25 February 2010


Boxes, more boxes, boxes within boxes, and boxes everywhere!

People making research posters seem to be obsessed with boxes. Walk through a poster session and you’ll find poster after poster where each section, sometimes each figure, is set apart by big, thick, heavy boxes.

Then there are those who draw a box around the entire poster, a box around the text column of the poster, a box around each graph of the poster, and the effect is much like staring at an image of a video camera pointed at its own monitor, a tunnel into some unknown dimension...

Don’t believe me? Here are just a few examples, picked because they were near the front of ePosters and the Pimp My Poster Flickr group. These are not particularly extreme examples; I just grabbed them to indicate how pervasive the drawing of boxes is.

Let’s start with this award-winning poster on ePosters (click to enlarge).

The boxes around the graphs are more subtle, because there is not a line around them, but the white against the coloured background still creates a box around the graph.

Here’s one from the Pimp My Poster group (click to enlarge).

These posters both have other issues besides the relentless boxism, but those are other issues for other times.

And just for the heck of it, one more from Some Beans, which doesn’t need my callouts to point out the box obsession:

Imagine how this blog would look if every paragraph was contained in its own little box. It wouldn’t be much fun to read.

Many posters would be substantially improved just by taking away the boxes, and using white space to separate everything instead of lines.

Boxes are usually a last-gasp attempt to enforce some sort of order upon a chaotic layout. Excessive use of boxes betrays the designer’s lack of a plan or a lack of confidence. To avoid descending into a Russian doll of boxes:

  1. Start with a simple grid. Try three equal columns if flummoxed.
  2. Make the margins between the columns wide. Clearly defined margins will help guide people in which way to read.
  3. Make your material fit the grid; don’t change the grid to fit the material. You may have to go back and redo graphs to different proportions.

Boxes can be used to good effect. Boxes around entire columns, or callouts of highlights, can be attractive. But every single element does not have to be contained in its own box.

18 February 2010

Invitation cards

Conferences are about meeting people and showing off your research. But the meeting people portion of the conference usually lasts a lot longer than the actual poster presentation session. Conferences being busy places, people may forget to come to your particular poster session.

Invite them to your poster.

Almost any office supply shop sells business card paper that can be run through a standard desktop printer. Spend the extra cash to get good ones that separate with clean edges. The packages will often give you the specific information for a template in Office that you can use for laying out the cards. If you put in a little bit of time, you’ll be able to get results that will be nearly indistinguishable from your institution’s professional printing. Click to enlarge the picture of the two cards below. One was done by my university’s in-house service; one I did at with my office computer and inkjet. (Sorry, no prizes for guessing which is which.)

Do one side with your normal contact information, like your name, affiliation, email address and so forth. Then, flip it over and on the back, print an invitation to come to your poster, with the title, time, and poster board number. It serves as a reminder during the conference, and helps people to get back in touch with you after the conference.

11 February 2010

22 questions a designer should be able to answer

People are often encouraged to be “creative” in creating conference posters. This is fine, as long as you realize this:

Creativity is not design. Creativity has nothing to do with design. Creativity is bound by no laws, rules, or strictures… which is perhaps why it’s so intoxicating (sometimes to the point of delusion). Design, on the other hand, is based entirely on math, psychology, human perception, and a host of rigid rules and laws that can be broken by only a highly skilled few. Those unfamiliar with these laws and rules, and the associated sciences are by no definition designers.

This is taken from the Design View blog by Andy Rutledge. He goes on to lay out 22 questions that convey design principles, of which a small sample is shown here. The question: Which line communicates speed?

Read the quiz!

Not all of the questions will be relevant to laying out posters, of course, but many are. I suggest anyone thinking about posters look at #20 and #21.The picture below is from #21, which asks, “Which has a clear hierarchy of information, and why?”

I am not going to tell you how well I did. I’m a biologist, and while I am vain enough to think I know more about design than many other biologists, I’m not a professional designer, and am always trying to learn more.

Update, 6 May 2018: The original post is gone, but you can read it on the Wayback Machine.

Hat tip to Chris Atherton.

04 February 2010

Critique: Directed protein evolution

I cannot recall with certainty where I encountered this poster, but it is archived here.

There’s not a lot of text on this poster (good), but the two very wide columns means that each line is very long and hard to track (bad). Worse, each clean columns dissolves into a mess of three smaller columns... (click to enlarge).

Once you get to the results section, there is no clear reading order. Dividing one column into a badly aligned trio of three columns is very confusing, because there are no clear signals as to whether I should start reading in columns or rows. Although I hate to suggest it, putting boxes around either the columns or rows might have helped give that cue. That there aren’t such boxes is surprising, given how many boxes there are (around the figures, coloured boxes around the main text).

The “long lines” problems resurface in the conclusions. It’s not clear if there is supposed to be one paragraph (probably advisable, given how few lines there are) or three. If three, indenting or separating would have helped.

Let’s see what happens when unnecessary ink, like extra boxes and unnecessary efforts at branding, is removed.

The revision doesn’t clear up the structural problems in the middle of the poster, but shows how much extra space could have been used to separate out the results.