24 September 2016

Avoid the tenuous touch

There are two good choices for placing objects on a page. You can separate them.

Or you can overlap them.

But it’s a bad option is to have two objects almost touching...

Or just barely touching.

Of course, it can be worse. Having sharp edges and round edges almost touching creates a discomfort to your eyes that you can almost feel. You’re just waiting for the balloon to pop.

You get the same effects with the rectangles you see more often on posters. Having objects very close, but with neither clear separation or overlap, feels much less comfortable

Than clear overlap...

Or distinct separation.

Unless you are going for visual tension, make a choice. Split them apart or have one cover the other. Don’t have any tenuous touches. To sum up:

15 September 2016

Critique: Dynamic relationships (of amino acids)

Inna Nikonorova is today’s kindly contributor, who let me share this on the blog. Click to enlarge!

The poster is clear and readable, but I do think it could be improved.

I like that the Introduction tries to provide a more organic look to some of the headings and images in it. But if you’re going to go that route, you have to commit to it. That weathered look isn’t anywhere else on the poster, so it looks a little odd. I would remove it to make the weathered paper and blackboard and the like to make the Introduction visually consistent with the rest of the poster. Of course, you could go the other way, and make the entire poster look more antique, but giving the rest of the poster that blackboard appearance will be harder and take longer.

I would generally try to widen the margins between the text and the boxes they are in. It looks like this is only have a fraction of an inch between text and line in some places. It’s particularly noticeable in the Literature Cited section.

Speaking of the Literature Cited, it is left aligned, as is the rest of the text in the poster. But because the text is so dense in the Lit Cited section, it makes the centered text in the Acknowledgements stand out like the proverbial sore thumb.

The INSPIRE logo isn’t centered in its box. Neither is the Rutgers logo, come to think of it, but because the Rutgers logo is an irregular shape, it’s less noticeable.

The mouse in the Methods might be flipped so it’s facing in, not out.

Related posts

Look into the poster: Gaze and graphics

08 September 2016

Reading gravity

Great minds think alike; fools seldom differ.

I recently learned that something I’ve called “the Cosmo principle” on this blog is an actual thing that proper designers talk about, except they have a different name for it. They call it “reading gravity.”

The picture above is sometimes called a “Gutenberg diagram.” Apparently it was given that name by newspaper designer Edmond Arnold (interviewed here, where he refers to the “Gutenberg principle”). I’m not completely sure about this; need to do some more reading.

What this image calls the “primary optical area,” I’ve usually called the “sex story,” because that’s invariably what occupies that position on every cover of Cosmopolitan magazine. The “terminal area” is usually what I’ve called the “take home message.”

What I find usually ends up in the lower left corner, or “weak fallow area” as its called here, are my methods section. And that’s fine, because those are usually only of interest to the afficiandos.

This diagram is worth thinking about as you lay out your poster. Is the most important stuff in the most important places? Too often I see critical material in the bottom, or the terminal area crowded up with references and acknowledgements. I’ve done the latter myself, but this diagram points out that the lower right corner is more important that I have sometimes given it credit for.

Hat tip to Heather Sears.

External links

The Gutenberg Diagram in Web Design
Understand how you can double the effectiveness of your publications in one simple move!
Reading gravity goes out the window
Getting back to basics with Ed Arnold

Picture from here

01 September 2016

Critique: Neutrino topology

Physics is not the best represented academic field on this blog, so I was pleased to get this submission from Paola Ferrario, who was kind enough to share this with readers of the blog. Click to enlarge!

I like many things about this poster.
  • The typography is clean.
  • The big central circle attracts the eye and breaks up the monotony of rectangles.
  • There aren’t a huge number of words.
  • The margins between all the elements are comfortable.
  • There are pictures of real objects.
  • Logos are mostly kept down in the inf print section.
  • There is a good use of bright colours to highlight headings.
I have one major problem. I know where to start reading the poster. I know where I should end up when I finish reading the poster. What I am supposed to do between those two points is completely baffling to me.

The text in that big central circle is particularly baffling. That it is set against a different shape and colour provides a visual cue that suggests it isn’t part of the main text. It looks like a “callout” that you are either supposed to read first, or that might be an aside that you can dispense with altogether.

One way that might improve the reader’s plight without restructuring the entire poster is to be explicit about what order the sections are supposed to go in. Here, I’ve added some numbered bullets to sit next to each heading. I used the eyedropper tool to match the colour. I was not sure what the typeface on the poster is, so I used sans serif numbers from Erler Dingbats

Adding the numbers the quick way I did means the headings are not centered correctly. And this may not be the exact order Paola intended, but those concerns are easily fixed if you have the original file to tinker with.

25 August 2016

Link roundup for August, 2016

Design is about making decisions. Here’s a good look at how different decisions about the same numbers can give you dramatically different maps:

Hat tip to Justin Kiggins.

One of the problems with a long-running blog like this is that I can’t remember if I’ve linked out to this series of blog posts on data visualization before or not. I am quite certain that I have not mentioned they are all collected in an affordable ebook. And there is also this list of what students find hard about making visuals.

