08 February 2018

Critique: Sudden stop

Last week, I talked about the difference between gaudy and bold. Stacy Shield provides two examples of going bold in poster design. Click to enlarge!


Red, black, and white. Talk about a striking choice of colours. The limited colour palette gives this poster an almost “duotone” look:


It wouldn’t look out of place at a White Stripes concert:


Another poster from Stacy again showcases her strong sense of colour.


Stacy’s posters are not based on the same template, but are recognizably by the same person. It shows that you can develop a distinctive personal style in creating posters.

The colours are so strong and vibrant that they leap out at you. But they are selected carefully. There are not many colours; just three carefully chosen ones. They don’t look like an“all over the place” clash that can make a poster look gaudy.

I would like to see that same discipline that is brought to the colour choices also brought to the content. These posters feature a lot of text and small graphics. The posters would be even stronger if they had fewer words and bigger images.

Stacy has two tricks that almost hide the amount of text, though.

  1. She interspersed the text with lots of small graphics throughout the poster, so the impression of “big intimidating text blocks” is reduced.
  2. She changes the colours and size of the text, particularly in the spider poster. For example, the title has two colours and three font sizes. In the second column, “Explaining the” is smaller than “Motion of the Spider.” The words become a graphic element instead of a purely textual element.

The posters are well structured to make it clear what order they are read in. The first poster has strong bands of colour, with white diving lines, that make it clear to read across in rows. The second poster is not as clear cut, because it switches from reading across (“Background”) to reading down (“Methodology & Testing”).

You would be hard pressed to walk by either of these in a conference hall and not notice these posters. They command that you take a second look, which is critical in a conference setting. I’m still not entirely convinced I that would read the whole thing if the presenter wasn’t there, though.

If the presenter is there, you’re in luck. Having met Stacy at the last Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting, I will say that she is definitely worth talking to!

01 February 2018

Subtle, gaudy, and bold

Last week, I showed a sweet poster from Desi Quintans. Desi added a great question in his email that I thought deserved its own blog post:

I noticed that the posters that did well in real life were made with strong, almost gaudy colours. In particular, the ones with very large blocks of strong colour were quickly noticed compared to the understated ones like mine. How can one walk the line between elegant design and the reality of grabbing a person's attention in a room that's already visually and aurally noisy?

Let’s look as Desi’s poster again, just for context. Click to enlarge!


Desi calls this poster “understated,” which is an apt description. As I wrote last week, I like this power a lot, but I think Desi’s description is apt. You might also call it subtle. What are the characteristics that give it that look? (Click to enlarge.)


A lot has to do with the colour scheme. There are a lot of earthy tones, particularly up in the title. Even when using primary colours in the graphs, they are not saturated, intense colours.

The typography is a straighforward sans serif. It’s very readable, but there is nothing distinctive about it. Indeed, that is the point of many book typefaces: they are supposed to fade away so that you can focus on reading.

Now let’s consider what looks gaudy. Something like one of those unsolicited flyers you get in your mailbox would count:


The choice of colours contributes to the feeling of cheap. These are bright, primary colours that are hard to ignore.


But it’s not just bright colours. It’s the business of it all. There are so many things on the page! There are a lot of fonts, in a lot of sizes and colours.

This is one of the major factors that make so many academic posters look gaudy: too much stuff, too small, too crammed.

There’s the sense that everything on the page is screaming, “Look at me!” 

But the lesson from the above is not, “No bright colours.” Lots of great movie posters and magazine covers mastered the art of being bold without being gaudy, with no loss of their ability to command attention.

This movie poster has lots of bright blocks of colours, high contrast black and white shapes. But it looks classy, not gaudy.

A bold design has focus. It tries to do a few things, not everything.

Bold designs don’t necessarily use a gold font. There may not be a lot of words in such a design, but they can be set in typefaces that are exaggerated in some way. It could be narrow font, a cursive font, a wide font, an italic font, or an engraved font.


Bold designs use lots of space. There is no compulsion to fill every inch of the page with something.

Some designs mix elements styles. Here’s a movie I can’t wait to see:


And here is an alternate design:


The posters for The Shape of Water are both very subtle in their use of colour: the palette is limited, and the contrast is low. But it is also bold in how it focuses on a single, striking image.

