23 February 2012

Critique and makeover: Metacognition

Gluttons for punishment continue to send me good blogging material! This week’s entry comes from Kerri Rawson, a graduate student at the University of South Florida, who gave me permission to post this (click to enlarge).

She wrote about it:

I’ve tried to consider many of your recommendations - using circles, black on white, Gill Sans, three columns, no boxes, placement of key items, etc.

However, I am ready to toss it and just go back to the normal PowerPoint templates!  I wanted to see if you had time to look at it before I do though.

I couldn’t let this poor unfortunate soul go back to PowerPoint.

Given that a lot of my suggestions went into this poster, it’s not surprising that I would say it’s starting off with a solid foundation. It’s clear and readable, and nobody would be embarrassed to hang this in a conference hall. I like the “speaking head,” which is a clever way of creating an entry point to draw in passers-by using mostly text.

My first general suggestion was that the poster looks just a hair too tight. I suggested that she could make the spaces between columns, and between section headings, a little bit bigger by reducing the font size a point or two. For instance, column 3 looks a trifle crowded from top to bottom. The graph could be shrunk a little bit – it’s very simple, and would still be readable even if it was slightly smaller – to create a bit more breathing room between the three sections in the column.

Sticking with column 3 for a second, the word "Metacognitively" in the section heading seems to be dangling out in the right hand margin. I say “seems” because if you actually draw a line down from the top to the bottom, it is contained within the text box. But because it sticks out more than anything else in that column, it gives the illusion that it’s intruding on the margin.

In the center column, the purple boxes come too close to the text, both inside and outside of the boxes. I suggested making them a little narrower (to get the colour away from the text on the right), and centering the text inside (the words aren't so close to touching the left side of the box).

The table has anonymous mystery numbers in parentheses in columns 2 and 3. I suspected (correctly) that these were standard deviation or something similar, but I couldn’t see a description anywhere.

The graph in column 3 had the most problems.

  • The horizontal gridlines in the graph simply had to go. They rarely help, and here, they were running directly through the word “Metacognitive,” which looked just horrible.
  • The main X and Y axes could be made darker, so that they were more visible.
  • Error bars to variation for means (standard deviation, standard error, etc.) are always good practice.

Since most of the poster is black and white, the colours have a lot of pop. I noted that there is red in column 1, purple and green in column 2, and blue and green in column 3. Dropping from four colours down to three might help unify the poster a bit more.

Here’s the makeover. The graph no longer makes me cringe!

In addition to implementing some of my suggestions, she added a little more colour into the table on the right side, and justified the columns. These were both good decisions.

The changes are subtle, but they do make for a better poster.

16 February 2012

Critique and makeover: Nanoparticles

This week’s poster was submitted by Xiaoxu Niu from the Graduate Materials Engineering Program at the University of Dayton. I thank him for permission to use this here. Click to enlarge the first version, or any of the revisions.

At very first glance, this poster looks promising, but a closer look showed major problems.

Reading order

With this nice, two column layout, people expect to read all the way down the left column, get to the bottom, then go back to the top of the right column. But below, I have tracked the order of items on the poster with a red line. The path careens back and forth worse than a drunk driver.

I don’t understand why sections numbered 3 and 4 were under the Conclusions header instead of the Results.

The good news was that this was super easy to fix. Because the poster was sort of cut into four quarters, it was easy to move the components around. I did a quick mock-up in Corel Photo-Paint:

And putting a red line over the order of items now shows a simpler pathway.


The poster isn’t confusing now, but it’s still not inviting, either. In its first form, it’s as gray as a tombstone, and about as appealing. Fine black text on a light gray background with medium gray headings complement the fine-line graphs – which are also mostly gray.

I’m a great believer in the power of black and white, but this is too neutral and flavourless. It would benefit from some colour and emphasizing some sections of the text.

For instance, Figure 5 has a curve fit line that is getting lost against the gray data points. Colouring or thickening the curve would make it more visible, although the data points are tight enough that maybe the curve could be left off entirely.

