18 September 2014

Critique: Microsponges

This week’s poster comes from Steven Harris Wibowo, a postgrad student at one of my old stomping grounds, the University of Melbourne, Australia.This poster was shown at the IUPAC World Polymer Congress in Thailand; click to enlarge!



He writes:

The organizer asked for a portrait A0 poster. After some soul-searching and brainstorming I came up with this design/concept. I love a dark background and for me, nothing trumps a simple black background if you can do it cleanly. I have also been inspired by neon colours (the movie Tron to be exact) and that's why I picked those bounding lines!

Steven didn’t say if he’s an old school 1982 Tron fan:


Or a fan of the more recent Tron: Legacy, which had an even more limited palette:



I’ve talked before about the power of pastiche; imitating something you like. When I do that, I can get quite obsessive in trying to match things. I would have looked at these images and used an eyedropper tool to match up shades exactly.

Steven didn’t go that route, as you can see by comparing the overall colour scheme in his poster to these images from Tron movies. He’s mostly gone for orange and green on a dark gray over Tron’s signature cool blue over black.

I like that the lines are clearly a design element in the poster, rather than boxes trying to impose order on the poster.

Dark backgrounds can be tricky: ink bleeds in to white spaces on paper, while light shines out of white spaces on screen. I worry that the print might be a little too fine to read. A very slightly heavier type might have worked a bit better.

Steven goes on:

I don’t particularly like to put too many words/explanations into my poster and would rather have spaces between my results and have a brief caption.

This is always a good choice, although this is still a complicated looking poster with a lot of data. Complex multi-part figures are not as intimidating as a block of text, but they come close.

The flow of text is reasonably clear, although it gets a little complicated in the middle. While there are still clearly rows, the combination of the taller box plus the circle in the middle obscures the reading order a little. The use of low-key numbering is helpful here.

This design worked well for him:

The judges and other participants loved the poster, which allowed me to win the best presentation prize!

Nicely done, Steven!

Related posts

11 September 2014

Critique: Fetal movements

I often say that when I critique posters on the blog, I am looking at the design of the poster and not the science or technical content of the poster. That is particularly true for this one, submitted by reader Josefine Kühberger. It’s not that there is anything wrong with the poster, but I cannot read German! Click to enlarge:


Here is Josy to provide a little context:

It’s about qualitative aspects of fetal movements. To express that the focus is on maternal sensations and interviews, I used a drawing of a pregnant woman and put a “word cloud” inside her stomach.

This poster is excellent.

The simple image of the woman is so strong, yet so evocative of the subject matter, that anyone walking by should be able to grasp what this poster is about immediately, even from a distance.

The word cloud is a simple way to present text in a visually interesting way. Placing it in the woman’s silhouette is very clever and effective. If you want to make word clouds:


This poster is not cluttered. There is no fear of empty spaces, particularly down at the bottom. That is something that too many poster makers fear. They think every inch of the poster must contain ink. As this poster shows, it does not.

There is a simple, consistent colour scheme to both the text and images. The red in the title looks a little brighter than in the woman’s figure, and I might have wanted to make them the same. But it’s very minor. Red is a very powerful colour, but the combination of a slightly darker, almost brick red on the muted background prevents the red from being overwhelming.

I also love the dual headings, with the black bar on top of bold red text. I don’t how how the text is divided between those two elements, but it is very striking.

Josy says that this site had a hand in the creation of this poster (aw, shucks):

I had to create a poster (my first...) and found your “better posters” instructions on internet... which was a great help. The poster won the first prize. So I want to say “Thank you”!


04 September 2014

Critique: Mouse lungs

This week’s poster from reader Irena Feng, and is used with her permission. Click to enlarge!



The mouse picture provides an immediate and powerful entry point into the poster. The direction of the mouse’s head draws attention away from the (unnecessary) abstract, and into the introduction and methods, which is a more relevant starting point. The text wrapping around the mouse’s whiskers and body is not perfect, but certainly better than if it had been left square.

Putting the authors above the title is a bit of a risk. It works because the title is set in very large type. Plus, the lightened band of colour under the title makes it higher contrast, thus keeping the title the focus of attention.

I would have liked to have seen a little more consistency in the headings’ size. The “Results” heading is larger than the others. Plus, the headings in the text don't match those in the title.

The poster is meant to be read in rows, which is clearly indicated by the use of changing green backgrounds to group the rows together. The green seems to have been selected because many of the micrographs showing in the results are green. I worry about the green being a little dark, however, particularly the first row containing the introduction.

The width of the “Conclusions” section is less than ideal. Typesetters aim for 10-12 words per line of text, and these are at least double that. One solution might be to split the “Conclusions” box into two: one “Conclusions,” then a second that says,  “Next step,” and highlights the last line.

Irena wrote:

I received a lot of attention and a few compliments, with one comment describing it as “better than any grad student’s poster I’ve seen” (I’m a high schooler, so that comment was especially appreciated).

