17 August 2017

Critique: Measuring negativity

Today’s poster is from Jonathan Mohr. Click to enlarge!


Jonathan says of this poster:

Our study focuses on measurement, which is a pretty dry topic. I can’t say we’ve made any progress on making the material come alive. However, we’ve tried cutting down the amount of detail (which may be hard to believe after viewing the poster!) to create at least a bit more “white space” (actually not white, but you know what I mean).

I sympathize with the problem. Some topics are more visual than others. Measurement tends to be less visual.

This poster was based on a template provided by PosterPresentations website. Using a template has pros and cons. Here, the “pro” is that the template provides a clean layout, with everything aligned nicely. Nobody will get lost reading this poster.

The “con” is that I am skeptical of some of the colour choices. The poster looks muddy and monotome. The text has a low contrast against the background, especially at the bottom. This isn’t bad in the middle, where the darkening background helps make the graph more prominent. But the text on the left and right hand sides fades away. The author credits are hard to read.

A few small points of contrasting colour would go a long way to adding some clarity and interest to this poster. Adobe Color suggests some cyan blues would be a good contrast to the tans.

As Jon notes, the biggest challenge here is the amount of detail. Editing always feels tough to impossible, but I have some tips here. I do appreciate that this poster starts with “Key points.” If you know you have a lot for people to read, a summary is not a horrible idea.

If you have a text heavy poster, as here, consider not using one of the standard fonts. This one is mostly set in Times New Roman for the main text and Calibri for the headings. Those are workhorse typefaces for a reason, but they are not distinctive. And they are maybe even a little out of date now. Look at new fonts, play with alternate character sets. There are thousands of typefaces out there! Splurge and buy something new! That can help break the visual sameness of a text heavy poster.

Related posts

10 August 2017

Critique: Nanotechnology versus climate

Today’s poster is from Jacob Martin, which he presented at the Commonwealth Science Conference. Click to enlarge!


Jacob wrote:

This was to a very diverse group of scientist and policy makers, so the poster is made for a general audience. The font size is relatively small as I wanted to draw people into the poster to read it and as the poster was A1 (Note to Americans: That’s 23.4 inches × 33.1 inches. - ZF), it was not too difficult to read. While presenting the poster, a lot of people wanted to read the whole poster before then asking me questions about it. I assume this is because of the small amount of text on the poster meant they could commit to reading it.

I played around with linking the text with aspects of the graphs using arrows and underlined brackets, as I find it takes a lot of text to fully explain a plot without these devices. I also made use of the perspective in GIMP to make the graphs stand out, but this made them a bit harder to read.

I agree with Jacob’s assessment that adding perspective to the images was perhaps a bit of unneeded flash. Here’s a blow up so you can better see the use of perspective, arrows, and brackets:


I understand the goal here, but I’m not sure if this is an optimal solution. In this particular example, that the arrows are laid down flat over the graph’s Y axis and label bugs me.

I am not a big fan of photo backgrounds, but this one works better than most. The “busy” parts of the photo, the plane and the sun, are removed from the text. The text sits over parts of the photo that are mostly colour gradients, with very little complexity.

Having the four main text blocks circle the plane creates a nice focal point around the plane and the title. This is fortunate, because the title is a little undersold here. The black text, particularly the first line, is not very high contrast against the dark blue of the sky image. Using italics makes the title feel like fine print, rather than the most important thing on the poster.

The circles are also a nice visual change from rectangles, and make the poster look distinctive.

The logos are nicely corralled down in the bottom, where they are aligned with each other and not intrusive.

This poster works well from a distance. It has a strong and distinctive look, and it feels inviting. I am not sure if the details are as successful when you get in close-up. The text and line weights feel a little bit too fine and fussy for easy reading.

07 August 2017

New email address for submissions and Twitter feed

I have created a couple of new resources for this blog.

First, and more important, the blog has a new, dedicated email address: BetterPosters@gmail.com. If you would like to submit a poster to the blog, or get in touch for anything else poster related, please mail me at this address. (DoctorZen@gmail.com still works, too.)