Your poster should be bold, not gaudy. This means that you need to edit. You need to find, as much as possible, a strong image that can represent the major point you want to make. You need to give that image space around it to breathe.

Related posts

Critique: Bugs and beans

External links

The hand drawn journey of the ‘Shape of Water’ poster
Gaudy vs. Glam: Guide to Wearing costume Jewelry without looking tacky

25 January 2018

Critique: Bugs and beans

Desi Quintans was kind enough to contribute his EcoTAS 2017 poster this week. Click to enlarge!


This is a sweet poster that I like a lot.

It is not crowded; there is plenty of white space to separate everything.

The use of wide margins and a few subtle reinforcing lines make the reading order clear: you read this across in rows.

There are plenty of different colours. Even though there are lots of primary colours (red, blue, green, and so on), they are low key enough that the colours are not competing with each other. Instead, it feels very harmonious. The colours are used not just in the figures, but in the headings to make them pop and reduce the “greyness” of the text.

There is only one place where I feel there was a missed opportunity. Unfortunately, it’s a critical one. It’s the title.

The culprit is the photo background. The photo and the title are in the same orange to brown colour range. By making the text box transparent to let the photo show underneath, the contrast between the text and background is reduced so much that the title is practically camouflaged from a distance. Even usual tricks like making the title bigger or bolder would probably not be enough to make the title stand out from a distance. That being said, the title could stand to be both bigger and heavier.

I also love the idea of the one sentence take home underneath the title. Again, though, the photo background robs the idea of the win by hiding the text.

Speaking of the title, Desi wrote:

I regret the generic title of my poster, but it’s what I gave to the conference before I even knew what I’d be presenting. The conference materials were already printed by the time I came up with the poster. In hindsight, no one cared about my title in the printed abstract and I should have gone ahead and changed it anyway.

Desi’s point is a good one: abstracts are submitted so far in advance that nobody expects them to be reflect what is on the final poster perfectly. While there is a case that changing the title might cause confusion, I think people usually find poster by the numbers of the posterboard. Changing a title probably does not make it difficult to find.

Related posts

Your title is 90% of your poster

18 January 2018

Critique: Let’s compare

Today’s contribution comes from Richard McGee. Click to enlarge!


Before I get to the critique, Richard has a word of warning for us. Here he is presenting his poster. See any differences in the photo below compared to what is above on your screen?


For me, the right triangle and the bottom triangle are clearly different in the top image, but almost the same blue in the bottom one. Richard writes:

The printer I went to couldn’t print it to the size I wanted. It ended up being smaller than anticipated. Also, the colours looked different on printing than I had expected, based on the computer screen and my trial run on A4 paper.

This is why professional artists get proofs from the printer before going into production. Both the printer and artist should be sure that reproduction is as expected. Unfortunately, academics sometimes don’t have the time or money to go through a proofing stage.

This also means that the text, which is mostly readable, in the top version gets lost in the printed version. The darker colours are making it harder to pick out the black letters. This is a slight problem in the top version, particular at the bottom, but looks not so great in the printed version.

Richard continues:

I had a specific goal in creating my poster in having it stand out as a bit different and generating interest, so more like an advertisement rather than providing a synopsis of a paper.

I have noticed that students beginning a project give among the best talks and posters, because they are not burdened down by data. This is true of this poster, too.

Not having to fit in a lot of text let Richard to use a big, bold colour patches of colour. Because they are all in the same region of the spectrum, down in the blues and greens, the colours aren’t clashing and being an eyesore, which is always a risk with big blocks of colour.

And I like that those big bold blocks of colour are in triangles! The text blocks could have easily been three rectangles, but the triangles make this so much more distinct. It’s a good example of harnessing the power of diagonals, which Ellen Lupton talks about in her book How Posters Work.

I like the use of the “1, 2, 3” in the central circle to indicate the slightly non-standard reading order. If you’re going to use a slightly non-standard reading order, it’s only polite to guide the readers through it. I don’t think anyone would be confused by the order here.

It is a shame that the printer did not quite come through for Richard.

05 January 2018

The view from SICB 2018: "The effect of..."

I am in San Francisco for the annual Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting. At every meeting I go to, I am looking for trends in poster design, either good or bad. This year, I have noticed this on posters more than usual: poster titles that begin with some variant of "The effect of,,,"










And no, "Impacts on" is not better.


