the errors that pop once the gridlines are added.

The Introduction and the Objective paragraphs don’t align. The histological pictures don’t align with their column’s text. The Conclusion and Acknowledgments paragraphs don’t align. The tops of the three columns don’t align. The top graph in the middle column is wider than the one below. The right column is wider than the left.

This poster shows every indication of being created in PowerPoint. I’ve seen it many times before. This sort of poor alignment is a typical outcome of using PowerPoint to make posters, because it does not provide a simple way to create new grids apart from those provided for projected slides.

Lining things up is at the core of typesetting and layout. It is the heart and soul of the craft. Failing to do so makes a poster scream, “Amateur hour.”

Related link

Designing with Grid-Based Approach, from Smashing Magazine

02 April 2009

Type choices

As a scientist, I value the empirical approach. So I read this post in the Comm Comm blog with interest. It refers to PowerPoint, but some principles that apply to projected slides should also apply to posters.

I was particularly struck by the claim that two typefaces are just flat out better than others. Gill Sans and Souvenir Lt are, apparently, are professional, comfortable to read, and interesting. Now, I like Gill Sans (pictured), but I disagree with the finality and certitude of Jennifer Kammeyer’s conclusion:

So what we learn from the research is... Use Gill Sans or Souvenir Lt font

These recommendations are not opinions, but rather facts based on research done by academics following rigorous protocols.

On his Ask E.T. forum, Edward Tufte wrote about the problems of this ostensibly empirical approach:

(W)hat did it matter if some students in freshman psychology in Iowa preferred one clunky font compared to another clunky font in an experiment conducted by a teaching assistant?

There are thousands of typefaces that have been designed over centuries. This paper tested ten. This sort of research does not definitively support the conclusion that These Are The Typefaces Thou Shalt Use™.