Those compliments are deserved. This poster hits most of the marks you want in a conference poster, and avoids most of the pratfalls that you don’t want.

28 August 2014

Link roundup for August 2014

“Only one idea.” Although this post from Terry McGlynn is about giving oral presentations, I think there is something to apply to posters, too:

When I gave the talks that (at least I suspect) kicked butt... They were all short on data and they only had one idea. ... I intentionally pared back on the data and the overarching research agenda. I just wanted to speak to an idea and wasn’t too concerned about how it made it me look. And, it turned out, the result was that people thought I gave a really good talk.

21 August 2014

Critique: Megafauna

This week’s poster is from Benjamin Seliger, and is used with his permission. Click to enlarge... or perhaps I should say, “megasize.”


I would stop at this poster if I saw it at a conference. There is much to like about the design. The visuals are very strong and very prominent. I love the pictures of the megafauna, the plants, and the maps. There is not too much text.

This poster accidentally demonstrates the power of proximity and white space. When I glanced at this poster, I thought, “This is a very nice two column layout.” But I should have thought, “This is a nice two row layout.” This poster is meant to be read across first, not down, which is the opposite of what I thought from a glance.

I am supposed to see the poster elements in this grouping:


But instead I see this grouping:


The problem arises because there is a wide, generous margin between the columns, but almost none between the rows. We group things that are close together. The authors have tried to signal that these are in rows using horizontal dividers, but the “signal” from the wide margin in the middle is completely overpowering that from those skinny little lines.

That the headings are not that much bigger in size than the subheadings is not helping matters. Compare the size of “The data” to “Joshua tree” underneath it. The “Joshua tree” and “Honey mesquite” subheadings are reinforcing that this is a two column layout instead of a two row layout. I also wonder if flipping the text position (above the animal picture, but below the plant picture in the top row) is contributing.

Fortunately, the solution is simple. Make the margins between the rows bigger than the divisions between the columns. Here’s a quick and dirty revision:


Margins beat lines and boxes in signalling the organization of your material.

14 August 2014

Critique: Protein simulations

I was asked to look over this poster (click to enlarge). Now, this is a draft poster, so some of the large empty spots are deliberately empty, because the data were not in when the draft was tweeted to me.


Have I mentioned lately how much I hate photographic backgrounds on posters? I can’t recall ever seeing one that was effective. If the image is good enough and recognizable enough to show, why would you cover is up with text and data?

The gray photo background picked here is a recipe for disaster. The text is hard to read already, and the gray background will make it almost impossible to read at an distance. It’ll be worse if lighting is dim.

Even if the bothersome background is removed, I doubt this poster will pass the arm’s length test. The main text – and to a lesser degree, the headings – on this poster would both benefit from being bigger. This might require some judicious killing of darlings, but the poster will be better for it. One thing that might help is to make the acknowledgements smaller (make it “fine print”) so the conclusions can be bigger. The conclusions are more important, and one way to signal that is how much space it takes up on the page.

I don’t know what’s going on with that blue thing in the middle of the title bar, apart from it distracting me from the title, and making the title harder to read.

The colours in the methods flowchart seem to be picked almost at random. Kuler is a very useful too for picking harmonious colours.

While I can’t tell for certain with this low res image, but it looks like a lot of things aren’t aligned. The heading boxes definitely do not line up with the images in the lower left.

07 August 2014

Critique: P7C3

Bhavna Guduguntla asked if I could help a friend with this poster (click to enlarge):


A few weeks ago, I mentioned that your title (headline) is 90% of your communication effort. This poster would benefit greatly by taking that one board. The title here is probably one of the least visible things on this poster, for two reasons.

First, it’s competing with a bunch of logos, which are sitting in the poster’s prime real estate: the upper right corner.

Second, the title is thin white text on a light gray background. Those facts alone make the title inconspicuous, but it’s made even worse because it’s surrounded by several black elements: one of the logos, and the authors’ last names. Your eyes are drawn to the highest contrast elements, and it’s not the title. And darn it, you should see the title.

I like the way the authors’ last names are set in black. The last names on a scientific poster are important, because scientific papers are normally referenced by last names. If the names were properly subordinate to the title, this would be an nice design choice.

The main text looks crowded and ill-chosen. The boxes have so much text that the words seem ready to burst out of their boxes. Then, the text is sometimes centered, and sometimes left aligned. Consistency always helps give the appearance of considered, ordered decisions, which is what you want for a research poster. Stick to one format for all text!

The molecule between the two columns is distracting. It sits uncomfortably between the introduction and the data, but doesn’t clearly belong to either section. It’s also crushing up against those other sections.

There are two columns in the middle of the poster: “Log” and “Activity”. I am wondering if these are supposed to be one table? If so, they should touch, and not have a solid band of the background colour between them. Tables are generally not the best way to show data, and I wonder if there is any way to show that as a graph.

I am worried that the graphs at the bottom ones will be hard to see. They are on a coloured background, which reduces their contrast and visibility immediately. And the situation is made worse by the very fine lines used for the graph.