28 April 2011

Critique: Ovarian cancer cells

The third and final entry in the American Association for Cancer Research poster competition. This one is from the Stanford University School of Medicine... (Click to enlarge.)


  1. Definite and distinct columns. Although the columns are unequal, at least they are almost always a consistent width from top to bottom.
  2. The red section headers are effective at breaking up the gray text.
  3. The colours are mostly consistent, tying in with some of the cell pictures on the right.
  4. At least there’s only one logo next to the title.


  1. Too text heavy, especially in the all important upper left corner, and the top half of the poster.
  2. Having the text crawling up into the title bar.
  3. The methods are in a strange place, no doubt a compromise emerging from poor planning.
  4. The blues and green in the central graph are so different from the rest of the colours, they stick out like a sore thumb.

Based on purely graphics considerations, this one is my favourite of the three. It has the cleanest layout overall, and appears to have had the most thought put into the design. This one has my vote.

Thanks again to Angela Alexander (@flutesUD on Twitter) for handing me three blog posts on a silver platter! See the other two finalists in this competition here and here.

27 April 2011

Critique: Breast cancer inhibition

Today, I’m continuing my critiques of finalists in the American Association for Cancer Research poster competition.


  1. Solid three column layout with most things correctly aligned.


  1. Gray.
  2. Unrelenting gray.
  3. Unrelenting gray in the first place a person looks, the upper left corner.
  4. Although I dislike title bookends, at least these are large and graphic - almost a welcome reprieve from the rest of the poster.
  5. An abstract? Something so short does not need a summary.
  6. Lines dividing text instead of white space - a sure sign of desperation arising from trying to put too much in.

Graphically, this is a more disciplined than yesterday’s poster, but it would benefit greatly from being more concise in the text.

Incidentally, you can vote online for these posters. Come back tomorrow for the last finalist in the competition!

26 April 2011

Critique: HSV-2 oncolytic virus ΔPK

Thanks to Angela Alexander on Twitter, I have three posters to critique from the AACR poster competition. I’ll be critiquing all three in separate posts, purely on their graphic design, before the contest winner is announced on 29 April.

Let’s start off with an entry from the University of Maryland School of Medicine, “The HSV-2 oncolytic virus ΔPK induces multiple death and inflammatory programs associated with inhibition of melanoma tumor growth.”


  1. More than half the poster space is taken up with graphics.


  1. Institutional logo bookends.
  2. The authors’ credits cutting into the results.
  3. The varying column widths, particularly in the top left, where it’s not clear at first if you’re supposed to read across or down.
  4. Most headers in blue... except for the ones in bright green.
  5. Boxes.
  6. The sudden transition from white to blue background in the last box.
  7. Tiny credits sitting outside boxes, messing up bottom alignment.

This poster is average at best. Will the next one fare any better? Come back tomorrow for another critique!

21 April 2011

Too futuristic? Or already too passé?

One of my most popular posts was a recent one about adding a bit of augmented reality to conference posters using QR codes.

Kristina Kilgrove, a.k.a. Bone Girl, who had written about QR codes almost simultaneously with my post, had a chance to put the idea to the test at a recent meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists:

poster’s been up for 3 hours and NO ONE has scanned the QR code (according to analytics). Wow.

By the end of the day, things had improved... but only very slightly.

have a total of *3* hits through my QR code. Didn’t expect that low a #.

That said, a couple of others had also taken up the notion of trying to enhance their posters through QR codes:

Saw QR codes on posters by @johnhawks and @DrYapyapi today! Way to represent... too bad the physanths aren't prepared for the 21st century.

I’m kind of hoping that it is just a new idea, and not the sort of quickly learned fatigue that Laura Bergalls noted:

The landing pages for most QR codes make you feel like you've been rickrolled. ... Marketers & advertisers have taught us not to scan QR codes. That ship has sailed.

If you try QR codes on your poster, I would love to know what kind of response you get!

Related posts

Smart posters

Picture from here.

19 April 2011

“You cannot not communicate”

The quote in the title is used in this interesting editorial by Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg.

Viegas and Wattenberg propose that successful data displays often make it easy for people to find their own demographic (“You are here”), and let people talk about them (the social object theory).

