29 September 2011

You need a symbologist

The letter “X” is not a multiplication symbol. Not in its uppercase form, and not in its lowercase form, either. The multiplication sign looks like this: ×

A superscript letter “O” is not a degree sign. A degree looks like this: °

A lowercase “u” is not lowercase Greek letter mu, better known as the metric symbol for “micro-”. The micro- symbol looks like this: µ

And we can tell the difference.

If you use Microsoft Office, here’s the part of the ribbon you’re looking for:

Windows users can also open up the Character Map for even more symbols.

One major technical symbol that is missing, and which scientists often want to use, is the mean symbol. It looks like an x with a bar over the top. For some reason, the mean symbol is not in Unicode character sets, or in HTML, as far as I can find.

I have seen these kinds of mistakes on posters, and slides, and documents, many times.

These mistakes show that you don’t know how to use your tools. That is the definition of amateur. And wouldn’t you rather look like a professional than an amateur?

(Crossposted from NeuroDojo.)

22 September 2011

Combining art and science: Karmella Haynes interview

Back in June, Jonathan Eisen shared a poster unlike any I had ever seen before: a completely painted work of art.

I featured it here, and finally have a follow-up with the scientist behind it, Dr. Karmella Haynes.

Q: The obvious first question is, what gave you the idea to paint your conference poster? I know you’re an artist, but that’s still a fairly significant jump between the disciplines.

A: I've been painting and drawing since I was a kid; I keep a collection of my pieces on display at www.karmellahaynes.com. (“Traveling without moving” from that site pictured at right - ZF) Before I was certain that I wanted to be a scientist, I had already been doing some pretty advanced portraiture in oil and in acrylic. I continued to paint while in grad school, but only when I could find time. Today, I find outlets for artistic expression through my science. For instance, I design my own cover art entries. One was accepted by the Journal of Biological Chemistry (August 5 issue, “Synthetic reversal of epigenetic silencing,” shown below. - ZF)

Q: Were you nervous to have a poster that was so different from other conference posters?

A: Maybe a little. Some things that were going on in my career at the time emboldened me to try a painted poster. Although I was a postdoc in the Silver lab, I had acquired a position as a tenure-track professor (at Arizona State University) so I felt more independent. Also, the data on the poster had all been generated by me, so I didn’t have to get approval from a long list of co-authors. Pam (my P.I.) had always been supportive of my art and she’s a strong proponent of clever and bold ideas in general. Finally, I felt that a synthetic biology conference was the right place for it, since so many members of the syn bio community are iconoclasts, of sorts, and have an appreciation for creativity and aesthetics.

Q: Could you talk a bit about the process of making this particular poster? In particular, paint would not be a medium that I would have thought of as suitable for precise scientific data, like means with error bars. How did you do the graphs?

A:  I had an unused 3' × 4' canvas laying around and a set of nice acrylic paint I had not touched in a while (science had kept me pretty busy). I created a lot of sketches to get the layout just right. I decided to go with a sort of surrealist still life of single cells (inspired by a Chihuly exhibit in Boston) and a clear petri dish, where some cells had red nuclei, so that it would be relevant to the data. For the data, the challenge was to represent the science well without relying too much on text, just like any digital poster, but even more so for the painting. I sketched the graphs and diagrams with pencil and a ruler, trying to get the sizes of everything as accurate as possible. What a lot of people don’t appreciate is the fact that graphs that were published in high profile journals were hand drawn by technical artists. But, in order to accurately present my data (it was a science conference after all), I made mini-posters on 8.5" × 11" paper as handouts.

Q: We know Jonathan Eisen loved the poster; how was the response from other attendees?

A:  It got a lot of double takes and plenty of smiles and compliments. Many commented that it was the first time they had ever seen anything like it. It was very well received. I printed 50 handouts and ran out long before the poster session was over.

Q. Have you done more traditional posters, using illustration software? If so, what do you use?

A:  Yes, up until that point, for all 12 years I had been doing research it was nothing but printed posters; from “modular” poster board-backed panels hung by thumb tacks, to the large single sheet print-outs. I’ve used Photoshop and PowerPoint and/or a combination of both. I can’t wait until digital display screens get inexpensive enough to furnish every presenter with a monitor for showing digital posters with interactive animations. That could definitely end up in catastrophe, encouraging common PowerPoint offenses, but the best digital posters would help to set a good standard.

Q: How important is the aesthetic, the artistic quality, of a scientific poster?

A:  Art can do many things: please, provoke, challenge, and communicate to name a few. The most appropriate use for art in science posters is to communicate efficiently. When the symbols are consistent, the colors “logical” (e.g., complimentary colors showing opposing components of a system), the layout uncluttered with a logical flow, etc., the viewer is satisfied both intellectually and emotionally. I think science posters should strive to become technically beautiful (I also love the beauty in less rigid things, but that’s a different category).

Q: What advice do you have for scientists to make their posters more beautiful?

A:  Pick a standard visual language and stick with it (e.g., what shapes to use for proteins, cells, test subjects, etc.); don’t be afraid of abstraction; use complementary contrasting colors, not clashing colors (there’s a difference); look to commercial biotech posters for inspiration; if you have microscopy, show it off!

Thanks for the opportunity to share my poster-painting experience with your readers.

Thanks, Karmella, for taking the time to answer some questions!

