08 December 2016

Critique: Epigenome reorganization

Today’s poster comes from Corey Duke. His Neuroscience poster got lots of love when he posted it on Twitter. (In flagrant violation of Neuroscience meeting rules, I expect.) Click to enlarge!


Corey generously shared a lot of commentary on creating this poster. He wrote:

In the work we present here, we put a great deal of thought into determining exactly what stories we wanted to highlight. When dealing with large data sets, there is a delicate balancing act in trying not to overwhelm or detract from the larger broader story lines, while still presenting the interesting findings that are more “in the weeds”. With audiences at meetings like Neuroscience being so broad in background and knowledge, our general goal with this poster was to strike that balance, to give brief captivating broad overview presentations, particularly to those less familiar with the field, while still presenting the more detailed findings that experts would perhaps find most interesting. Although it is overwhelming at first glance, I believe we were able to achieve that here, and in a way that we found alluring.

With all of that in mind, we chose to build the poster around the large circular plot we present in the middle (a circos plot), which shows the specific location of the genomic changes we were interested in across the genome. We wanted to blow it up to emphasize just how robust the changes we observed were, and to highlight some of the interesting analyses we performed in the middle of the circos plot. Because it was so large, we were able to add quite a bit of detail and make it intricate without fear of it being too small to read or pick out. It also became quite fun, as attendees could search for genes they knew out of the ones we highlight in the middle, and follow them down to the bubbles to learn about what they were doing. This was much more captivating than for instance presenting gene lists in a table, etc. Although I’m not always a fan, once we tried the plot on it we fell in love and had to go for the solid black background.

In general, I avoid posters that are walls of text, and we tried to minimize it here. Because we didn’t have much of it here though, aspects of the poster would have been difficult to understand were I not there to present it. I really like our methods section diagram, as it was simple, straightforward, and easy to understand and refer back to as I presented, which really helped to keep the larger picture in mind as I went through our results. I also think all the circular data presentations go beautifully together. We had another earlier version of this poster where all of the data is represented through circular plots, and the way it all came together was stunning. In the end, we elected to swap that out for the plots on the right side though, as we thought that told a few more interesting arcs than the circles.

We made the plots using several software programs and several of our own lines of code, but we put it all together in Adobe Illustrator. Overall, we’re very happy with how the poster turned, and everyone seemed to love it. I had 3 different run-throughs depending on the audience: 2 mins, 5-6 mins, and 10 mins. I think being able to cater the presentation so readily to the audience’s interest, background, and attention span was appreciated by all, and allowed for many people to be drawn in who were from different backgrounds. Because the poster was so aesthetically pleasing, we drew quite large crowds at Neuroscience. When you devote so much effort to the science, it’s unjust not to devote yourself to the presentation as well.

Hat tip to Caitlin Vander Weele.

01 December 2016

“Eye protein”: Lessons from giant monster movies


I recently got the chance to rewatch one of my favourite movies of the last few years on Blu-ray: Pacific Rim. It has a fantastic commentary track by director Guillermo del Toro. There is a lot of interesting stuff in the commentary (for a film buff like me, at least), but I was particularly struck by how well he articulated some points I try to get across on this blog all the time.

1. Design is all about making choices. When you listen to the commentary, you soon realize that nothing on the screen – nothing – is there by accident. Everything is a the result of a careful, deliberative process (my emphasis).

We designed everything in this movie and patches in the shirt and uniforms. We designed the banners, badges, all the advisory and doors. We designed the Jaegers to the minimum details. You know, we designed the Jaegers so that if you zoom in into the controls, you would see electrical discharge warnings. You would see ladders; you would see places where you would connect. Engineering this amount of detail mechanically, the amount of detail in design is staggering. We spent about a year texturing this world. And the accumulation of that mosaic of details design-wide gives you the sense of a real world.

People think that world creation, movie, for example, is big gestures. But it is not. It is all these small details. Look at the markings; look at the vehicles that open the doors; look at the banners and this marking, the crawlers that move the robots. Everything is full of detail. We design these. Look at the bomber art on the chest. Gipsy Danger, this robot is designed to resemble a war plane from WWII.


So we have big riveting; we have the majestic lines of article building in New York. We gave the gait of a gunslinger of western fighter. Each of the robots has a personality and Gipsy has that strong personality of gunslinger out of a duel, sort of John Wayne gait.

2. Design isn’t about making this look pretty. Too often, design is derided, particularly by academics: “Serious people care about the content, and don’t care about eye candy.” I love del Toro’s riposte (my emphasis):

It is very important for me to not just design for design, not to create eye candy but to create eye protein. Because I think that 50 per cent of the narrative of a film is submerged in the audiovisual details. And you are not doing this for doing this just because it looks cool. You are actually doing it for a narrative reason.


