17 April 2014

Critiques: Newtown and white noise

This following two posters come from a contributor who has asked to have identifying information removed from these posters. The creator of these wrote:

Coming from a design back ground, research posters have somewhat astounded me.

I think you can see the design sensibilities in these. There’s a lot more thought to typography, colour, and layout than I usually see (or do myself!. First, we have a neighbourhood poster that pulls off some sophisticated grids (switching from 2 column to 3 column layout), has good use of icons, and interesting type choices.


I would be a little concerned if this was hung in a conference session where the light was low. Some features, like white text on the light blue background, might wash out if it was in dim lighting.

The next one is notable for me because I always find “portrait” posters (taller than wide) tricky. This one uses colour to make the reading order, in bands, clear.


My concern would be that there is a lot of small text there. I would be deterred from stopping at it because of that. There’s also a cyan line on the right side that I can’t figure out if it was placed there deliberately, or is some sort of glitch in the image.

15 April 2014

Guest post at The Conference Mentor

The Conference Mentor is a blog devoted to conference organization.  They asked me a few questions about presenting posters.

I talk about why posters are a tool for democracy and talks are elitist; paying attention to those around you; and some pros and cons of PowerPoint.

Read the interview here!

External link

11 April 2014

Time flew! The (belated) fifth anniversary


Whoops! I missed it!

I have had my head down doing a lot of technical academic writing. I completely forgot about the fifth blogiversary of Better Posters at the start of March!

It is a little hard to fathom that I’ve already been trying to make conference halls more beautiful, on poster at a time, for half a decade.

That I have made it five years, and kept the “one post a week” schedule steady throughout that time, is thanks to the readers of this blog. It’s my readers who convinced me I am doing something helpful here, and have given me lots of fodder to blog about. Thank you!

Picture by Gerry Dulay on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

10 April 2014

Critique: Sea otters

Jessica Hale tweeted this poster (click to enlarge) for the 2014 Northwest Student Society for Marine Mammalogy annual meeting with a request to make it, and I quote, “suck less”:


I tweeted these suggestions back to Jessica, which I have slightly elaborated on here.

A good design practice is to put things where the reader will need them. With only one reference, why not put it where the reader encounters it, in context: on the left column of text, instead of at the end of poster?

The “point of need” principle also means keeping related objects together. I like text describing results directly above or below figures, rather than all figures in one column. See this post for another example. Similarly, the statistical results could be put in the white space of the graphs, or in the caption, rather than in separate text in the results on the right, at some distance from the graphs.

Try removing the bullet points, and use normal sentences and paragraphs instead. PowerPoint, despite its name, often handles bullet lists fairly inelegantly, with strange indents.

Maybe the graphs could have same light blue background with no lines around them, so they would match the text boxes. This would mean picking the right colours for the graphs to match the blues. The figure in the left column might be a little more tricky to harmonize, but would be worth considering if it could be done.

Are the columns the same width? The right one looks narrower.

If you leave figures in central column, maybe you could consolidate the text boxes in the right and left columns into one box, not 2-3.

I wonder if you could have a stronger take home message. “Different otters are different” seems less memorable than you might like.

Try bolding everything you’ve underlined. As in, bold, instead of underline, not in addition to.

In a species name, “sp.” should not be italicized (see last bullet point under “Results: Season”).

03 April 2014

Text wrapping in Publisher, or, “Why are you still using PowerPoint for posters?”

Alexis Rudd made the poster below in PowerPoint.


But Alexis wanted something else to make posters. I asked if she had Publisher, often bundled with the same Microsoft Office package that contains PowerPoint. She did.

A problem with the poster above (similar to this one) is making sure elements sit nicely next to the curves. Just to give an example of how Publisher does this, I knocked out this example in a couple of minutes:


Here’s what I did. Inserted a text box with some dummy text. I inserted a picture on top of the text, and Publisher automatically flowed the text around the picture. The order is important; text won’t flow around objects underneath it.

I cropped the picture to an oval shape, and moved it away from the middle of the column. Right clicked the image and picked, “Format picture” and selected the “Layout” tab. Then I selected “Tight” as the wrapping style. And you see the results above.

It is still not on a par with pro typesetting; the large text size is creating some uncomfortable gaps. The text is ragged right; some of the jags can be smoothed out by justifying it:



Still not pro level, mainly because I can’t find any way to adjust the distance the text sits from the picture. For rectangular pictures, you can use “Square” wrapping style, and that lets you adjust the distance the text is from the object very easily.

But try doing something like that in PowerPoint at all. You will tear your hair out. Then...



Related posts

No more slidesters, part 2: Three Publisher tips

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!