18 December 2014

Critique: The golden blogosphere

This poster comes from Joel Topf. Click to enlarge!


The idea of the layout is good. Having the text all concentrated in one short summary that looks like it can be read quickly may help viewers who want to skim. But some of this advantages are defeated because the poster is still extremely dense. For instance:

The address breaks the grid by curling around to the right of the “Introduction” heading. Those are too close. Each one is a separate element, and deserves its own defined space. Instead, the two sections are overlapping in space, and they will look better if separated.

A similar problem occurs with the bottom graph: its space is invaded by the graphs above. This is particularly noticeable where the “Total number of posts” graph (gray box) comes close to touching the blue data line in the graph below.

The text looks pretty brief, but wonder if it could be edited down even more. For example, I took this from 41 words:

Nephrology bloggers are rarely compensated and their writing is not usually considered part of academic production in regards to advancement. Without obvious advantages for the blogger, I thought that bloggers must thrive on internal enthusiasm and it may wane over time.

To 30:

Academic blogging is not usually rewarded in career advancement (e.g., tenure and promotion ). This suggests bloggers are intrinsically motivated, but this may wane if there are no extrinsic rewards.

The more you can edit, the more space you can open up.

I wanted a bit more guidance for all the data on the right side of the poster, so that I know what is being shown here. Some one sentence summaries next to the three main sections would be welcome.

The colours in the table are not explained anywhere. I am guessing “green”means statistically significant, and “orange” means... a decline in posts over time? Maybe that could be mentioned in the main text at the left.

The table is big and dense. Again, I wonder if it could be simplified, either graphically (first step: remove the vertical gridline!) or even removed. If I’m reading it right, some of the information in the table is repeated in the graphs to the right of the table.

The last line of the table - “Totals” - appears to be incorrect. It looks like most of those entries are means, not totals.

Also, the text mentions 30 blogs, but only 22 are plotted.

Where the QR code goes is a mystery. It’s a helps to tell people what they’ll get by scanning a code. Further, the bit.ly short link goes to the same site as the QR code. I suggest picking just one. I lean towards keeping just the QR code, because I have yet to see anyone type in that complicated alphanumeric short URL. But if both were left on the poster, I’d try to make the bit.ly URL the same width as the QR code.

Additional: Joel provides a well mannered response to my critique.

External links

Nephrology Blogosphere poster

11 December 2014

Wrap it up, I'll take it

I'm always on the lookout for re-use of posters, and Elizabeth Sandquist has a seasonal one:


04 December 2014

Critique: Sex models

Yes, I totally went for the gutter headline in introducing this poster from Amanda Whitlock. This poster is used with her permission. You can click to enlarge!


Amanda included this note in her email:

After reading your blog, I switched from using Powerpoint to Scribus and have become a huge convert and evangelist on its behalf.

I’m so pleased there is one less person in the world using PowerPoint for posters!


Amanda’s poster has a clean design. It starts with my favourite “hard to mess it up” layout: three columns, equal size.

I recently read an article that argued that anytime you overlay text on a picture, it should always be white text on top of the image. That message might be a good one for all poster makers. Especially when viewing this poster at a reduced size, I’m worried that the title (90% of your communication effort!) is barely visible. I tried a quick and dirty replacement of the black with white:



The edges of the text are badly pixelated because of the way I inverted the colours, but the title is more visible. Let’s try the same to the headings:


The difference is harder to see, but might be more obvious if made in the original document. The headings would also benefit from a bit of additional work to ensure that they are all evenly spaced. “Conclusions” looks closer to the bottom of its bar than “Results,” for example.

The same goes for the vertical alignment. A line that misses the letters in “Conclusion” hits letters in “References,” for instance.


While the poster has plenty of images and white space, it is a shame that the critical upper left corner is the least visually appealing part of the whole poster, with only text.

If you can’t see the title, and there is only words and data, it’s unlikely to gather any new readers who just happened to be walking by. While this poster will not make anyone cringe when they walk past it, they might just... walk past it.

27 November 2014

Link roundup for November 2014

November is the biggest conglomeration of posters in the world: the Neuroscience meeting. And there are always interesting poster-related tweets arising from that!

Here is a nice “Tips and tricks” for poster presentations blog post from Caitlin Kirkwood. She has obviously been to the rodeo that is neuroscience a few times:

(F)for those that appear in front of you haggard, with a glazed-over look in their eyes (the telltale signs of SfN-itis: too many posters, too little time), it is nice to have an abbreviated synopsis of your work ready.

Winner of “best new way to present a poster” (hat tip to MBF Bioscience):


Winner of “worst new way to present a poster” (hat tip to Jason Snyder):


Winner of “best new re-use of a poster” (hat tip to Rodrigo Braga):



Eric encapsulates how important the poster experience is to Neuroscience:


Feel naked without a poster tube. Thumb drives just don’t identify you as an #SFN14 attendee in the same way.

Jordan Gaines asks and interesting question about assessing your audience:

How do you like to assess someone's knowledge of your poster topic as you're presenting? Ask upfront, or read their body language?

The Cellular Scale has advice for poster audience members:

If you want a 5 min poster summary, ask for a 2 min one.

Neurd Girls ‏reports a crime to sfnpolice:

I’d like to report a criminal offense. Poster entirely in Comic Sans on bright purple background.

DrugMonkey reminds us of good design principles:

Font size people, font size. #sfn14 #oldeyes

Michael Carroll makes an observation on poster presenters:

Interesting seniority gradient within the poster rows here at #SfN14: students and postdocs at the posters, PIs and greybeards in the center

I’ve followed Neuroscience’s introduction of “dynamic posters” for some time now. Benjamin Saunders thinks people are still not making full use of the medium:

Seeing some better #SfN14 dynamic posters this year but most are still just a poster. On a video screen. Get it together people.

Jason Pipkin found one dynamic poster he liked:

Title, intro, and conclusions always visible while large central area used for displaying series of movies.

Then there was that flight out that was stopped by posters! Fear them! Fear the posters! (Hat tip to Joshua Burda.)

American Airlines flight grounded due to unruly poster-wielding SFN’rs!! So many posters!!!

Finally, a two part article by Erik Kennedy about designing user interfaces that has some good lessons for posters. I particularly appreciate rule 2:

(D)esign black and white first. Start with the harder problem of making the app beautiful and usable in every way, but without the aid of color. Add color last, and even then, only with purpose.

And rule 3:

If you want to make UI that looks designed, you need to add in a lot of breathing room.
Sometimes a ridiculous amount.

Rule 5 is particularly interesting, because it talks about text in a way I have never heard before, about combining emphasis (“up-pop”) with de-emphasis (“down-pop”). I think I might try this in some of my next posters.

This link goes to part one; this link goes to part two.

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.