19 October 2017

Critique and makeover: Bird sperm

Today’s poster is a contribution from Antje Girndt, who presented this at the European Society of Evolutionary Biology (ESEB) 2017 meeting in Groningen, the Netherlands. Click to enlarge!


Antje was kind enough to write her own analysis of this poster:

It uses a Dutch colour theme and comes with little text. The introduction is pushed to the bottom and I am almost not explaining the methods. QR codes link to my profile and the accompanying data and script at the Open Science Framework. ...

I like my final product but at the same time, I am not fully satisfied. The lower bit with the bullets, affiliations and references somehow bugs me, but I cannot pinpoint why.

Antje’s approach is very much in line with the style I have been moving towards lately: make a simple, big statement up top. I think it could have been an even stronger title if the title said “why it matters.” Maybe something like “Sampling methods affect bird sperm data” or “Bird sperm should only be collected with one method.”

Despite the title being large, it feels less prominent than it should be because the colours are so muted. The authors are jumping out, when the title should be. I would have flipped the colours of the title and authors: used dark text for the authors, and white text for the main text. The shadowing on the title is not helping the cause, either, because it is reducing the contrast between the text and background.

I would also have put a little space between each graphic element; the two pictures and the graph. The two pictures, in particular, don’t clearly separate out visually.

Maybe Antje’s concern about the bottom half of the poster springs from a couple of things. I think each element  needed more vertical space between them. It also seemed to me that the “Future studies” statement was a stronger as a concluding sentence. The placement of the QR codes breaks the logical flow of the text.

Here is a quick revision that tries to address those issues:


It has more punch from a distance and flows better.

There are a few other things that I might change that I didn’t put in the revision above. The key graph on the right is a little tricky to interpret. I think each line is an individual. The mean is highlighted, but the difference between the average and the raw data could be enhanced even a title more. There is a lot of white on either side of the data.

The typeface is a handwritten script that is attractive, but is all capitals. This might make it a little harder to read.

The institutional affiliations are listed in footnotes at the bottom. I’m unsure about this. On the one hand, affiliations are the sort of disposable information that footnotes are made for. On the other, if you are going to list affiliations, it makes sense to put them at the point of need. It’s also weird that institutional affiliations come between the references about sperm. The references are incomplete, too. No volume or page numbers.

The QR codes do not follow a good practice: there is no description of what I get if I scan them. There is plenty of white space around them, so it would have been easy to include a description of what each is.

If you want to compare the poster to the final paper, the published paper is here.

05 October 2017

Critique: Crab parasites

Most of the time, I think my poster aesthetic might be described as Swiss style. That’s the period that saw the creation of Helvetica, for instance. It’s a style that is very spare and very organized, with lots of emphasis on grids. You can see it in this poster I made for the American Society for Parasitologists meeting in 2014. Click to enlarge!


This was a noble, but in my mind, failed experiment. I wanted someone to get the main point of the poster by reading across the top row. I wanted people to get the supporting details in each column.

It kind of works, kind of doesn’t.

The top row works best because it is all photos. The graphics in the rows below that are not consistent enough to make the idea work. The text block in the bottom right doesn’t follow through with the lines established in the two rows above, and the three images to the left of it.

I still like using huge numbers to bring home the main difference in infection rates between the two species instead of a graph. Simple numbers can be almost picture-like at that size.

But I’ve wanted, for a long time, to make an elegant poster. I wanted something warmer, artistic, maybe even a little romantic. And I think I’ve finally come close.

This poster started with an email I got from MyFonts, announcing a sale of a new typeface,  Montecatini. I was very inspired by this font sample for (among others).


The description said:

Montecatini takes its cues from the elegant Stile Liberty travel posters of Italy in the early 1900s. The font features distinctive ligatures typical of the time when Art Nouveau emerged as a worldwide phenomenon.

I wanted to make something like that sample. Evocative and graceful. But when I looked at the available characters in Montecatini, I realized it wasn’t going to do the job.

There were no lowercase letters. Montecatini might be great for a title, but with no lowercase letters, it wouldn’t do for an entire poster. There were no italics. And I had species names that needed to be in italics.
I kept looking, and I got lucky. Hitting the jackpot lucky. How could I know that a perfect font for my needs had been released just a day or two before I looked?



I bought Plusquam Sans just three days after it had been released. The main letterforms were clean sans serifs, but the swashes added the calligraphic look I wanted. (See this post for uses swashes.)


Here’s the poster I made for the 2017 meeting of the American Society for Parasitologists conference. Click to enlarge!

This is one of my favourite posters I’ve ever made. Here’s why.

Using Plusquam Sans gave the poster exactly what I wanted: a little humanistic flair. It was obviously not one of the default fonts that gets used over and over (Arial, Calibri, and so on). But it was still clean enough to read well from a distance.

The background is a light cream instead of pure white. I wanted the paper to look like a page from an old book. Book paper is often a bit off-white, not the bright white of the sort we see on computer screens. Again, that gave the poster some warmth.

I picked up on the light pinks and blues in the Montecatini sample that started this whole thing. This turned out to work well, because the light blue picks up on some of the colours in the left picture of the crab. The light pink (used in a couple of symbols in the graph) picks up on the pinks in my hand in the left top picture, and a bit of the warmth in the bottom row of pictures.

The poster is laid out on a six column grid. This lets you divide the poster in two thirds (the graph), halves (divided by the two pictures on top; sand crab data on left, mole crab on right), thirds (the top pictures), or sixths (text columns and small pictures at bottom). That variation in width of objects makes the poster more interesting, but the underlying grid gives the poster organization and structure.

Of those six columns, the central four are mostly graphics. Only about a third of the poster is devoted to text. Thus, the poster is very visual, and quick to understand at a glance.

Plotting the boxes of summary statistics and the raw data made the graph visually interesting enough to hold the space allocated to it. The poster would have looked boring if there were just two boxes in that big block in the middle. Plus, It helps the poster a lot that the difference between the two species is so stark. You can see what is going on easily.

I am not a 100% happy with this poster, though. I wish the two crab pictures were more similar. One is on my hand, one is on a benchtop. I fixed this in Figure 1 of the paper that arose from this.

The crustaceans definitely get pride of place in the layout, reflecting my interests. Considering that I presented this at a parasitology meeting, I may have been a little dumb to not have a close-up picture of the parasite species, even if it was relegated to the bottom row of images. I didn’t fix that for the paper, though: still no close-ups of baby tapeworms.

I felt I met my goals in making this poster: something warm and human that was reminiscent of old European posters. I think it was successful because I didn’t make a straight copy of the Montecatini font sample that started this. I didn’t copy the colour using the eyedropper, or buy the Montecatini font. Instead of stealing the specifics, I stole the sentiment.

Having had the success with doing something a little more adventurous with type in this poster, I have a goal for my next poster. I want to push the typography even further. I want my next poster to push the envelope with typefaces even further.

That is one of the joys of a successful project: it makes you excited about the next one!

Related posts

How to swash: using a font’s alternate glyphs, text styles, and numbers
Critique: Protein biosynthesis

External links


When two lines of research collide


References

Faulkes Z. 2017. Filtering out parasites: Sand crabs (Lepidopa benedicti) are infected by more parasites than sympatric mole crabs (Emerita benedicti). PeerJ 5: e3852. https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.3852