Second, the blog now has its own dedicated Twitter feed: @Better_Posters. That’s “Better underscore Posters.” The plan is that this will be an automated feed that will tweet out new blog posts. Blog readers on Twitter no longer have to wade through my other random thoughts about crayfish, scientific publishing, Doctor Who, or what have you. (Those are all still available on @DoctorZen, too.)

03 August 2017

Critique and makeover: How to recognize birds

Today’s poster was presented at this year’s Evolution 2017 meeting by Stephanie Aguillon. Click to enlarge!


Stephanie spelled out her design goals with this poster:

I worked really hard on minimal text and focusing on visuals. ... I think this is one of the best posters I have designed.

Stephanie achieved her goals. Her poster is graphic, it’s bright, and you can pull out the main points very quickly. She clearly put some thought into her colours, using them consistently to identify her different bird populations.

I wouldn’t change much on this poster, but nobody reads this blog for “Yup, it’s good” and no suggestions. The first thing I tried is to go Samurai Jack on the boxes and get rid of the thick black lines:


My next concern is that the graphs for the results are quite close together. I tried shrinking them by 95% in the version below.


I also shrunk down the Cornell logo, so that it was roughly the same height as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Then, I nudged both logos so that the right side of the Cornell logo was in alignment with the right side of the title, and both were in line with emails in the author’s credit. Alignment is good!


I didn’t change it here, but the “Results & Discussion” section lacks a clear visual hierarchy. Here’s the problem.

The “Results & Discussion” heading is all caps and set large type, both of which are visual cues to importance. But the two sentences below the heading are almost as large, and set entirely in bold text. Bold text is another, different visual signal for importance. Consequently, the two bits of the poster are sending conflicting messages about which is more important. So rather than emphasizing the text, the bolding across the board ends up lessening the impact of the text.

Stephanie printed her poster using Spoonflower (which I mentioned a while ago). Here’s how it looked on the day:


The colours are vibrant, but you can still see some distortion from the fabric stretching near the tacks. I think I still prefer paper for most purposes.

The changes, animated to make comparisons easier:

27 July 2017

Link roundup for July 2017

Diana Hernandez has this month’s “best re-use of a poster” nominee:


How to deal with awkward questions at a conference, by Dani Rabaiotti. Hat tip to Stephen Heard.


Netflix recently premiered an original documentary about design called Abstract: The Art of Design. I’ve been waiting to mention it until I finished it. Each of the eight episodes showcases one designer in a different field. Each is a combination of biography and case study. It’s good, but not great.

For poster makers, probably the most relevant is Episode 6, featuring Paula Scher, which is mostly about typography. I also like Episodes 2 and 5, on shoe and car design. respectively, because those are the furthest from my experience and the most novel to me.

Speaking of typography, Bear Knee Sanders probably had no idea what he was wading into with this tweet:

Heaven.
God: You may ask me one question.
Me: Why aren’t there lowercase and uppercase numbers?
God: What?
Me: I wanna write loud numbers.

Watch the type nerds emerge in the thread to talk about oldstyle letters. If you read this post a couple of weeks back, you would know how to find and use those!

Being a man, I never knew that women often get told they shouldn’t go to a conference sleeveless. But the struggle is real. Caitlin Vander Weele mentioned she had been told many times she should wear things with sleeves at conferences. Didi Mamaligas‏ replied:

Dude, this is bs. There’s nothing worse than being sweaty while presenting a poster.

Arms and shoulders of the world, unite! Be free! (By the way, if you haven’t seen Caitlin’s Interstellate magazine, it’s beautiful stuff.)

Although this article in The Condor and the responding blog post on The EEB and Flow blog are about conference presentations, the key question of “How much data do you show, and how much do you hold back?” apply to posters, too.

Random design inspiration: Vintage Vogue covers from the 1920s and 1930s are something to behold.

20 July 2017

Critique: Precipitants to suicide

Today’s contribution comes from Annie Snow, who was kind enough to share this poster with blog readers. You will probably need to click to enlarge this one!


The rainbow background pops. A rainbow is the symbol of pride for a wide community that includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer, intersex, and others (I apologize to anyone who love the rainbow that I neglected to mention). And since lesbian, gay, and bi people are the subject of study here, the rainbow is a clear visual signal for the topic. The rainbow is clearly visible as a rainbow and not just as random colours, because Annie made the margins between the columns wide.