Related posts

True artwork: the painted poster

External links

Karmella Haynes at Arizona State University
Karmella Haynes on Google+

Tree of Life blog:

15 September 2011

Link roundup, September 2011

The Scientist has a substantive article called “Poster perfect” on the art of conference poster, with many good tips, including some that I haven’t covered here yet! I like this one:

Temporarily dump your text

A good way to test to see whether your graphics are serving their intended purpose: “If you removed all the info besides the graphics, the poster should still be pretty good,” says Purrington. “Scientists are lazy, they don’t read,” says marine biologist Nando Boero, from the Università del Salento in Lecce, Italy. The graphs should tell the whole story, he says.

Sarcozona shares her advice for making awesome posters:

Posters are a bit like haiku – you’ve got a very small amount of space and not a lot of flexibility in structure, but you need to get across a whole lot.

ChemBark provides his advice for printing posters. He notes that giving a poster, you’re less likely to get the short shrift if you give a talk near the very, very end of the conference.

Thursdays at the ACS are like the 30 minutes before closing (at a restaurant) when the waitresses are vacuuming the carpet and giving you the stinkeye to leave.

Garr Reynolds does a more in depth look at the issue of how our gaze can be directed by faces, which I covered here.

Looking for some placeholder text that isn’t so, you know, old? Try Hipster ipsum. Or journo ipsum.

A lively interview with Simon Garfield, the author of the book Just My Type, about fonts. Great stories! (But see here for a review that warns that the stories my be just a bit too glib.)

Can typography make you a better lover? Maybe not, but Seth Godin notes that good typography sure made a difference to Apple:

Typography is what sets Apple, at first glance, apart from just about everyone at the mall. Typography is what makes a self-published book often look pale in comparison to a ‘real’ one. ...

The choice of a typeface, the care given to kerning and to readability—it all sends a powerful signal. When your business card is nothing but Arial on a piece of cardboard, you’ve just told people how they ought to think about you… precisely the opposite of what you were trying to do when you made the card in the first place.

Speaking of Apple, here is a bit more on the famous story of Jobs taking a calligraphy class:

The (calligraphy) course was founded in 1969 by Lloyd Reynolds, an English professor who grew up in a struggling eastern Washington farming community. ... His calligraphy course was immediately and enormously popular, often standing room only — for while Reynolds nominally taught lettering and the history of lettering, he was by all accounts a brilliant and iconoclastic instructor, and the course was full of lessons in Everything Else.

“For Reynolds, calligraphy wasn’t merely a craft, nor even just an art — it was civilization,” former student Chuck Bigelow told me in an email. “By studying the art of writing, you gained access not only to the content of texts, but also the cultures that produced them.”

Lastly, a bit of beautiful design that’s all too easily overlooked.

08 September 2011

Past the low point?

When I recently attended the Ecological Society of America (ESA) meeting, I noted that there were a lot fewer train wrecks than I’d seen at previous meetings.

At first, I was puzzled by this. Of the 23 people I had the chance to ask how they put their poster together, fourteen worked in PowerPoint (61%), two in Illustrator, one in Pages, and one in InDesign. PowerPoint was still ruling the roost, as it did when I surveyed readers about a year ago.

I think what has happened in the year since I took the poll was that many more people are using PowerPoint 2010. One of the signs that many more people are using the latest version of Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office is that I saw a lot of talks and posters using Calibri, which I hadn’t noticed before.

The new version of PowerPoint has one critical feature that helps a lot: smart guides.

PowerPoint got much better at lining things up in the 2010 version compared to the 2007 edition. (This is in stark contrast to Publisher, whose snap function got noticeably worse in the 2010 version.)

Previously, the lack of alignment was almost a dead giveaway that a poster was composed in PowerPoint. But it’s getting harder to tell. This makes me hopeful that the number of appalling conference posters will be lower at all conferences, not just the ESA meeting.

07 September 2011

Posters with Spice

Via Daniel McArthur on Twitter. Inspired by Chris Gunter on Twitter.

01 September 2011

Critique: Plant real estate

This week, I have another favourite poster from the Ecological Society of America meeting. This poster is by Sara Kuebbing, who made it in PowerPoint. As always, click to enlarge.

The title is big, which made it easy for me to read at a glance while I was walking down the wide hallways of the poster exhibit in the Austin convention center.

Similarly, the plant pictures on the left make for a nice entry point.

The reading flow on the poster is very good. There is never any question of where to look next.

I like the complementary shades of green, which is always an obvious choice when showcasing plants. Alternating the colours in the title also added some visual interest. I was a little concerned that the green at the very top of the poster might have been a shade too dark if the lighting wasn’t as good as it was, but this poster was located in decent light.

With all the green, there may have been a bit of a missed opportunity to use an opposing colour. I might have used tom red for the key data points in the graphs pop. In the marked up version below, notice how the red of the comment boxes I added pops against the green.

The poster would benefit from a stronger sense of hierarchy in the test (discussed by Marcia Hoang last week). The headings, while well marked out by the green bars, look weak. The size of the headings is too small, and the regular poster text below the headings often looks more powerful than the headings, especially when bolded.

Clearly, Sara paid attention to the vertical alignment of each column. The overall effect would be strengthened if the column widths was more consistent. I would have suggested making every column either the same width, or a multiple of the width, of the column with the introduction.

Thanks to Sara for being generous enough to share this with me!

External links

Abstract to the poster