21 November 2014

The case of the missing critique

Regular readers might notice that a post that had been put up earlier this week is no longer available.

The blog post in question was a critique of a poster archived at Academia.edu. The poster was from a conference back in 2011. I thought the poster was worth analyzing, and I wrote a blog post about it.

Today, I got an email from one of the authors of the post asking me to take it down, for reasons that do not need exploring at this juncture. I was asked why this post was done without mentioning I had permission of the authors to use the poster. This is something I normally mention in my critiques.

Most posters are submitted to me directly by the person who made them, sometimes before the conference. They may have unpublished data, and so on, and are not (as far as I know) otherwise available to viewers outside the conference itself. So I ask people who email things to me if I can use them on them here on the blog.

In contrast, this poster was archived in a public forum online. To my way of thinking, this made it available for public comment. I know that “on the Internet” does not mean “do what you want” (see this great article by Alex Wild) but I did not see any particular language anywhere on the site limiting re-use. (The poster is no longer available, so I can’t check if there was any such verbiage anywhere.)

I had no reason to ignore a polite request, so I took down the post.

The moral of the story? Not sure. Maybe it’s about being careful about what you archive and how, and managing your digital footprint. Maybe it’s about being more careful in doing due diligence in contacting people who might be affected by re-use.

External links

Bugging out: How rampant online piracy squashed one insect photographer

13 November 2014

A design brief for conference posters

Professional designers are given a design brief from their clients. At first glance, a design brief might look like a simple set of instructions, but it’s a little deeper than that.

A good design brief talks not just about the nuts and bolts of a project, like deadline, budget, or size (“It has to fit on a standard piece of office paper”). Those can be in there, but a good design brief goes further. It includes a lot more about the goals of the project, the audience the project should engage with, and what the desired reaction of the audience is.

The instructions from most scientific conferences usually have some, but not all, of the elements for a good design brief for poster makers. Here is my attempt to flesh out a design brief for conference posters for the stuff they don’t put in the instructions.

Goals of a poster

Posters should get conference attendees talk to the presenter. Because attendees are busy, posters must grab attention, even if a potential reader is quite a long way from the poster. Similarly, posters should make an implicit promise to the reader that the gist of the poster can be grasped quickly.

Posters should also contain enough information that a person is able to read it and understand the main message.

Presentation setting

Conference posters are printed on paper and hung indoors, often under relatively dim artificial light that is not under the control of the presenter. They must be visible even under poor lighting conditions.

The large number of people walking around means that the lower part of the poster may be obscured, so titles must be high and large to be seen by as many people from as far away as possible.

Audience characteristics

Conference attendees are smart, literate adults who are busy and distracted by the vast amount of material in a conference.They are often walking at some distance from the poster.

A conference audience may have minor vision problems. Attendees range in age from 20 to 60 (or older), which means that some attendees probably need reading glasses for presbyopia. In some conferences, attendance skews towards greater numbers of men, which means a greater number of individuals may be colour blind, particularly red/green colour blind.

Values to communicate

Academics will generally want to convey an impression of rigor, thoughtfulness, thoroughness, and careful attention to detail. This can be done with humour or playfulness, as long as it never implies carelessness.

Colours and imagery


Colours should be visible to those who are colour blind. Many academics wish to have their posters reflect their institutional brands, which can be reflected in the colour palette of the poster.

External links

How to write an effective design brief
How do I write a good design brief?
How To Write An Effective Design Brief and Get The Design You Want!
How do you write a design brief?
Key information design agencies would love from their clients (Picture from this post)
7 Basics to Create a Good Design Brief


06 November 2014

Critique: The data flow dragonfly

Today’s poster is from Marianna Rapaport, and is shown with her permission. Click to enlarge!


Marianna writes:

The poster presents my masters thesis, the general area is programming language research.The only illustrations in my thesis are graphs and math formulas. I wanted to add some graphics to the poster that would attract people (and not scare them away with math). My dad told me that my graph looked like the wings of a dragonfly, so that's where that big insect comes from.

