18 May 2017

Lessons from “Stone Cold” Steve Austin: There’s just one bottom line – and it should be your title

Margaret Moerchen wrote:
Every poster needs an executive summary like this!


I appreciate the sentiment here. Summaries are good. Highlighting those summaries is also good. But this doesn’t go far enough.

Four bullet points is too much.

Let’s turn the mic over to “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, who famously pronounced:


Would Austin get the same reaction from the crowd if he said, “And those are the bottom four lines”?

Do we say, “Get to the points?” “Cut to the chases”? No. It’s singular in every case.

Here’s what I would suggest. Drill down those four points to one. Looking at the points above, I might suggest: “New techniques to measure carbon contents in vapor bubble,” or “Carbon content in the Hawaiian plume may be higher than in the MORB mantle.” Which I’d use would depend on whether I wanted to emphasize the techniques or the preliminary results.

Then, instead of sticking that one point away as a bottom line, make that one point the title of your poster. Don’t make people with 30 seconds hunt for your most important thing. Make it literally the first thing they read.


11 May 2017

Critique: Motor math

Not one but two posters are up today! This is fun, because I don’t often get to show people trying different things. Today’s posters are both from Chris Miles, a graduate student in mathematics. Chris writes:

I’m in a weird misfit field: mathematical biology, which seems to take certain aspects of each culture, like posters from biology. However, this leads to some culture clashes, like having a math-heavy poster. I guess my question is: how math-heavy is too math-heavy if math is the focus of the poster?

This is an excellent question, and reminiscent of a similar question I got about posters in the humanities. Let’s see.

Here’s Chris’s current poster (which you can click to enlarge):


I like this. Clean, straightforward. Colouring a lot of the text bring some visual interest.

There are a couple of elements that distract me.

The right side of the title bar. The logo on top of the names on top of the department affiliation are not harmonizing. I expect to see more space around the logo, and the right side of “diffusion” in the title over Christopher’s name also throws me.

I like the light dashed lines between the columns, which add a nice graphic touch in a text heavy poster. I’m not crazy about the horizontal lines between the sections, though.

For comparison, here is a poster Chris did from last year, about which he says, “It had a very different vibe (but I won an award for despite being not super thrilled with).”



This one suffers from the clutter, which is such an easy hole for new poster makers to fall into. The title is too small, text is too close to the margins, and there is just a sense of “too much stuff.”

On the plus side, this one does a bit better job of giving a viewer an “entry point” and conveying the topic at a glance. Since I am a biologist, I recognized the images of motor proteins and microtubules under the title and on the right column immediately.

I wonder if a line of microtubules might be used in the current poster to replace the dashed lines dividing the columns.

Overall, I think the new one up top is better that the one below. It’s simpler and cleaner. I’d be more likely to stop at it if I was browsing, because I would be turned off by the clutter of the old one. But, if motor proteins were my thing, I might be more likely to stop at the old one because I can more easily see what the topic is.

To get back to Chris’s question, “How much math-heavy is too math-heavy?” Not all math is created equal for poster purposes. For instance, I could write this on my poster:

y = ½x + 2

Or, I could put something like this:


Because I am not a mathematician, I don’t have a good sense of when you can show something visually versus when you need an equation. But equations alone are tough. The standing joke is that each equation loses half the audience.

Perhaps the key with a math heavy poster is to provide something on the poster that is not math, to give people a way in. I recall one math poster that had a lot of equations, but it also had a picture of one of the historical mathematicians whose work was the basis for the poster. It made the poster much more approachable. 

It’s hard to underestimate the value of having even just one thing on a poster that is instantly recognizable and does not need to be deciphered or explained. A photograph does that. Artwork or a single word might do that. A sentence, graph, or equation won’t do that.

04 May 2017

At a distance

Here are two posters from the same conference, photographed at roughly the same distance. (Identifying information has been slightly pixelated.)


This poster is not using its available space well. The board is half empty. But although I cannot read virtually anything at this distance except maybe the headings and title, I can see that there are bar graphs on the poster. I can see blocks of colour.


This poster is about the same size the one above, and suffers from not using its available space well. But it’s suffering in so many more ways. The content of the poster has faded away in the distance like disappearing into a fog. There are no blocks of colour; everything has turned to gray. You can make out that there are columns of text, but you can’t make out anything about the figures.

I am not sure either of these posters would pass the “arm’s length” test. But while both posters are far from ideal, the top one succeeds in that at least at these long distances, you can make out something that is recognizable.

The smaller and further away you can get from your poster and recognize something on it, the more successful your poster is likely to be. Even if that is just blocks of colour.

Related posts

27 April 2017

Link roundup for April 2017

I’ve seen a few creative re-uses of fabric posters before, but Rolf Hut is the new champion of poster recycling. I think Clicking to enlarge is mandatory to appreciate this in its full spendour.


This Netherlands site also promises to allow you to re-use your poster in equally creative ways.

Hat tip to Elizabeth Sandquist.

Hanna Isolatus ran a poll on Twitter that is relevant to the interests of this blog! Justify the text on a poster, or ragged right?


With just a 2% difference, clearly the battle is set to rage on. I personally have no strong preference for a poster.

Vivid Biology is a Twitter account from a scientific illustration studio of the same name that brings a strong graphics sensibility to illustrating biological facts. The approach that they bring is one that would work well for posters, too.


Hat tip to Dan Tracy.

20 April 2017

Critique and makeover: Weeding the library

Today’s contributor is Jodene Pappas. This poster is a bit of a break from the usual natural science that we see here on the blog, for which I am grateful. Click to enlarge!


My computer was not able to import the font correctly for the makeover I am about to show you. So the text does not quite represent what the author intended. But I wasn’t focused on the text, anyway. No, I want to talk about those arrows.