As for the quote in the title itself, it is from type designer Erik Spiekermann.

(B)y the time the first data point hits the screen, you're communicating. The catch: it’s a fallacy to think communication happens solely through the data you're plotting. Even before viewers understand the data, they form strong impressions of the intended message based on colors, fonts, and the like.

Because visualizations are, well... visual, their design is a crucial part of what they communicate. This means that when you try your hardest to build a “neutral” visualization, with subdued tones and discreet type, you are in fact creating a specific mood: “This is serious, serious business.”

Almost paradoxically, this means that you can communicate that a graph is not worth examinining before anyone gets to the data, which would be a shame.

The clearest, most precise graphic in the world communicates nothing if nobody looks at it.

And that’s as true for conference posters as for graphs and data visualization.

Related posts

Conversation piece

Photo by Roo Reynolds on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

14 April 2011

Is it risky to have a nice poster?

The Pulsatance blog seems to show a stereotype about conference presentations is still very much alive.

It’s as risky as giving a research presentation where you actually pay attention to font selection, color schemes, and composition.

I can’t quite tell if the author is being serious or sarcastic. I hope it’s meant in jest. I have never heard of someone criticizing, or being criticized, for having a had a poster or presentation that was “too pretty.” (If you have heard such criticisms, I’d love to hear about them in the comments!)

Beautiful does not mean dumb. It’s as true for posters as it is for people.

Related links

Don’t hate beauty

What kind of party?

If you saw this on an invitation:

What kind of party would it be?

What kind of people would be there? Adults or all ages?

What kind of food would be served? Beer or wine? Or no alcohol at all?

Formal or casual?

I found this quick test for determining the character of a typeface in this panel discussion. The focus is on designing websites, but there is enough general information there that it is worth taking some time to peruse.

Some of the tips contained within are similar to some I’ve talked about here. For instance, “Don’t use too many typefaces” shares a sentiment with my “Rules of Two.” It also talks about the importance of having an extended character set, so critical for scientific posters.

Near the end, it also provides examples of alternatives to familiar typefaces that often fix some of the problems of the older typefaces.

07 April 2011

Using grids in PowerPoint

I can usually recognize a poster that has been made in PowerPoint because nothing lines up. This is part PowerPoint’s fault, but not entirely. If you must use PowerPoint to make your poster (even though you shouldn’t), here’s how to make it look like it was done in a real graphics package.

Click to enlarge any of these images.

First, turn on the grid. Under the View tab, select the “Gridlines” button (just to the left of the magnifying glass).

The default grid size is a strange value: one twelfth of an inch. (Page layout is about the only part of my life where I routinely use Imperial measurements.) You can change the grid size by bringing up the Grid Dialogue box (the little pop-out button is just underneath the button you clicked to get gridlines).

If you drop down the “Spacing,” it will show your options for grid size in fractions rather than decimals.

I usually find it much easier to work with a coarser grid. Grid spacing at one quarter inch makes it easier and faster to align things.

PowerPoint has two “guides” that cross the vertical and horizontal center of the page. Because they cannot be changed, they are useless for most purposes.

As a work around, I draw in my own guidelines for columns and such using the line tool. This takes a bit of calculation, since you have to work out the exact position of each line in advance, and can’t tell PowerPoint you want a three column grid, like you can with Publisher.

After you create your guidelines, you can start dropping in your text and pictures, safe in the knowledge it makes it much easier to get everything with a consistent width.

But after you’ve laid everything out, you have to remember to go back and delete all the guidelines you had for the margins and between the columns.

If you are very careful and consistent, you can make a poster in PowerPoint that looks like it was done in a proper graphics package.

For examples of what you can do with PowerPoint, check out this post at the I was lost but now I live here blog and the featured artwork. Or some of the artwork at PowerPoint Heaven. I particularly like this portrait of Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Carribean films (ZIP file) and this anime girl (ZIP file).

It’s a long, long way from yellow bullet points on a blue background. I think you have to work to hard for these results, but I am nevertheless impressed by the perseverance of the artists!

Related posts

The importance of alignment

01 April 2011

Medical posters

This article in The Scientist has some attractive and interesting vintage posters selling medicine.

Not conference posters, but inspiring nevertheless!