19 May 2016

The problem with point size

“What’s the smallest point size you can put on a poster?”

This is a common question, but it’s not one that has a simple answer.

I know many scientists read this blog, and scientists work in a world where measurements are universal. 37°C is 37°C no matter wherever you are, whatever you’re measuring, and are exactly comparable. Someone from a scientific background probably thinks that two identical pieces of text – in different fonts but the same point size – should take up the same space.

I have bad news. Point size does not work like that.



These two paragraphs are both set in serif typefaces, both nominally 16 points in size, but one takes 19% more column length than the other. This difference can arise because individual letters in the two fonts might have the same height, but different widths. The letter O may be a wider circle, or a narrower oval, for example.

That 19% will make a big difference in your layout, even if the two blocks of text are similarly readable.

I have selected two fonts with a fairly large difference here. Many other standard fonts will probably be more similar in their use of space. But it points out that you can’t rely on font size alone to guide your poster design.

Instead of blindly following a minimum font size, work from a couple of guiding principles.

  1. The bigger the text, the better.
  2. Test, test, and test some more. Print full sized sample paragraphs at the point size you want to use (12 point 18 point, 24 point, 30 point), tack them to a wall, and stand back a couple of meters and see how they look.

But if all thoughtful design and testing stuff bores you, the answer is:

Nothing smaller than 24 point on your poster.

There. Happy?

12 May 2016

Four simple tips for shortening your poster


Few things will turn away a potential poster viewer like long paragraphs of text. So one of the recommendations I (and many others) make for posters is to write less stuff. But it is not easy.

There’s a saying (wrongly attributed to Abraham Lincoln), that if you have a short time to cut down a tree, spend most of it sharpening the axe. Here are some ways to sharpen your editorial axe.

1. Walk away.

When you’re in the middle of a project that you designed and carried out, everything seems important. But time away from something helps bring clarity. Think about a favourite album or TV series that you haven’t watched in years. You won’t remember all of it; you will remember the highlights.

You can get clarity by not working on a poster for a few days, then coming back at it with fresh eyes.

I think this is be the surest and best approach, the problem is that it takes time. You have to start early, and allot “cool down time” of a few days where you do not look at the poster. Given how many academics don’t want to give posters because they want to slap together a PowerPoint talk on the plane on their way to a conference, getting them to work on posters well in advance is a tall order.

2. Show it to someone else.

An outside viewer doesn’t have that emotional or intellectual investment in a project that you have. The further away you can get, the better. Show your poster to someone who isn’t in your lab. SHow it to a non-expert. Show it to someone with a different skillset.

Just remember that an outside observer is not necessarily an unbiased one. Everyone has their own tastes and preferences and styles. An outside observer may not be objective, but they will at least have different biases than you.

3. ABT.

“ABT” is short for “And... But... Therefore.” You take two facts (joined by “and”), followed by the complication (“but”), and a resolution (“therefore”).
 
It is one of the single most effective tools I have found for drilling down to a key point. And it has the advantage of being quick (unlike #1) and not needing others (unlike #2).

I’ve done this with many poster presenters. When I ask them to talk about what there poster is about, it often takes a few minutes. I don’t think many of them believe me when I say they should be able to summarize their poster in a sentence. Then I do it using the ABT format. And I can usually see the expression on their faces indicating I’ve hit very close to the mark.

I wouldn’t recommend condensing the entire poster to one sentence, but it’s great at chopping a couple of lengthy introductory paragraphs into one crisp sentence.

Randy Olson first introduced this sentence structure in Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking (which I reviewed here), and has continued working with this tool in Houston, We Have a Narrative.

Additional: Randy notes that you can learn more about ABT in Story Circle Training here. He also advises for the verbal presentation that goes along with the poster:

1) Say your ABT, 2) Ask what person studies, 3) Find bridge between the two (from Samantha Roy)

4. Practice ruthlessness in all your writing. 

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White is not a perfect book on writing. Likewise, the fretting about Marxism in George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language,” is very out-of-date. But both remain worth reading because of their emphasis on being concise.

There are many lists that alert you to lengthy stock phrases that can be replaced with shorter words. Once you attune yourself to stock phrases (“At this point in time,” “The fact that”), it becomes easier to recognize them, cut them out, and replace them without losing any meaning (“Now,” “That”).

External links

To Cut Down a Tree in Five Minutes Spend Three Minutes Sharpening Your Axe
Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking review

05 May 2016

The inverse colour intensity rule

Colour on a poster is powerful, but can be difficult to use well. One of the problems I often see is that people create posters with deep, bright, saturated colours that cover large areas:


It’s hard to get the full effect of this on a small computer screen, but those bright colours on a poster that several feet wide can be like a punch in the eyes. Size signals importance. So do bright colours. The combination of both can be overwhelming and is rarely necessary.

The larger the surface area you colour, the less you have to do for it to “read” as a distinct colour. You can go to a very light, almost pastel shade, and it will still come across as clearly distinct from a background or other colours. People can readily tell that you’ve highlighted something in blue.


If you have something that is very small like a select point of data on a graph, or something for emphasis – that’s the place where you can use those bright, intense colours to draw attention. Subtlety won’t cut it if something is small:


Bright colours can draw attention to something that isn’t dominating by virtue of space.