I would also like to acknowledge the invaluable help of my friend Erica Dufour. She helped me to arrange the text boxes and came up with the idea of the gray background that helps the reader understand the order in which to read the material. She also helped me understand how to use Adobe Illustrator and InDesign.

Finally, I used the same font as in this poster on which you also have a critique on your blog

I like this a lot. It’s clean, and has a strong visual impact. The dragonfly is a nice design touch. The use of the contrast colours orange and teal to highlight is consistent, and subtle enough not to be garish or overwhelming.

The one thing I question is the reading order. The "Result" box is not where I would expect it. Based on headings, I would go:

  1. Summary
  2. Intro
  3. Goal
  4. Problem
  5. Method
  6. Result

But based on its position on the poster, “Result” would slot in at position number 4, not 6. Marianna replied:

I agree that the reading order is still unclear. But I don’t even know what could be done about that without changing the whole poster layout.

Regarding the “Result” box, I read somewhere (maybe even on your blog) that it’s a good idea to put the results right in the beginning; in a way, it’s a replacement for the abstract. I thought that in my case, the results are in the beginning and at the same time in the end. But maybe that doesn’t make sense because it’s impossible to understand the results without reading everything else, so you’re right there, too.

Having the results up top, as here, is not horrible. The approach I might have taken would be to think of that top row as the “take home” messages, and the second row as being “for the aficionado.” The trick then becomes distinguishing the two.

The gray band on the second row signals this a little, but it might have been stronger if there was a second cue to signal that the second row was less important. For example, a slightly smaller point size for the text might have helped.

Alternately, perhaps using different way to highlight the “Results” box, instead of the same gray as the row below, would have broken the connection between them, and emphasized that “Result” was meant to stand on its own, as a conclusion. 


Still, the overall effect is quite lovely.

30 October 2014

Link roundup for October 2014

I don’t think I’d seen this resource on Giving Poster Presentations before. It’s part of a larger online resource on “English communication for scientists.” I think I’d remember if I’s seen this Jorge Cham gem from the front page before:


Elizabeth “Inkfish” Preston covers a paper that examines how a simple graph significantly increases the persuasiveness of an argument. And when I say “simple,” I mean very simple:


Another primer on how to get the most out of a conference from Mandi Stewart, which wins points for citing We Bought a Zoo:


My partner and I talk about having “five seconds of professional courage” when networking at conferences. Conferences are a great time to meet people, and unless you put yourself out there and introduce yourself, you could miss out on some great conversations. I love the movie “We Bought A Zoo” which is where having five seconds of professional courage came from. “You know, sometimes all you need is 20 seconds of insane courage. Just literally 20 seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.” Try it. Five seconds of professional courage.

This article on the importance of comics has some analysis of reading flow after my own heart. Hat tip to Siobhan O’Dwyer.



You too can learn the difference between a soft crop, a split crop, and a stickout crop in this post at the different ways you can crop an image by John McWade.

I also like McWade’s short reflection on how design can make life better:

Design is about more than whether something “works.” Lots of things “work.” A theater marquee with chipped paint and missing letters “works.” If the local strip mall has what I need, you could say its ugly plastic sign “works.” Each identifies my destination well enough to get there.

What they don’t provide is delight, inspiration, fulfillment.

Wired has a lovely profile on book cover designer Peter Mendelsund.  Book covers have some goals that are similar to conference posters: attracting passers-by, for instance.

On one level, dust jackets are billboards. They’re meant to lure in potential readers. For a certain contingent of the publishing industry, this means playing it safe. “The path of least resistance when you’re designing a jacket is to give that particular demographic exactly what they want,” Mendelsund explains. “It’s a mystery novel, so you just splatter it in blood, and put the shadowy trench coat guy on it, and use the right typography.” Familiarity, the thinking goes, will always sell something.
Mendelsund does not subscribe to this view. He’s said that he prefers an ugly cover to a cliche one(.)

One of Mendelsund’s better known projects is The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Here are some rejected ideas:


I have not seen the movie Idiocracy, but this post on making fake corporate logos is interesting just the same. Hat tip to Alex Jones and Amanda Krauss.

