27 March 2014

Link roundup for March 2014

Hood Scientist takes a look at the making of this cool wanted poster:

I’m also grateful to the link to this post on making chemistry posters. It includes this video. The advice is generally sound, though I have misgivings like it assuming you will use PowerPoint (get a real graphics editor, folks!) and advising adding institution logo (although it doesn’t use the dreaded bookend).

This blog is mainly geared towards scientists, but it uses the crafts and tools developed by graphic design. Ben Lillie makes a similar case: scientists should look outside their own fields to see what others have learned, particularly in science communication. And a poster is just a communication tool, after all:

(C)ommunicating science, fundamentally, isn’t very different from communicating anything else. It isn’t easy, but the answers are out there. The textbooks are already written. ...

I believe in the value of expertise. There are people who’ve dedicated their lives to learning and teaching how to connect and communicate. Why wouldn’t we avail ourselves of that?

A menu has some interesting parallels with a poster: you both have to contain a lot of information in a logical structure that people can find. This article looks at the redesign of the menu at IHOP:

The menu IHOP ended up launching ... prioritizes images over text, with large pictures of food offerings studding the menu’s pages. It also offers color-coding—a feature meant, in part, to draw the eye toward certain food offerings and categories. Perhaps the most important change from the previous menu, though, was a grouping system that categorized food items into neat culinary taxonomies: pancakes on this page, omelettes on this one, etc.

Hat tip to Emily Anthes.

I am often telling people to leave more space on posters. Here’s a brilliant case of using space to make a point:

Hat tip to Amanda Bauer and Stephanie Stamm.

TED provides a list of ten quotes about design. I particularly like this one:

“If anybody here has trouble with the concept of design humility, reflect on this: It took us 5,000 years to put wheels on our luggage.” — William McDonough

New Scientist has an article about typefaces that, in the magazine, was titled, “Tricksy type: how fonts can mess with your mind” (paywalled). The title in their weekly newsletter was better, though. It was, “Comic Sans is evil.”

Congratulations to reader Alex Warnecke, who took the Provost’s Award in the ecology section of San Diego State University’s recent student conference. She was nice enough to say this blog helped.

20 March 2014

Misplaced priorities on institutional templates

Commenter k brought my attention to this poster template from Iowa State University (click to enlarge).

The template gets it exactly wrong. The order of elements at the top is 180° away from what it should be.

This template reflects misguided priorities. It’s intended to do one thing: make sure the institution’s name is the most important thing on the poster. I repeat this from Garr Reynolds (my emphasis):

The logo won’t help make a sell or make a point, but the clutter it brings does add unnecessary noise and makes the presentation visuals look like a commercial. And people hate commercials or being sold to.

The most important thing on the poster should be the title. That is the most important information for people walking by at the conference. The principles of text hierarchy suggest that the title should be bigger than all other text, and at the top of the page, and possibly in colour. Instead, it’s the fourth thing on the page, small, and in black and white.

The second most important thing should be the people. Posters are social objects, meant to facilitate conversations between people. Names matter.

Department and institution names are the least important things for both the reader (who is the one this poster is for) and the presenter.

Worse, the template adds space for the conference name and the date up at the upper right. Of what possible use are those pieces of information? Presumably, people know what conference they are attending. They rarely just wander into a convention center just on a whim. And I am reasonably sure most people do not need a poster to tell them the date.

The “Acknowledgments” space at the end is a box that spans the entire width of the poster. This is not a good typesetting practice, because long lines are hard to read. Most typesetters recommend lines be about 10-12 words long.

What a template should do is to help someone make layout faster. A template that offered a precise, evenly spaced three column grid would save someone a lot of time trying to calculate the column width, including enough white space, and so on. Instead, this template has just a single word box with “Content.” That’s not helpful to the poster maker at all.

And the moral of the story is: Just because your institution suggests it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea!

13 March 2014

Critique and makeover: Semantics

Today’s posters come from Anna Pryslopska, and are shown with her permission. Let’s see the first version of her poster (click to enlarge):

Anna created this poster, and the revision below, in Inkscape, “which was a PITA”, she adds.

