25 November 2010

Bleeding ink

A poster is designed with pixels and light, but a poster is made of paper and ink.

It’s easy to forget the differences between the two.

At one conference I was at this year, some of the posters that “popped” used white text on a black background. They tended to have one drawback, though: the text was just a little too thin. It needed to be just a hair thicker.

When you print black text on a white background, the text is going to look ever so slightly larger.

When you print white text on a black background, the text is going to get ever so slightly smaller.

Ink always bleeds into paper. Even with high quality paper and a good printer, it will spread out from where it is placed. The finer the lines, the smaller the text, the more the ink spread comes into play. Failing to take that into account has frustrated type designers trying to capture the feel of classic typefaces.

On a computer screen, putting black text on white background is literally just the inverse of white text on a black background. But white letters emit light, so that if anything, a white letter on a black background will look more luminous on a screen, when ink spread will have the opposite effect when you print the poster.

This is why, as I discussed last time, you would want to have a wide variety of typefaces in your arsenal. For instance, here are some samples of a type called Sense. It comes in seven different weights, and each of those has a corresponding italic version (not shown here):

For a poster, you may want to step up from a regular weight to a medium, particularly if you want to use light text on a dark coloured background.

The other solution, of course, is to make everything on your poster bigger!

“me” picture by mightypeesh on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

18 November 2010

Ninja type: Finding the right weapon

Pamela Wilson has a great guest post at IttyBiz about typography, called, “How to Become a Typography Ninja in Five Easy Steps.”

One day, I must learn the art of making snappy titles...

I want to elaborate on one of the recommendations:

(T)he typeface you choose should include regular or book; italic; bold; bold italic at the very least.

If you are working with just the fonts that came with your computer, you are probably getting a very limited set of weights. Sometimes, you don’t get a “book” weight. People will sometimes say, “Oh, that type is no good for text blocks,” but they haven’t seen all the variations of the type.

My computer comes with five versions of Gill Sans, for instance. You don’t have to go far to find that packages that contain over 20 versions of Gill Sans.

For posters, a wider range of type weights than those can be valuable. You might not need 20 versions of the same typeface, but you might need more than “regular.” I’ll talk about why next time. And, to return to the ninja theme, it has to do with bleeding.

Picture by simonella_virus on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

16 November 2010


The Society for Neuroscience (SfN) is on of the biggest, most massive exhibitions of conference posters in the world. And this year, neuroscientists at the University of California San Diego decided to pay tribute to this with the release of a music video of the song Posterface by singing sensation, Lady GaBa.

A background in neuroscience is probably helpful to understanding some of the lyrics. But dang, those spiking neurons look so utterly at home in a music video that I’m surprised that they haven’t been used before.

But lest you think this is just recreation by some labbies who’ve dipped into their pharmacological sample, the UCSD team has also put up a web application whereby you can search for posters, upload pictures of posters, and rate them.

Meanwhile, it is encouraging to hear from the SfN floor that there is still so much room to grow this blogging project.  

There are still a lot of horrific posters out there.

And speaking of the cane toad of typefaces...

11 November 2010

Slash and squeeze

You’re using PowerPoint to lay out your poster, and you want to include this picture:

You open up PowerPoint 2010, select “Picture with caption” as the layout style, click to import the picture, and you get this:

Once again, PowerPoint is trying to help – just in an incompetent way. It recognizes that the proportions of the picture you want to use are different from the rectangle you’re trying to drop it in to, so it makes a decision that the best thing to do is to make the picture as big as possible, and crop whatever doesn’t fit.

The result is as good as you might expect from a machine blindly following a rule: not satisfactory.

Luckily, one of the improvements in PowerPoint 2010 is that there is a toggle to switch from cropping a picture to scaling a picture. Under “Picture tools: Format,” look for “Crop,” then drop down to select “Fit” rather than fill.

More insidious and common than cropping is squishing. I have lost count of the number of times I have seen distorted pictures in presentations and posters made with PowerPoint.

In PowerPoint 2003, pasting a picture into a box would cause PowerPoint to try to fit the picture into the space by matching the proportions, with results like you see above. PowerPoint 2010 seems to have fixed this problem.

Even so, I still see distorted pictures, presumably from people carelessly resizing pictures. (Use the corner handles when resizing, not the top and side ones!) I wonder if people get so used to distorted pictures that they don’t even realize they are distorted. I think people don’t know how to fix them.

To check that you have the correct proportions, and to correct them if you don’t, right click the picture, and go to “Format picture.”

Then, click on the “Size” tab and look for those height and width percentages. They should be the same. If they are not, first deselect “Lock aspect ratio.” Then, make the larger of the height and width ratios equal the smaller of the two values.

The order you do this matters! It won’t work right if you change the percentages, then removed the “Lock aspect ratio” box.

If you do it correctly, the picture is in the correct proportion. You can then position it to wherever you want on the slide.

04 November 2010

Don’t dangle

This poster is sound. I could quibble about the ever-present boxes, about there being a little too much text in the left column, but the fundamentals that make a better poster are there.

Except that it doesn’t fit in its allotted space.

This was not an isolated case. Because of the size and layout of the conference poster session, I was able to walk through and count how many posters dangled over the edges. There were 18 posters that didn’t fit on the board, out of 400 papers listed in the abstract book.

And the moral of the story for presenters is: Read the instructions!

And the moral of the story for organizers is: About 4.5% of your attendees will ignore my perfectly reasonable advice, which is going to cause problems if you have an unusual poster size.

Names and title of the authors redacted so they don’t think I was picking on them. Lots of other people didn’t read the instructions at this conference, either.