25 April 2013

Link roundup for April 2013

Hat tip to Matt Thompson for spotting this comic:

An interview with Amanda Cox on data visualization. Cox is the graphics designer for the New York Times, which has a reputation for fine graphics. Lots of very interesting ideas here. For instance:

The ability to ask good questions is really what we start with. I come from a statistics background, and I’m finding statistics students’ portfolios are crazy weak compared to the computer science students, even though they’re playing with the same problems. I think it’s because comp sci students are encouraged to play, whereas stats majors it’s, “here’s your rule book, now make things.”

Don’t do this. Logo fails. Each one makes an interesting study: can you figure out why they failed?

Seth Godin talks about rules for public things. To sum up, with my comments in parentheses:

  1. The more often a device is used by first-time users, the more standardized the interface should be. (Most academics at a conference are early career researchers.)
  2. Who gets left out is the most important question. (No poster is meant for everyone. Also, think about people with less than perfect vision.)
  3. The best interface is no interface.

The Scholarly Kitchen has an interview with Michael Bierut about type. It includes this bit about science:

Q: The Higgs Boson — perhaps the most important scientific discovery of the past 50 years — was announced via a PowerPoint deck that used the Comic Sans typeface extensively. Why do you think the scientists chose this? Was it a wise choice?
A: Well, as I understand it, the scientists at CERN were actually surprised that people commented on this. Reportedly Fabiola Gianotti, the coordinator of the CERN program to find the Higgs Boson, was asked why she had selected Comic Sans. She simply said, “Because I like it.”

Dennis Eckmeier provides a nice examination of the shortcomings of the standard bar graph.

Elizabeth J. Petro tweeted how to put a poster away (snipped):

Just observed an incredibly clever poster rolling method: leave one side attached to board while rolling; then detach.

Oh, and while I have talked about the usefulness of QR codes here on the blog, even I have to admit this post kind of has a point:

21 April 2013

Critique: antifungal drugs

The call came out on Twitter:

presenter wants feedback on layout of poster. Thoughts?

The tweet contained a link to this picture (click to enlarge):

The image size prevents a more detailed critique, but I sent back links to four posts here on the blog.

Abstract abolition: I put this one first, because just days before, I had done a critique where the main pathway to improving the poster was getting rid of the abstract. The abstract here is chewing up about 10% of the main text for no good purpose.

The epic logo post: The institutional logos make me cringe. These huge slab serif logos bookending the title completely overpowers the title, which is barely readable in the photo. A logo should never, never be more important than the title.

The data prison: Dense tables are the enemy of attracting viewers. I continue to be surprised by the fact that nobody seems to notice how journals lay out tables, with only a few horizontal lines.

Should your first presentation be a poster?: I provided this as an example of the problem of too much text. (I could have also used this post.)

As a bloggy bonus link, I add:

Boxism: This particular poster isn't bad, because at least the boxes are only one set deep. Boxes around just the columns would be an improvement over every single item on the poster.

And I don’t know what that bar over the three righthand columns at the top is doing.

That said, it appears the reading order is clear, and I also like the consistent colour scheme.

Hat tip to Biochem Belle for bringing this to my attention.

18 April 2013

Critique and makeover: atlases

Today’s poster comes from Justin Ducote, who was kind enough to give me permission to show this poster. Click to enlarge:

Justin made with a PowerPoint template, and sent me the original file. This made it easy to do a fast makeover. I opened up the file, shuddered a bit at the vast amount of text, and went at it with two major goals in mind.

  1. Fewer words.
  2. Bigger words.

It was easy to hit those goals. First, I removed the abstract (goal #1). Remember what abstracts were created to do: to summarize an article when you couldn’t read the rest of the article. Abstracts make no sense when the “rest of the article” is on the same piece of paper.

The abstract was chewing up a fifth of the poster. Removing that abstract gave lots of room to maneuver on the left side of the poster. I made the head shots as big as I could, as they’re the most recognizable and attractive graphic on the poster.

Originally, the headings measured 25 points in size and the main text was 23 points: almost indistinguishable in size. I made the headings 44% bigger (goal #2), increasing them from from 25 point to 36 points. Similarly, the main text got 21% bigger, moving from 23 to 28 points.

Having said goal #2 was to make words bigger, it might seem contradictory at first that I made some of the print smaller. I shrunk references and figure legends by 22%, down to 18 points from 23.  This allowed the main text to fit, and it created a visual hierarchy. Instead of two text sizes that were almost the same size, there are three text sizes that are all distinctly different, clearly signalling their relative importance.

The right side of the poster required only a little more finessing. I reduced the contact information, and cut out one phrase in the Discussion to make the text fit.

I rearranged the title and the logos. The logo bookends were forcing the title to be off-centered. Given the logos were so different in proportion, the simplest solution was to embrace the asymmetry and put the title on the left. I could make the title bigger by removing the logos entirely, but I wanted to work with the original style as much as I can.

The University of California logo is obviously informing the colour palette of the poster, so I thought, “Why not just go all the way with it?” Originally, the scatterplots on the right had the only red on the poster. The revision uses blue and gold, like the rest of the poster.

Additional: Radical_Rave on Twitter offers some more suggestions.

Related posts

The epic logo post
Abstract abolition!

11 April 2013



This is one of the most common problems with academic posters. “Clutter is a failure of design,” as Nancy Duarte wrote in Slide:ology. The good news is that you don’t have to know that much about design to fix this problem. All you need is one guiding principle.

Take out the trash.

Whether in a room or on a poster, trash stinks. Trash is the excess, the non-essential, the old stuff past its prime. Clutter is often just an accumulation of trash that people haven’t categorized as trash yet.

In a poster, trash is the long blocks of text nobody’s going to read. The institutional logos. The abstract. The 3-D perspective effects in your bar graphs. The nested boxes around every individual piece of the poster.

The art of cleaning is about making decisions about what you need and what you don’t. Once you think hard about what is essential, cleaning up your poster becomes much easier.

And as the caption to the picture above says, “If you have the right attitude, even taking out the trash is fun.”

Top picture from here; second photo by Ed Yourdon on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

04 April 2013

Poster plagiarism problems pester Purrington persistently

One of the best websites for conference poster advice was created by Colin Purrington. At the end of last month, he tweeted:

I accuse company of plagiarizing. They respond by suing me. Retweet if you think they are bullies.

I will let Colin pick up the story from there on his own blog.

Of course, the (poster advice) page is on the Internet so people plagiarize me. ... I got the ultimate response, from The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research, Inc. in Georgia (I’ll paraphrase): ”No, we won’t comply…and instead we will accuse you of plagiarizing us.”

Retraction Watch is also covering the story, with this editorial comment:

(W)e’re troubled by the heavy-handed approach here. Setting aside the question of who has true ownership of the words and ideas, is it really necessary to involve the services of an expensive attorney, who probably billed his client some bucks simply to ignore our two voice mail messages, to work this thing out?

For the record, while it can be hard to find, this blog has a Creative Commons license. Use anything here you want as long as you give me credit, and don’t sell it.

Update: Purrington has no heard feelings, and wants to become the company’s next CEO.

External links

The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research, Inc.
Plagiarism spat over scientific poster prep advice escalates to legal threats