And the moral of the story is: The bigger the space you colour, the less intense the colour should be. I’m still not sure what the name of this principle should be, but “Inverse colour intensity” will do for now.

(The text? Happy Revenge of the Fifth, everyone!)

28 April 2016

Link roundup for April 2016

Lisa Rost has a nice overview of colour tools to help with data visualizations. Some have appeared on the blog before, but this is a great summary.



MarkMaker bills itself as an automated logo designer (backstory here). It’s fun to look at, but I was unimpressed with the first suggestions:


I stayed with it, trying a few favourites and deleting ones I didn’t like. I was still baffled by this suggestion after a few rounds:


I suppose it might have a certain utility in getting you out of ruts, but I’m not convinced it has much more utility than randomly picking fonts in your graphics editor. Hat tip to Doctor Becca.

DrugMonkey reports from the floor of the joint American Society of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics Experimental Biology meeting:

Saw a poster with Supplemental Materials today at #aspet #expbio #eb2016 – this is where we are people.

I... wait... what? As Clay Clark asked:

On back side of the poster?

Let me make this clear:

That’s dumb. Do not do that.

We hear about viral images on the internet, but most don’t look this amazing. Even if they didn’t move, they would still be stunning scientific visualizations.

21 April 2016

Critique: Red ware

This week’s contribution comes from Scott Van Keuren. This poster recently graced the halls of the Society for American Archaeology meeting.Click to enlarge!


This a poster that has the right ideas, but doesn’t go far enough.

The title is excellent. It’s big, clean, and clear. I appreciate that this carries through the author listings, which are simpler than many posters. The logos are sensibly placed, unobtrusively, in the fine print section of the poster.

There are excellent photographs of physical objects, particularly in that critical left hand side. I would have like to have seen fewer, bigger pictures, even if that meant reducing the size of maps somewhat.

The headings also show consideration for the reader. Instead of the standard “IMRAD” headings,we mostly get questions that make it extremely clear which section of the poster is. If anything, I would like to see them bigger and more prominent. And that’s particularly valuable, because the rest of the poster sometimes leads you on a merry chase.

In the picture below, the red lines traces the order sections are meant to be read in, as I understand them:


The first column is very simple, but things take turns for the worse in the next two sections. Wrapping the scatter plots around the “What are results?” section particularly disturbs the reading flow; you have to jump a graph to get to the text, then back up to look at the scatter plots. In fact, the more I look at the poster, the less sure I am that the intended order is what I put above.

While the headings are so useful in guiding the reader, the amount I would have to read to get an answer to each question is a little intimidating. Even though I realize intellectually that the writing is not that much if it was an article, my eyes would glaze over in a poster hall.

Cutting is hard. You need to be ruthless, and you need to practice. But being concise is almost always the right way to go.

Been there, done that... but couldn’t get the T-shirt

Cathy Newman pointed out that this year’s Evolution meeting in Austin has conference T-shirts... but none in women’s styles.

Sigh.

Weirdly, this is a choice you have a pre-registration, months out from the conference, so it’s not as though you would make unneeded T-shirts.

In a little Twitter poll I ran, most people reported that if a conference had T-shirts, there usually weren’t women’s tees available.

Double sigh.

Come on, conference organizers. This sort of thing matters. I can’t do better than this post from Kathy Sierra:

The point is showing us that you care about more than just saving a few bucks on a t-shirt print run. That you care about ALL your users, not just the Big Burly Men.

This is partly tongue-in-cheek, but still... the t-shirts are a metaphor for – or at least a reflection of – the way the company feels about users as individual people. The shirts matter, and they speak volumes about your company.

External links

Tech t-shirts aren't sexy enough

14 April 2016

Critique and makeover: Gene sequence toolkit

This week’s poster is from Kasey Pham, and is used with permission. Click to enlarge!


Kasey writes:

I’m a student having a little trouble with my first poster presentation. I’d like to cut down the text more so that there's more white space, but I'm already having trouble keeping the story coherent.

It’s certainly nowhere near the worst I’ve seen in terms of amount of text. It seems that the main areas to edit are the introduction and the conclusion. My crack at condensing the intro was to use Randy Olson’s “And But Therefore” template:

“Every individual of a species should share a common ancestor, and this can be tested using public data, but those data are sparse, therefore we created a tool.”

I think I’m closing in on shrinking your four paragraphs down to once sentence. But I don’t know what “sparse” data means in this context, therefore I’m not sure what problem the toolkit solves.

Cutting the conclusions are more important than the intro, because that could give space around the references and acknowledgements, which currently look crowded. I wanted hack down the conclusions from five bullet points to... um... fewer. One paragraph is a challenge, but a worthwhile one.

Editing is always a bear, and the only real way to do it is with practice and constantly reminding yourself to be ruthless.

In other areas...

I’m a fan of consistent reading order, so I don’t like how the middle section switches from the reading down that you see in the left columns (the introduction flows down to methods), to reading across in the middle (Figure 1 flows across to Figure 2, then carriage returns to Figure 3, etc.). That said, the use of a horizontal line between Figures (1 + 2) and (3 + 4) is enough of a cue to prevent the reader from getting too lost.

In the Methods, it looks odd to have only the top box (“Raw XML data”) narrower than all the rest. It would also be nice for the left edge of the flowchart to align with the left edge of the text above.

Here’s a quick and dirty revision that addresses a few of these comments: