20 July 2017

Critique: Precipitants to suicide

Today’s contribution comes from Annie Snow, who was kind enough to share this poster with blog readers. You will probably need to click to enlarge this one!


The rainbow background pops. A rainbow is the symbol of pride for a wide community that includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer, intersex, and others (I apologize to anyone who love the rainbow that I neglected to mention). And since lesbian, gay, and bi people are the subject of study here, the rainbow is a clear visual signal for the topic. The rainbow is clearly visible as a rainbow and not just as random colours, because Annie made the margins between the columns wide.

I also love that the rainbow is even continued into the colour fills for the bar graphs in the second column.

But I am experiencing some cognitive dissonance when I dig into the content of the poster. The bright rainbow colours of pride say exuberant and joyous, which is not how people normally describe the poster’s topic: suicide and depression. There is a risk that the bright colours might make people see the poster as flippant, trivializing a serious topic. This might be a good opportunity for comments; would be curious to know what others think on this point.

There are many other elements of the poster than work.

I love pushing the title into a big central circle, and using different point sizes for emphasis. Even at the small scale, you can’t miss the word “suicide” in the title. It’s bold and different and works well. The cost to this is that the author credit is moved over to the left, in the area normally reserved for the “fine print.” People reading the poster often want to know who did it, and there is a pretty long cultural tradition of author names being close to titles all kinds of written text.

Annie further breaks the rectangle monotony by using other circular and organic forms as big design elements. While I am not sure how “Earth seen from space” is tied to the poster content (“No borders, we’re all one,” maybe?), the globe, and Émile Durkheim and his quote, have been blended in to the poster well. (Though Émile is missing his accent aigu on the quote credit.) 

I am concerned about the main body of the poster. There is a lot of text, and the main text is very narrow. This allows for generous margins in the boxes, and makes the layout clean. And there are some smart decisions in the use of icons to break up the monotony. But even with those positive aspects, I worry that this poster can’t be easily read from a distance, or by those older conference goers starting to deal with presbyopia. I am not sure this poster would pass the “arm’s length” test.

Speaking of readability, I completely missed that the sections of the poster were numbered until I got in an enlarged the text. The poster’s reading order is so clear that the numbers are superfluous. There is an argument, I suppose, for leaving them as they are as a subtle design element. My own inclination would be to lighten them up as much as their adjacent boxes.

This poster has many interesting and smart design choices, but is weak on addressing one key need of the reader: that is, to read it.

13 July 2017

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

Microsoft Publisher is my go to software package for making posters. It hits a sweet point for me between power and ease of use. I recently found another reason to use Publisher: it lets you in to a whole new realm of type you might not have known existed.

Many professional fonts in the OpenType format include not only standard letters, but alternate letter shapes, or “glyphs.” For instance, you can have you choice of shapes for lowercase “g”:


Or fantastic artistic swashes:



I recently bought a new font for a poster, Plusquam Sans, in part because I wanted to play with the alternate glyphs. I almost had a heart attack because I couldn’t find the alternate glyphs at first. But I got lucky, and stumbled up how to use them.

Of the entire Microsoft Office package, it seems that only Publisher lets you play with alternate glyphs and swashes without too much effort.

Here’s how.

Select your text, then go up to the ribbon an pop up the fonts menu.


Once you have the font menu, look for the “Typography” section.


In this case, the alternate glyphs are more dramatic forms of capital letters, with expressive swashes. So I check the “Swash” button, and the preview below shows the difference.


But wait! There’s more! Some fonts also come with alternative number forms, too. In that same section of the font menu, check the drop down options for “Number style.”


This font has three alternates for numbers. Again, selecting one option immediately shows a preview.


You can get the alternate numbers in Word. Open the “Font” menu from the ribbon, click on the “Advanced” tab,and check the drop down options for “Number forms”:


Word also lets you get different “Stylistic sets” for the main text (straight versus curved lowercase “l” and “i”, for instance). But I still can’t get to the swashes, as far as I can tell.

PowerPoint doesn’t do any of those things.

I’ve seen some online instructions that say you can get to the swashes in Windows through the old Character Map app. In Windows 10, Character Map is located in the “Windows Accessories” folder,  under “All Apps.” But so far, I have not gotten those swashes to show up.

You can see a little bit of those swashes in action on the poster I recently presented at the American Society for Parasitologists meeting in San Antonio:


I have much more to say about the design of this poster (I was very happy with it), which I will talk about as soon as the paper is published. It’s already in the hands of editors, so I am hoping that won’t be long!

External links

How To Access All Glyphs In A Font
How do I access the alternate glyphs in my OpenType font?
Secret To Add Swashes + Extras to Your Fonts…. Use The Private Use Area in a Font

06 July 2017

There should be at least two poster awards


Many conferences have some sort of awards for “Best student poster.” But John Vanek recently noted something I pointed out early on in this blog: the winners are often not very good looking posters.

Pet peeve: when posters that are simply walls of text win best poster awards, despite all the advice that stresses not to do that.

This is not surprising. I’ve judged many presentations, and there is always some sort of scoring sheet to guide the judges. Those scoring schemes always weight the content of the presentation (whether poster or talk) more heavily than the visual excellence of the presentation.

Hey, conference organizers: be like the Oscars. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognize that there are many components to making movies. These all deserve to be recognized. So they have the main Oscars, and a separate ceremony for scientific and technical awards.

If you are going to judge poster presentations, make two awards.

  • Give one award purely for the scientific content of the poster. Does it have a clear hypothesis, appropriate controls, important finding, and so one.
  • Give one award purely for the visual excellence of the poster. I already have a checklist ready for judges!

The problem would be getting people to get past the idea that an award for graphic design at an academic conference is like the “Miss Congeniality” award at a beauty pageant. Yes, it’s an award, but not the one that people are there to win and that isn’t taken seriously.

Related posts 

The Better Posters checklist