It is important, for example, to see the two brothers are in white. And we are going to stain this white with a color that I am very careful to use in my design, sparingly, which is red. Red is very fundamental in this film to be used carefully as I will explain it later. It becomes vital for the story of another character. And basically it is going to symbolizing the way of life.

So we stain the white suit of the pilot with red. It is fundamental, it is very dramatic moment. ...

Everything is telling you the story. They are not just aesthetic choices, they are narrative choices. For example, look at this sequence [Fight between Gipsy Danger and Knifehead - ZF], and you realize that it is not lit like a normal movie sequence where everything has fill light and key light. It is mostly lit with the light of the Jaeger lighting the kaiju. Listen to the sound track, there is no music. Look at the way we are, just when the light of the Jaeger hit the kaiju, you see the kaiju. But if you don’t, you are almost in the darkness. We break the line of the water. We stain the lens with water. We deliberately put “mistakes” into shots that are very expensive and very elaborate. Why? Because it is (not only) an aesthetic choice, but also a narrative choice.


I don’t want to make the narrative, regular narrative CG movie that every shot looks super cool. I want to get in the way. I want to give you reality. Stain the lens with water, have error on the operation of the camera, make the images obscured by water, by fog, by… later in the movie, obscured by the compensation in the lens.

And del Toto gets all these points in during the opening scenes, before the title of the movie even appears on screen! del Toro has the advantage of working with a team of creative people to help him realize his vision. But your advantage is that you’re just making a single poster, not a two hour movie. You can use some of the same principles that del Toro does.

External links

Pacific Rim Director’s Commentary by Guillermo del Toro

24 November 2016

Link roundup for November 2016


The posters up for the National Science Foundation’s annual Vizzie awards make for an interesting gallery. Some nice work there! Vote for your favourite!


Every panel in the figure above shows the same data. It’s a nice example of the choices you have to make in the design process, from Rousselet and colleagues. They are also the latest to fire salvos against bar graphs, with neuroscience being their main target:

Unfortunately, graphical representations in many scientific journals, including neuroscience journals, tend to hide underlying distributions, with their excessive use of line and bar graphs.


Your colleagues in Human Resources are making posters, too. Check this guide for making posters for Human Resources procedures.

I disagree with the final advice of, “Start with a template,” though. To me, that leaves too many decisions in the hands of other people, and they may not be good ones. How many below par PowerPoint decks have we sat through because people just grabbed whatever template was there?

Hat tip to Sarah McGuire.

I’ve been on a social media diet, so I don’t have as many poster related goods from Neuroscience 2016 as I sometimes do. But:

Fabric posters still don’t look as sharp as paper, according to Anne Martin:

I’ve yet to see a fabric poster that isn’t fairly wrinkled.

 Elizabeth Sandquist gave us this haunting image of a poster graveyard:

17 November 2016

Critique: Making enzymes

Today’s contribution come from Ian Haydon, who is kind enough to share it with us. Click to enlarge!


Ian writes:

The attached poster won best in show at my departmental retreat last week. I think why this took best poster was that two of the judges commented that I “told a nice story” (at least when I talked them through the poster, not clear it's as evident as a static document)

I designed the entire thing in Google Slides.

I think that makes Ian’s poster a first. I don’t think I have ever shown a poster made in Google Slides on the blog before. Ian wrote:

I love Google’s web apps. I make all my presentations in Slides and use Docs for all word processing so I’m quite comfortable with the controls. They offer all the essential features I’d use in fuller apps like Powerpoint/Keynote/Word, plus they cut out all the junk fonts and themes that I’d never use anyway. The ability to access all my media from any device is a huge plus. The collaboration tools are also top notch. I shared this poster with labmates in comment-only mode to get feedback before printing, for example. And Google apps never crash on me.

The only trick to using Google Slides to make a poster in is setting up the slide size. File > Page Setup > Custom. This should be done before you do any work, because changing it later will cause everything to scale to the new slide size.

Once I am happy with the final poster design, I save it as a giant PDF and print that.

This poster is built on a solid foundation. It’s a three column layout with a clear reading order, and everything is big enough that it can easily pass the “arm’s length” test. The colours are consistent and relaxed.

I appreciate that the institutional affiliations in the title bar are widely spaced. That makes it easy to match the subscript behind the author’s name with the institution.