Someone on Quora asked what makes for an engaging scientific poster. Warning: contains me.

There was a dreadful op ed in The Guardian about being a serious academic and how social media gets in the way of that or something. Anyone who claims to be “serious” today is setting themselves up for being lampooned for self-importance. See the #SeriousAcademic hashtag on Twitter for reactions, and Emily Willingham’s riposte. Janice Geary’s reaction, though, gave me pause:

How is it that social media is controversial for the #seriousacademic, but somehow we all still make posters like they accomplish something?

Obviously, I have a horse in this race. I will argue to Janice that posters can accomplish things. My best example is how being in a poster session led to co-organizing an international symposium. I would welcome other examples! How did you get things done in a poster session?
Now, a bit of summertime fun.

If you were one of the many who dug Stranger Things on Netflix, you will be pleased to know you can tap into the power its pastiche here.

There are some limitations. It seems to stall out at five letter words for that second line. “Posters” was apparently too long for a second line. Still fun. Hat tip to Doc Becca.

Today’s demonstration of the power of proximity in design comes courtesy of this unfortunate pairing of advertisements:

Hat tip to Andrew Bloch.

18 August 2016

Scott McCloud’s “Big triangle” and poster design

Posters are a visual medium. But not everything is equally visual. A picture of a real object is very visual, and the best thing to have on a poster. A scatter plot is less visual. And text is the least of all.

I was thinking about how I might make that point, um, visually, and I suddenly realized that I was just recreating one side of Scott McCloud’s triangle from Understanding Comics.

If you have not read Understanding Comics... oh, how I envy you. You have that to look forward to. It is a wonderful book. Even if you are the sort who thinks, “Ugh, superheroes,” get over it, read this damn book, and have your consciousness expanded. It is an undisputed classic book.

Here’s a except relevant to the matter at hand:

And that’s the point I was trying to make, except McCloud did it better over twenty years ago.

Received information is immediate; perceived information takes effort. This is why nobody likes posters with too much writing. It takes effort that, in a busy conference setting, nobody wants to give. And that you should not feel entitled to.

McCloud calls this left to right gradient a change in “iconic abstraction.” It forms one side of a triangle that he uses as a guide to the universe of visual possibility. McCloud explains his big triangle on his webpage here. (But the explanation in the full book is better!)

Here are three common elements of academic posters placed on McCloud’s triangle:

Text has great meaning, but it’s perceived information, particularly big blocks of text.

Graphs are visual, but are often abstract. So they move up along the abstraction side of the triangle, though they are not at the top.

You want to try to push as much as you can towards the bottom right corner of the triangle. You can move text to the left by writing less of it (remember, there are gradations along these axes). Show pictures if you possibly can.

External links

Scott McCloud
Undertstanding Comics (Amazon page)

11 August 2016

Lurkers and claques

Most of the readers of this blog are lurkers. They read, but they don’t feel obliged to make a comment, or send me a tweet, or email, or anything else. And that’s fine. I’m a lurker in many online spaces.

Some poster viewers are lurkers, too. They will see your poster during the poster session, and they are interested, but they will not approach you. Instead, they will often wait until you are giving a tour of your poster to someone else. Then, and only then, will they walk up and casually listen over the shoulder of the person you are mostly talking to.

I only learned about this during the last #SciFund Challenge poster class. Several of the class participants admitted that this was their poster viewing strategy. It’s understandable. Not everyone is comfortable walking up cold to someone they’ve never met before, and saying, “What’s to learn here?” (This is usually one of the first things I say to a poster presenter.)

What can you, as a poster presenter, do to reach out to the lurkers? First, be aware of your surroundings. Keep an eye out for someone on the edges, listening over the shoulder. If you see that person, make an effort to turn to them, engage them in conversation. Say something like, “This is my poster. Please let me know if I can answer questions. Or would you like a run through?”

But I have an even more cunning plan.

At a play one time, I was talking to one of the crew about how different the play felt depending on the mood of the audience. A big, enthused audience made so much difference. I commented, in what I thought was a joke, “It almost makes you want to hire people to show up, sit in the audience, and applaud.”

“Oh, they do,” she replied matter of factly. “It’s called a claque.”

Instead of waiting for people to walk up to your poster, find yourself a claque. You don’t need a big claque; you probably only need one person. You don’t need your claque to cheer and applaud, but just someone who is clearly listening to an explanation of the poster. Have that person at your poster to give the lurkers someone to eavesdrop on.

Your listener might be someone you know from your department, but not your lab. Ask someone you met earlier at the conference if they can come by your poster. Get your boyfriend or girlfriend or best friend to hear the tour of your poster a few extra times.

While posters are supposed to be “social objects” to facilitate conversations, having people around can act as an even more powerful social cue. If someone else is already there, it lowers the barrier for everyone else to walk up.

Plus, nothing succeeds like success. If people see a lot of viewers at a poster, they’re all the more likely to be curious to see what the poster is about.

Statue pic from here.