I also love that the rainbow is even continued into the colour fills for the bar graphs in the second column.

But I am experiencing some cognitive dissonance when I dig into the content of the poster. The bright rainbow colours of pride say exuberant and joyous, which is not how people normally describe the poster’s topic: suicide and depression. There is a risk that the bright colours might make people see the poster as flippant, trivializing a serious topic. This might be a good opportunity for comments; would be curious to know what others think on this point.

There are many other elements of the poster than work.

I love pushing the title into a big central circle, and using different point sizes for emphasis. Even at the small scale, you can’t miss the word “suicide” in the title. It’s bold and different and works well. The cost to this is that the author credit is moved over to the left, in the area normally reserved for the “fine print.” People reading the poster often want to know who did it, and there is a pretty long cultural tradition of author names being close to titles all kinds of written text.

Annie further breaks the rectangle monotony by using other circular and organic forms as big design elements. While I am not sure how “Earth seen from space” is tied to the poster content (“No borders, we’re all one,” maybe?), the globe, and Émile Durkheim and his quote, have been blended in to the poster well. (Though Émile is missing his accent aigu on the quote credit.) 

I am concerned about the main body of the poster. There is a lot of text, and the main text is very narrow. This allows for generous margins in the boxes, and makes the layout clean. And there are some smart decisions in the use of icons to break up the monotony. But even with those positive aspects, I worry that this poster can’t be easily read from a distance, or by those older conference goers starting to deal with presbyopia. I am not sure this poster would pass the “arm’s length” test.

Speaking of readability, I completely missed that the sections of the poster were numbered until I got in an enlarged the text. The poster’s reading order is so clear that the numbers are superfluous. There is an argument, I suppose, for leaving them as they are as a subtle design element. My own inclination would be to lighten them up as much as their adjacent boxes.

This poster has many interesting and smart design choices, but is weak on addressing one key need of the reader: that is, to read it.

13 July 2017

How to swash: using a font’s alternate glyphs, text styles, and numbers

Microsoft Publisher is my go to software package for making posters. It hits a sweet point for me between power and ease of use. I recently found another reason to use Publisher: it lets you in to a whole new realm of type you might not have known existed.

Many professional fonts in the OpenType format include not only standard letters, but alternate letter shapes, or “glyphs.” For instance, you can have you choice of shapes for lowercase “g”:


Or fantastic artistic swashes:



I recently bought a new font for a poster, Plusquam Sans, in part because I wanted to play with the alternate glyphs. I almost had a heart attack because I couldn’t find the alternate glyphs at first. But I got lucky, and stumbled up how to use them.

Of the entire Microsoft Office package, it seems that only Publisher lets you play with alternate glyphs and swashes without too much effort.

Here’s how.

Select your text, then go up to the ribbon an pop up the fonts menu.


Once you have the font menu, look for the “Typography” section.


In this case, the alternate glyphs are more dramatic forms of capital letters, with expressive swashes. So I check the “Swash” button, and the preview below shows the difference.


But wait! There’s more! Some fonts also come with alternative number forms, too. In that same section of the font menu, check the drop down options for “Number style.”


This font has three alternates for numbers. Again, selecting one option immediately shows a preview.


You can get the alternate numbers in Word. Open the “Font” menu from the ribbon, click on the “Advanced” tab,and check the drop down options for “Number forms”:


Word also lets you get different “Stylistic sets” for the main text (straight versus curved lowercase “l” and “i”, for instance). But I still can’t get to the swashes, as far as I can tell.

PowerPoint doesn’t do any of those things.

I’ve seen some online instructions that say you can get to the swashes in Windows through the old Character Map app. In Windows 10, Character Map is located in the “Windows Accessories” folder,  under “All Apps.” But so far, I have not gotten those swashes to show up.

You can see a little bit of those swashes in action on the poster I recently presented at the American Society for Parasitologists meeting in San Antonio:


I have much more to say about the design of this poster (I was very happy with it), which I will talk about as soon as the paper is published. It’s already in the hands of editors, so I am hoping that won’t be long!

External links

How To Access All Glyphs In A Font
How do I access the alternate glyphs in my OpenType font?
Secret To Add Swashes + Extras to Your Fonts…. Use The Private Use Area in a Font