25 June 2009

What does visual storytelling mean to you?

“What does visual storytelling mean to you?” was a question in a poll from Duarte Design. I thought it was an excellent, very tough question.

Stories mean words.

Visual means no words.

I really believe the heart of storytelling is a human voice speaking words.

As much as I love movies and comics, the story is the part of the film you can describe to your friends: "This happened, then that guy did this, and it was so cool!" The visuals are all in the service of the story, but they themselves are not the story.

But words can be visually evocative; the late, great CBC radio host Peter Gzowski argued that radio can be very visual, for instance.

And great storytellers are usually very animated when they talk, gesturing and making expressions and acting out their stories.

"Visual storytelling" suggests a yin-yang dynamic. There's always a tension between the two, and yet each contains some of the other.

Review: The Craft of Scientific Presentations

In my quest to find what others have written about the creation of posters, I found some online links referring to Michael Alley’s book, The Craft of Scientific Presentations. Indeed, I’ve mentioned a website associated with this author before and critiqued a poster from it.

The Craft of Scientific Presentations coverThis book sort of epitomizes why I started this blog. It goes on about strategies for presentations for over 200 pages through six chapters in substantial detail. Posters? Seven pages. Two of those pages are sample posters, cutting the number of actual pages down to five. And they’re not even in the main text! They’re in the appendix – and you know what an appendix is. A virtual synonym for, “It’s not really all that useful, so just get rid of it if it bothers you.”

The poster advice is good but basic. In fact, the author summarizes it all in one table, which I excerpt here.

  • Use a typeface such as Arial that is thick enough to read
  • Boldface the title and headings
  • Use type sizes of 18 points or higher (14 points okay for references and footnotes)
  • Avoid blocks of all capital letters

  • Arrange sections such that the order of what to read is clear
  • Be generous with white space
  • Keep lists to two, three, or four items
  • Keep text blocks to just a few lines

  • Include an orienting image near the title or in the background
  • Opt for vertical lists rather than long paragraphs
  • Where possible, opt for graphical presentations rather than lists or paragraphs
  • Accept the fact that a poster cannot present as much detail as a journal article can


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

18 June 2009

Dress sense

There are a trio of posts over at Golden Thoughts summarizing Pascale Lane’s advice based on her experiences at the recent American Diabetes Association meeting.

Her experiences parallel mine, which is to say, the average scientific meeting shows that there is a lot of room for improvement in poster expertise:

My daughter, a PR major, also attended the meeting. She was, frankly, appalled by the presentation skills (or lack thereof) demonstrated at the sessions.

I will comment on one piece of advice she gives:

First of all, dress professionally. This means some sort of suit-like outfit.

My experience is that scientists are almost immune to snappy outfits. This is more true in some fields than others, though. Medical researchers – like you would find at the American Diabetes Association meeting – tend to dress this way. Field biologists tend to be blue jeans kind of people. I’m not going to claim nobody cares, because some do, but most scientists are all about the ideas and data you have, and forget how you’re dressed about 10 second in.

I suggest dressing so that you feel confident and comfortable.

Some people want the “power suit” when they present. That’s what makes them feel confident.

Me? I don’t own a suit or a tie. It would be a disaster if I were to try to present in them. I would be fidgeting and self-conscious the whole time.

It’s like the advice most people get to the question, “How do I get her / him to like me?” when they start dating: “Just be yourself.”

16 June 2009

Making graphs ugly

Flowing Data presents 6 Easy Steps to Make Your Graph (Really) Ugly.

No picture here, because that would spoil the fun.

Additional: On Twitter, Garr Reynolds wrote, “Good, but u forgot 3-D :-)”

11 June 2009

What even designers aren’t taught

Design Reviver presents, “10 Things They Don’t Teach You In Design School.” I’m guessing that most readers of this blog will not have gone to design school. If even the people studying design aren’t taught this, then you can bet that people outside who dabble in design are unlikely to have been taught this, either. Poster makers should consider many of these points. To wit:

  • Good design takes time. Don’t set too tight deadlines.

  • Learning design is an ongoing process.

  • Being a good designer is not only about talent.

04 June 2009

Review: Preparing Scientific Illustrations

When I was starting this project, I thought, “I should read what books there are on the subject.” And I came up nearly empty. One of the few to pop up when searching for “research posters” or “scientific posters” was Preparing Scientific Illustrations. The subtitle includes the title of this blog, so how could I not look at it?

This book was written in the mid 1990s, and it has not aged well. There are many references to computer and printing technology that is almost dead and buried. For example, I haven’t thought about Letraset or lettering machines in ages, but they feature here.

As for posters, this book was pretty clearly written before the introduction of many large plotter printers into universities and graphics shops. The underlying assumption seems to be that a poster will have to be produced and tacked up piecemeal. “Piecemeal” also a good description of some of the examples of poster layout shown (this one from page 144):

There is little indication that the author is thinking about a grid, which is the foundation for poster layout. The layout shown is scattered and disjointed, with strange gaps between sections and uneven columns. The flow of reading is certainly correct.

There is good advice in this book. For instance, there is a reminder for posters that many of the audience have reached “bifocal age,” as Briscoe puts it, so making lettering large is of the utmost important. Nevertheless, once you sift through the outdated information, the advice that is left feels insubstantial. There are many declarations, but no exploration of underlying principles of graphic excellence. Consequently, Preparing Scientific Illustrations does not fare well when compared to something like Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.


Briscoe MJ. 1996. Preparing Scientific Illustrations: A Guide to Better Posters, Presentations, and Publications (2nd Edition). Springer-Verlag: New York. Amazon