I appreciate that nanoengineering is a tough subject to find a way to “drag in” passers by. It’s hard to finding attractive pictures of molecules that everyone understands. Even so, looking at this from an outsider’s point of view, I didn’t have a clear understanding of what the goal of the project was. Is there any target application for this technique? I also suggested that text emphasis - like putting some key phrases in bold - might help highlight the important pieces.

QR code

It’s good to give a clue as to what a QR code leads to. A lab website? A CV of one of the authors? A reprint of the poster? I am much more likely to scan it if I have an idea where this will lead me.

After reading my suggestions, Niu sent back this revision:

We agreed that this was a big step up from where the poster started!

09 February 2012

Critique: Trucks

This came to me from author and doctoral student Gurdas Sandhu, and is posted with his permission. You can click to enlarge...

There’s a lot in this poster I like. The truck pictures make for a good entry point and the colour schemes, particularly in the section heads, are attractive.

I worry about it being a little text heavy. The text is certainly big enough to be easily readable, but one last, ruthless edit of the text to shorten it might pay off.

The intstitutional logo has plenty of space, but the vertical alignment is awkward. I might have been better to align all three elements – the institutional logo, the title, and the truck – in the middle of the title box, rather than at the top. Alternately, the title could have been left aligned, with the truck picture right aligned, withe the logo underneath it.

Similarly, the tables are not inviting for the same reason the text is not inviting: big blocks of gray. I can see the reason for Table 1, but surely there is a way to plot the data in Tables 2 and 3. I would get rid of the vertical lines in the tables to open them up. Printed journals never use vertical lines in tables, and usually there are a mere three horizontal lines: top, under the section head, bottom.

The figure backgrounds in Figures 3-5 might benefit if match the light red background of the page. This could be accomplished by making the background transparent. This is particularly true for the bar graphs in Figure 5. For reasons I can’t quite articulate, the white background in Figures 3 and 4 don’t bother me as much.

Speaking of Figure 5, the colours in those bars on the right don’t match anything else in the poster. You would expect the two bar graphs to feature the same colours. I would just make them match the bars on the left graph in Figure 5.

Figure 5 has unlabelled error bars. Error bars can mean many things, so a note in the figure caption or adding (+SD) in the vertical axis label would take care of this. (In email, Gurdas confirmed to me that the error bars are confidence intervals.)

02 February 2012

Critique and makeover: Minty

Last year, I had the opportunity to help a colleague with her poster before she went off to the conference. Here is a version of what she sent me, with all identifying text removed at her request (click to enlarge).

My first concern was that the gradient fill would make this poster too dark and unreadable around the edges. This is particularly noticeable in this small version.

The right half of this poster had two interlinked problems.

When I hit the figures in the Results, I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to read them across in rows, or down in columns. My instinct was to read across, because the two upper graphs were so similar to each other. This made me think their placement was deliberate so that I could compare them easily. I thought they were Figures 1 and 2, but looking at the legend showed they were Figures 1 and 3.

The other problem was the wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiide column for the Conclusions and Acknowledgements sections. Most books on typesetting recommend pages or columns have about 10-12 words per line; this was more like 20.

Here’s the makeover:

First, I lightened up the background. (My colleague called this background colour “minty,” hence my post title.) We had some back and forth on this, but I think the final printed version had a green background of some sort.

Second, the right half of the poster got split into two distinct columns. This removed all confusion as to the order the graphs were to be read in, and made the conclusions much more readable.

I justified the text to make the columns sharper, and removed some of the extra horizontal lines in the table.

One of the distinctive touches on this poster was putting the logos and animals into a sidebar on the left. I had not seen this before and liked it. We had a bit of back and forth about the possibility of putting the mice pictures up in the corner instead of the institutional and funding agency logos. I thought that the mice in the upper left made for a better entry point.

My colleague was very pleased with her final poster, and I was pleased to have helped.