After she presented this poster, Anna revised it for another conference after one of her viewers said it looked “like candy (not serious).” Here is her second poster:

This is a successful revision on many, many counts. The first and most obvious change is that the colour scheme has been lightened and brightened. That alone makes a huge improvement, because it de-emphasizes the boxes on the poster. I might have tried making the “Background” box in the upper left the same light blue as all the others.

The title and headings are larger in the revision, creating a stronger text hierarchy.

Where both posters still struggle is with the reading order. Graphs should be next to the text that describes them whenever possible, and here, they are not. Let’s put a line from each graph to the places referenced in the text:

While the graphs appear in order, they are often separated from the text by a long way. Figure 2 and 3 sit right next to each other, suggesting they will be referred to together, but instead they are discussed almost at opposite ends of the poster.

Making matters slightly worse is that the reference in the text to point to each graph (e.g., “see (1)”) is low-key and slightly cryptic. For instance, many people use numbers alone to indicate references. It might have been better to label each one as a figure, and put, “see Figure 1” in the text.

Anna concluded with some general comments.
I think a lot of the poster would be much better if we had LaTeX templates that don’t suck. My university has a corporate design one that doesn’t work. They actually paid someone good money for that... I know almost all my colleagues use LaTeX or PowerPoint for their posters and both require a lot of knowledge to make something nice and “nobody’s got time for that.”

I agree somewhat. Templates can be helpful, but the lack of a standard poster size makes creating a template difficult. I think examples are more powerful than templates, which may be why so many readers tell me they find the critiques useful.

Also, I know of nobody in my circle of colleagues who uses LaTeX. A couple of blog readers have mentioned they use it, but for the vast majority of people, posters mean PowerPoint. For those wondering what LaTeX is about, maybe try this:

I include it despite my reservations about a video titled “Learn Latex in 5 minutes” that is six minutes long.

06 March 2014

Review: Slidedocs

Nancy Duarte is one of the best in the business when it comes to design of slide decks. After three conventionally published books on paper, she has just released her fourth, Slidedocs, as a free ebook created using, and evangelizing, PowerPoint.

To some degree, PowerPoint is Duarte’s hammer, and she’s on the lookout for nails to use it on. Previously, Garr Reynolds called annotated PowerPoint decks in place of documents “slideuments”, which he called the “illegitimate offspring of the projected slide and the written document.”While Reynolds was critical, Duarte wants to legitimize the format by rebranding it as a “slidedoc.”

Duarte believes that the traditional document is dead (except for a few niche cases), and PowerPoint has won. She argues that PowerPoint is already used for so many purposes besides slides, and that it integrates visuals and text so much better than other tools, we should use it for much routine communication within business.

Why do I bring this up on the poster blog? Because on at least one count, Duarte is right. As I’ve mentioned many times before, PowerPoint is the most commonly used software for making conference posters. I still contend that is is not a great tool for this, yet there are just too many people who know no other way, and won’t put in the effort to buy or learn new software.

Thus, the tasks that Duarte talks about in creating a slidedoc are the same steps you need to go through in creating a conference poster.

The nitty gritty for people making a conference poster begins in section 2 (slide 37), discussing the process of creating appropriate text. This is something that I haven’t given a lot of attention to on this blog, so if you’ve been looking for a discussion of that, this is a good place to start.

Section 3 (page 99) is hits closer to the sort of topics normally featured on this blog: graphic design. It talks about creating a consistent “visual language” (slide 102), the use of grids (slide 116) and white space (slide 121), and good ideas for using text (slide 127).

Section 4 is less relevant to poster creators, as it looks at how to present slidedocs. We know how posters are presented (print, carry, hang, stand and chat), and it’s not the same way that slide decks, or slidedocs, are.

Slidedoc is a self-exemplifying book. It clearly has the look of a PowerPoint deck, just one done about 1,000% better than most decks you have ever seen. It took a lot of careful effort to get it to look that good, and the same will be true of posters, too.

Making this book free is a wonderful gift from Duarte. Check it out.

External links