The Current radio show on CBC has been running a series called, “By Design.” It’s going to be running all this season. This series is not about graphic design, but is a wide ranging exploration of how we make things.

I’m months behind in bringing you this blog post on redesigning maps for the modern age.

If you’re finally ready to learn how to use a higher end graphics package than PowerPoint, try Vector Tutorials for Adobe Illustrator. Hat tip to Anthony Salvagno for this resource.

And today in type crimes, or “Someone did not read their directions closely enough”:



From here.

23 October 2014

Stretching out your title

People are used to tinkering with the vertical spacing of text; having to make a manuscript double spaced, for instance. But they are not as familiar with how to make text look good by adjusting the horizontal spacing.

John McWade reminds us of a useful tip about the spacing of type:


Text meant to be read at a distance – like the title of your poster – should be expanded a little!

Since most people are making posters in PowerPoint (despite my constant pestering for you to stop doing that), Let me tell you a couple of ways to do this in PowerPoint.

Select your text, right click it, select “Font,” and pick the “Character spacing” tab. That allows you quite precise control over the spacing:


There is also a “horizontal spacing” button in the “Font” ribbon. The drop down options for that one, however, are more general: “Loose” and “Very loose.”


Here’s a sample of how text looks expanded. “Loose” is a little more than 2 point spacing.


“Loose” might not be a bad setting to try for titles, and maybe headings, on posters.

After you’re done here, practice your horizontal letter placement skills by playing this kerning game.

External links

The unexpected typestyle of Ikea

16 October 2014

Critique: Astrophysics code

Today’s poster is contributed by Alice Allen, and is used with her permission. Click to enlarge:



She wrote:


Under 100 words on this poster... or so I will claim since the screenshots are there to illustrate the points! (Not counting the authors' names, I think the count is 89 words.) This poster is for an online resource that people at the conference are familiar with, and is to inform people of recent changes to the website.


This poster wins points for simplicity. It can be read with a few glances, which is a definite win for any conference poster.

I’m always curious to see what improvements people make on their own. After she sent her first email but before I replied, Alice sent along another iteration.


I think the changes you made for the second version are good ones. Making the title more prominent, and getting rid of the outline around the “Over 900 codes!” were both good moves.

I can see why the screen grabs were rotated as a design element. I’d be tempted to tinker with the amount of rotation. I might try bringing the central screen grabs a little closer to horizontal (though not normal straight up and down).

Tiny little typesetting detail. In the right box, the field “See also” is in quotes, but the links, “Previous” and “Next” are not in quotes. There might be a case for putting “Previous” and “Next” in quotes, too, for consistently. I’m not sure what a style guide would recommend; perhaps there is some subtle stylistic difference between a field and a link.

09 October 2014

Critique: Affective feedback

Today’s poster comes from Mary Ellen Foster, and is used with her permission. Click to enlarge...


I like the main body of the poster a lot. It’s clean, big, uses lots of graphics, and is well-organized. The one thing I would try would be to crop the middle photo, rather than having other pictures overlapping on top of it.

While I appreciate that there is very little text, this may have been pared down just a little too far. I can’t tell two important things:

  1. What’s the question?
  2. What’s the answer?

As a browser, I often want a take home message.

This isn’t helped by the weak title, which represents most of your communication effort. “Studying the effect of” in a title is bland and uninformative. Every academic thing is “studying the effect of” something. A question would be better, and an answer would be better still.

I’m always sort of surprised that people still try to incorporate institutional logos on their posters as often as they do, given how often they cause problems. This poster is a great example: every logo here weakens the poster.

The logo on the left causes problems because it is too close to text, and it messes up alignment of the authors with the title. That it’s a big dark block makes it draw too much attention away from the title and the authors. The logos on the right just look thrown together and messy.

Hiding among the logos is a QR code. This has a few problems, too. The QR code is high on the poster, which might make it inconvenient to scan, depending on how the poster is mounted. But more importantly: why should I scan it? What does the QR code lead to? It’s always good practice to tell people what they will get!

Related posts

Detective stories: “Whodunnit?” versus “How’s he gonna prove it?”
The epic logo post
Your title is 90% of your poster
Take me home tonight

External links