My main concern is with the amount of white space on this page. Everything fits. Nothing is touching, but nothing feels comfortable, either. It feels like:


For comparison, standard letter paper (8½ × 11”) usually has about a one inch margin. If this poster is shrunk down to about that size, 7½ × 10”, the margins would be something like an eighth of an inch. When we are so used to seeing documents with larger margins, tiny margins look weird, no matter how well organized everything is within them. I would try shrinking major elements of the poster by 90-95% to provide those wider margins.

I’m never a big fan of logos bookending the title. But the title here is short, at least, so the logos are not chewing up room the title needs. But my objection to having the logos in the title is compounded a bit by the right one, the stylized “P,” being repeated down in the right corner. Putting two logos down in the corner doesn’t quite work. First, one is left aligned, while the other is centered, creating some visual tension between them. Worse, the two don’t line up:



Some of the colours used to highlight phrases in the text are a bit cryptic. The colours seem to be referring to elements in adjacent images, but I’m always not sure how. In the example below, the highlighted gold text refers to “missing side chains,” but the yellow in the diagram below (the closest visual match) seems to show alpha helices that are present, not side chains that are missing.


This may reflect my own ignorance more than it represents a design flaw, however.

10 November 2016

Critique: Establishing axons

Today’s contribution was tweeted out by Christopher Leterrier. Click to enlarge!


This poster promptly attracted compliments, and Christopher asked for my take.

This poster has one obstacle standing between it and total victory: it is dense.

This poster was made for the massive Society for Neuroscience meeting. With attendance usually around 30,000, people at that conference are already coping with information overload. Unless someone is already very interested in axons, she or he is unlikely to stop at a poster with 108 micrographs and 25 bar graphs (I counted).

That said, this poster convinces me that anyone who does stop to talk to the author will be rewarded. It’s clear that Christopher put a lot of thought into organizing this.

The layout is clear. All the data sections are structured exactly the same way, so that once you understand one, you should be able to follow them all.

Each section has a clear take home message. The one exception is one that Christopher himself identified:

Now that I look at it, “Conclusion and Perspectives” is wrong. Obvious title and zero specific info!

I agree with that self-assessment. Positive statements win over generic headings!

Looking at this poster shrunk down at thumbnail size, the poster number in the upper right is a shade too big. It’s bigger and more prominent than the title, and I generally argue that nothing should compete with the title. That said, this problem is not a bad one, because the poster number is well separated from the title, and the title is large and easily read.

This poster tries to fit an entire manuscript on to a single piece of paper. I do not recommend that as a strategy for a poster. But, given that decision to put all that information on the page, this poster solved the problem probably as well as it could be solved.

03 November 2016

Critique: Catalyst judging

Today’s contributor is Luca Biasolo, who gave me permission to show this:


This poster has more ambition and design sense than probably 90% of the posters I see at conferences.

I like that Luca committed to the green colour scheme, but I almost want a little more variation in colour. There is a little red and blue in the figures, so I wonder if those could be used someplace else in the poster, like the numbers in the headings. Maybe even some lighter or darker shades of green would break it up a little more. I’m not sure if I’m right on this; maybe it should stay the way it is. Luca wrote:

I’ve tried few colors more but it was a bit confusing. Maybe I haven't choosen them right ones or I mixed them to much. You are free to try. ;)

My major in looking at this poster was whether the numbers in the headings reflected the intended order? Luca replied that yes, that was the intention. That is, the reader is supposed to go around the poster clockwise:


My reaction to this might be summed up thus:


I think the idea is that because the central image is a cycle, the rest of the poster should also follow the path of that cycle. I think that’s going a bit too far. That might work if that central cycle was much bigger and more dominant part of the poster, but it isn’t. So the cycling around just seems out of place.

In fairness, I do think that the use of numbered headings here is appropriate. If you are going to deviate from the expected reading order, I do appreciate that you warned me about it.

27 October 2016

Link roundup for October 2016


Contrast matters, and web page designers are starting to forget that. Kevin Marks delves into how grey text is becoming so prominent on the web. Marks notes something I’ve talked about before: the difference between the screen and a poster handing on a wall.

(W)hen you design in perfect settings, with big, contrast-rich monitors, you blind yourself to users. To arbitrarily throw away contrast based on a fashion that “looks good on my perfect screen in my perfectly lit office” is abdicating designers’ responsibilities to the very people for whom they are designing.

Hat tip to Robert J. Sawyer.

It’s great when you have a lab to go to a conference with. But not everyone has a lab. Here are tips for how to rock a conference solo.

An occasional reminder that if your poster hangs for several days, create opportunities for people to give feedback when you are not there:



Hat tip to Ciera Martinez.

Stephen Heard is unimpressed with most conference badges. This led me to another discussion of badge shortcomings, both of which reminded me of an older article on conference badges in American Scientist (paywalled).