Arrows generally represent not only a failure of design, but a public admission of that failure. It says, “I know I screwed up, and that the order doesn’t follow the normal reading rules.”

The ethos of this blog, though, is to make things better. This means you work with what you have, and not always throw away the existing style.

My first concern is that the arrows are darker than almost everything else on the page. And the dark blue fill isn’t represented anywhere else on the eposter. This makes them stand out optically more than almost everything else on the page. The first step was to make the arrows lighter and harmonized with the other colours in the poster. I pulled the colour from the blue down in the left hand side.


The next things I wanted to address was the placement of the arrows. The arrows weren’t obviously aligned in any consistent pattern. I tried to center each arrow to something, but still had to give up in the top right most one, which pointed into white space.


Another little bit of colour harmonizing was in the text boxes. In the versions above, there is a thin light line, surrounded by a heavier, darker shadow. I make the two of them the same colour. I also wanted to make the shadows equally thick, but couldn’t figure out how to do it.


Finally, the placement of the arrows was still bugging me. The arrowheads weren’t consistently clearly past the outline of the box they were pointing to. I moved them so that the flat end of the arrow was flush with the text box it was emerging out of.


I turned the lines around the images from a black to the same light colour that surrounds the text boxes and outline the arrows.

Now, when you look at this poster, the emphasis is on the content, not how you navigate through the content.

Here, you can see the changes unfold:



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Don’t hold my hand

13 April 2017

Critique and makeover: Snake bite

Today’s poster comes to us courtesy of Catherine Chen, who was kind enough to share. Click to enlarge!


Catherine supplied this in an editable file, so the easiest way to go through this critique is to show how this poster could change.

The first thing that jumped out when I opened up the file is that title area. The longer I write this blog, the more interested I am in the titles of posters and how they are presented. Titles are just critically important. As I wrote last week (and before), nothing should compete with the title.

Here, your eye is drawn to that big blue band running across the top, and not the title. It is arguably the most optically dominant thing on the entire poster. I kind of like the idea of the bar as a separator, but it needs to be smaller, opening up the space around the title.


In addition to shrinking the bar,  I made other, less obvious tweaks.

I shortened up the institutional addresses. Will anyone need a zip code while viewing a poster? Rather than footnotes leading to institutional addresses every author, I just had one for the single person who was different than the others. The result is more white space that clearly separates the logos from everything else.

Speaking of the logos, I added a thin blue line around the top “Parkland” logo so that it was more clearly a rectangle. Now, it becomes more obvious when the two logos are the same width.

Next, I continued creating space. This poster has so much text that it looks like a manuscript draft rather than a poster. When I have the chance to do a makeover, I always try to preserve the original style of the poster, so I didn’t edit the text much.

The effect of so much text was made worse because everything was pushed far too close. I selected “View grid,” set a grid for one inch. Then I made sure everything was an inch from anything else. That is:

  • The text is an inch from the margin.
  • The columns have an inch between each of them.
  • The figures have an inch of white space left, right, top and bottom. Exception: when two pictures are parts of a single figure.Then you want them to be closer to indicate visually that they belong together.


At this point, I realized that some of the figures had arrow in them. I literally had not noticed them until I zoomed in for some other reason, which tells you those are too innocuous. The ones over the right hand images were were so low contrast (dark brown over black) that they were practically camouflaged. I made those white, and made them bigger.

I also added the “A” and “B” to the black figures on the right. I harmonized all the figure labels, making them the same font (Franklin Gothic Medium Condensed) as the rest of the text.

I also took out a lot of lines in the table.


I still wasn’t done with that title, though. I didn’t like that there was so much unused space at the top.  I upped the ante, and made it even bigger.

I also tweaked the spacing so the top of the letters in the title were aligned with the images on either side. The automatic “snap to grid” doesn’t always do it correctly, so sometimes you have to do it by eye.


I did a little editing to make the left column fit more comfortably in its space. I also made the text in the right column the same colour as the left.


I also tried the poster with the text justified.


The difference isn’t large, but it does emphasize that items are squared up in a way they weren’t before.

Here’s the transformation in animated form! Hopefully, this makes the impact of the changes easier to see.

06 April 2017

Critique: Fear of death

Today’s poster comes from Anthony Biduck. Click to enlarge!


This poster is unusual, because there are not graphic elements here. There is only text. This poses a challenge, because text blocks are not terribly visually appealing.

The good news is that the typesetting is clean. There poster is written in sentences and paragraphs. There is not an over reliance on bullets, with the couple of numbered lists making sense. I personally would prefer to have zeroes before the decimals in the results (that is, -0.36 instead of -.36) and conclusions (that is, 0.07 rather than .07).

I results in the table are listed in order of “strongest correlation to weakest correlation.” That some correlations are positive and some are negative confuses the ordering. Instead of the raw correlation, r, an alternative might be to use r2. This value is often reported, because it explains how much of the variation is explained by the factor at hand. It also happens to make all the values in the table positive.

There is not much colour, but orange and blue draw from the logo, and are nice contrast colours.

The one problem I have is the title placement. Placing it on the right de-emphasizes it. I will say again: the institutional logo is not more important than the title. Nothing should be more important than the title. This becomes even more true where there are no graphics to draw in a viewer. The title becomes your one and only shot at capturing passers-by. You cannot afford to bury the lede, as journalists say.

At the very least, the order could be flipped:


Now the title is in the place where a reader will look first. But even with the switch, the institutional logos is competing for attention. The title will benefit from being much bigger:



Now the title can be read more easily. I know some people are attached to their institutional logos, so here is a version that includes a logo in a more subtle location.


The logo used here is a transparent version grabbed from online. It has the same palette of blues with blues and a hint of orange, so still fits. A transparent version of the one in the original would fit the space better, though.

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Your title is 90% of your poster