This is a bland, worthless phrasing for a title. Practically every scientific study is trying to find the effect of one variable on another. Surely you have some idea of what the likely effect is, either from your hypothesis or from your data, so why not tell us what the effect is? Do X increase Y? Does X decrease Y? Does X benefit Y or does X inhibit Y?

If I might ancitipate the excuse -- that the conference abstract deadline is so far in advance that we don't know what the results are yet -- my reply is, "Change the title of your poster." There is nobody checking to ensure that your abstract title and printed poster title match perfectly,

Comic Sans on posters census: one so far. Well done, SICB poster makers, for keeping that number so low!

28 December 2017

Link round-up for December 2017

One of the problems with free fonts is that they often don’t have special characters that are necessary for proper display of characters from other languages, or symbols.


Google Noto is a series of fonts meant to have almost every character (and emoji!) in as many languages as possible. When I scrolled down the list and saw, “Canadian aboriginal,” I knew they were serious.


I downloaded Noto Sans, and was impressed.

Not only are there over 30 variations of Noto Sans, including thin, bold, condensed, extended, and combinations thereof, going into “Insert symbol” to see the individual characters is eye-opening. You think you’re a typographic sophisticate for recognizing and using an interrobang? Noto has that, and an inverted interrobang. There are combinations of letters and accents and umlauts and currency symbols I have never seen before.

The range of options is, frankly, staggering. There is no font package that comes Windows standard with this many options. Buying a font package with this many options would usually cost you many hundreds of dollars.

And Noto fonts are all free.

You have no excuse to use a lower case letter x in place of a multiplication sign, or not put an accent in a co-author's name, ever again.

Hat tip to Robert J. Sawyer.

• • • • •

Asada and colleagues have a new paper reviewing effective graphs, particularly in the are of public health. They’re very big into dot charts. I’m not convinced by their representation of variation in dot charts, though.



Hat tip to Hilda Bastian.

• • • • •

Another hat tip to Hilda for spotting a timeline of data visualizations and graphs.

• • • • •

Tony Roepke has good advice:

Note to poster presenters...don’t go out for a cigarette break right before your poster session.

14 December 2017

Critique: Badger parasites

Today’s poster comes from Rachel Byrne. Click to enlarge!


Rachel was kind enough to respond to my request to share this, which I think is just a delightful work. It demonstrates the old adage that necessity is often the parent of invention. This wasn’t supposed to be a poster. Rachel explains (lightly edited):

To be completely honest I had applied for a talk at the 32nd Mustelid Colloquium held in Lyon, but they didn’t have space so offered me a poster. That’s when I began to panic. I am just one year into my project and did not have any real statistic analysis (which I think is often present on posters). Because my topic is very much about parasites, I also was a little worried that a bunch of behavioural ecologists and mustelid enthusiasts wouldn’t be that interested/familiar with parasitology jargon, so I might have to spend half my poster space on definitions etc.

As badgers live in underground burrow systems called setts, I wanted to use this as a way of laying out my poster. As I’m a keen (but not very good) artist I played around with the idea of drawing out my poster.

Author Dan Roam is often faced with people who say, “I can’t draw.” He replies, “Everyone can draw, even people who know they can’t.” I think Rachel undersells her skills. I’ve lettered comics by hand (Time City #5), and it’s not easy to get hand drawn text to look as as consistent and readable as Rachel did here.

Rachel continues:

I wanted it to be very clear and easy to read and, and very importantly, eye catching. I posted a preview on Twitter and it received a very positive response. I think at poster session the key is getting people over to talk to you and ask questions. I decided to include my twitter handle rather than my email address which I think demonstrates the move for a more social and communicative science community.


To quote Dan Roam relevant here is again, “Hand-drawn pictures make people smile, and smiling people think better.” And it’s hard not to look at Rachel’s poster and not smile. There is a charm to something so obviously personal.

In a time when computers are everywhere, and it’s easy to pop together a few pictures and text blocks in a computer file, something hand drawn is going to be remarkable. It will be worth talking about.

And people were definitely talking. Despite being started in a moment of slight desperation. Rachel’s efforts were rewarded with a first place prize poster!

Rachel may not go that route every time, though:

I definitely won’t be drawing every poster for conferences but I think if it’s a friendly and accepting group, it can be very fun!