28 February 2013

Link roundup for February 2013

On Quora, a great question and answer: can anyone recognize the difference between good design and bad design?

Tired of “lorem ipsum” for quick layouts? Blokk is the typeface for you.

I salute Alexis Rudd’s graphic talent, earned by photoshopping video game characters:

Who says all that time spent photoshopping Final Fantasy VII characters in high school was a waste? BAM! SCIENCE!
See, it doesn’t matter how you learn graphic skills. They will reward you sooner or later.

The AAAS / Science magazine awards for “visualization challenge” includes a poster category. This year’s winner triumphed, I think, because of the interesting question (“How can owls turn their heads around so far?”) combined with the craft necessary to make very good anatomical drawings.

Seth Godin on things we want from conferences:

Open, generous and connected(.) Isn't that what we seek from a co-worker, boss, friend or even a fellow conference attendee? ... Paradoxically, the fancier the conference, the more fabled the people around the table, the less likely you are to find these attributes.

If your at a desktop, this colour picker might not work for you. But if you have a touchscreen enabled, oh my, this is fun! Hat tip to Simon Bostock.

21 February 2013

Critique and makeover: Glow worms

The last few weeks on the blog, I’ve been talking about the power of using found objects to inspire design. This week, Bronwyn Carlisle provides us with another excellent example. It won third prize in the conference it was shown. You can click to enlarge:

Bronwyn’s commentary (slightly edited):

It was a horrible poster to have to design. The main problem was that monstrous table. It had to be there (it was the result), and it had to be legible. I had to use a narrow font to make it fit, and I rearranged the table itself to make it less confusing. Everything else had to fit around the table. But it was the last part of the poster, so it had to go at the end. I also had short wide tables that needed to fit in panels 2 & 3, along with taller, narrower, graphs. In general, it was a nightmare jigsaw.

I sympathize. Tall posters in portrait format are always difficult. The “nightmare jigsaw” problem was not quite beat in the layout. The lack of clear columns create a jagged split dividing the poster.

Unfortunately, this is problem that I don’t know how to fix quickly. One possibility would be to go back to the graphing software and redraw the graphs on the right hand side to make them fit the proportions of their space more closely. Making them wider would at least make the right edges align, enhancing the sense that there is an underlying grid.

A second issue I have is one where I do have a suggestion. As regular readers know, I’m not a fan of boxes. Here, the big, thick black lines that form the box in the upper right feels particularly heavy handed. Given that this poster overall has a light, almost airy touch to it, the box does not mesh with the rest of the poster.

My suggestion is to use a box implied by colour, rather than one described by thick lines. I used the eyedropper tool to grab the colour of the “antique” image of the animal just to the left of the box, drew a new rectangle with that colour, and put the text on top.

One benefit of this is that by tying the text box and the figure together with the same colour, it binds the top into a single row. The thick-lined box pulls away from the rest, and enhances the split between the left and the right.

Bronwyn continues:

You will notice that I departed from custom and put the authors at the very top. Personally, I really like it.

This works fine. Even though the authors are at the top, there is still a clear sense of hierarchy. The authors’ names and affiliation are small compared to the title, so the title is clearly the most important thing. Also, this brings the title a bit closer to eye level, which is also beneficial.

I think if I were to do it again, I’d put that bottom banner (containing the “punchline”) in the middle of the poster, above the interpretation section. It makes a nice bottom frame where it is, but is a bit too low for its importance.

Finally, the inspiration for this poster came from... jewellery store advertising emails!

And the moral of this story is: Design is everywhere, so inspiration is everywhere.

Additional: After I posted this, I got another email from Bronwyn with her own redesign. Click to enlarge:

Moving the banner to the middle of the poster turns out to solve several problems. It clearly clearly defines the reading order: go in rows. It also fixes the “break” running like a river through the vertical in the earlier version. Yes, there is still a box, but it is nowhere near as distracting as in the previous version, perhaps because the box is now in proximity to the two black bands above and below it, rather than out on its own.

14 February 2013

Critique: Protein biosynthesis

This poster was made by Michael Barton, and was originally posted here. It’s used with his permission, and you can click to enlarge:

Michael wrote about this poster:

I never enjoyed making posters that look the same as a 100 others. Something that reflects your personality is much better.

This poster is successful in looking different, and it does so by looking like something we all recognize: comics. Michael made it with a program called Comic Life.

This poster is a good example of the power of pastiche.

I remember Genevieve Gorder using this technique on Trading Spaces. She would pick some found object that was in the house already; dishes, decorations, object d’art, or what have you. If you had some sort of object that you liked, you know that the styles, and particularly the colours, just worked together. This took a lot of guesswork out of designing a room. You would design by matching instead of starting from scratch.

We’ve recently had another example of the power of using found objects here on the blog: a poster on passenger pigeons that was inspired by nineteenth century advertising. Like Michael’s poster, it was successful in part because it evoked a format that people are already familiar with.

Looking at Michael’s comic inspired theme,  there are a few things that work very well. He uses a typeface that looks like comic lettering (all caps, imitates hand lettering), but it is not Comic Sans. He’s got round word balloons, with pointers calling out the relevant data. The blue boxes are reminiscent of narration panels. The black lines around each panel are utterly right, because they are so characteristic of comics. (And I say this as someone who normally hates boxes on posters.)

My suggestion for improvement would be to reduce the number of overlapping elements. If you look at comic panels, the word balloons generally attach to the edges of panels, not overlap them.

The large number of overlapping lines makes the poster much more visually complicated than it needs to be.

Similarly, I would have toned down on the number of angles the boxes take. Column one is split by a quite severe angle, about 45°, rising to the right. Column two is divided by shallower angles, closer to horizontal, but rising in both directions. And most, but not all, of the blue header boxes rise to the right at yet a different angle. In many classic comics, the energy of the art overshadows that the layout of comic panels is often based on simple, non-overlapping rectangles (Jack Kirby here):

That said, artists didn’t always follow their straight edges so closely (Kirby again):

But even in this crazy layout, notice that the word balloons never overlap the panel edges.

The one inexcusable error is the letters touching the balloon in the “4. Methods” section of the center column. A comic letterer that made that mistake would not be asked back to do another issue.

If you are going for “found object” design, the lesson is simple: you have to commit to using the qualities of that design. The more you do so, the more successful your design will be.

Related posts

Critique: How a pigeon went extinct

07 February 2013

Science Online 2013: Impressions Matter #sciostyle

Last week, I attended Science Online 2013. There’s not much “online” about posters, but there was a relevant session, co-moderated by Liz Neely and Holly Bik: “Impressions Matter: balancing art & design in research and science communication.” Say design, and I’ll be there.

Luckily, we had the awesome Perrin Ireland in the room for the event, and she live-scribed it in her distinctive style (here and here). Click to enlarge!

The one thing that was a little frustrating to me was that there were at least two fairly distinct topics  that were mushed together. Some of the session was talking about fashion: the clothes you wear, the shoes you take to conferences. Science Online had more shoe angst than any other conference I’ve been to by a long ways. Some of the session was talking about graphics: the typefaces and colour choices and spacing decisions that you make when preparing a slide presentation or conference poster. Yes, there are some broad issues where these two things overlap, but they are different skill sets. I am almost as disinterested in my clothing choices as I am interested in my graphic choices.

The other frustrating this was that Better Posters didn’t make it on the “favourite resources” on the live scribe board. ;) (Just kidding, Perrin!)

You can get a recap of the session through the Storify below or here. Unfortunately, Twitter was hiccuping at the time, so the Storify is a bit slim compared to others.