26 November 2009

Learning from failure

Here’s the story of an ad agency that tried to redesign a major newspaper. They didn’t get the job, but there is a lot to learn by studying what they tried to do. Here are the principles they followed (slightly edited; see original for full explanation).

Basic rule: Ignore all rules of newspaper design to start with and keep only the ones that are useful to the reader:

  1. Optimize text for reading: Big leading, big body text. We did several reading tests and found this combination to work best for reading. ...
  2. Two fonts(.)
  3. Scannability: Make the articles scannable by using key words in blue. If you speak German you can actually read the front page in 20 seconds by flying over the blue key words. ...
  4. Order: Every page is structured from top left to bottom right. Important articles are top left, unimportant ones are bottom right.
  5. Four columns for soft news, five columns for hard news, mixed 4/5 columns for sports. Ragged text for opinion.
  6. Big pictures, big info graphics, use the strength of the paper medium.

These are great things to keep in mind when designing and laying out a poster. Some are things I’ve talked about here before, like the importance of not violating reading conventions. At least one idea, how they tried to make text that can be easily scanned, is new to me and something I’ve never seen before, but definitely seems worth trying.

I don’t quite understand #5, namely the varying column sizes and changes in justification. They don’t explain the reasons for distinguishing between the different content.

Originally spotted by mocost.

19 November 2009

Scripting a poster

Page from the script for The Dark KnightWhen you’re putting together a poster, the first consideration is often just making things fit within the space. But unless you’re one of those people who puts up a poster and walks away (and if you do, shame on you), you should be thinking about what you’re going to say when you lay out your poster. In other words, you should sketch out a script for yourself.

For one poster I did, I had a figure that ended up in about column four, quite far to the right of the poster. I thought it made sense to put it there given the poster space. It felt fine when you read through the poster.

But when I gave people “tours” through the poster at the meeting, I kept referring to that picture very early on, when people were mostly examining stuff on the left side of the poster. People had to look way over to a different section of the poster, and it disrupted the flow of the presentation. (In that case, it was exacerbated by the poster being over two meters wide. People had to look a long way over to see the picture.)

Although posters are a much more casual, chatty presentation medium than a standard slide presentation that you see at conferences, don’t ignore the story you plan to tell with your poster until it’s up on the board. Talk it out to others before you finish the layout.

(Slightly) Related posts

Unwebbable: How movie scripts are typeset and why.

Pictured: A page from The Dark Knight script.

17 November 2009

Type crimes: Accidental guarantees

This is what you get for putting on text that violates the normal rules of reading. We read top to bottom, not from the outside in.

Spotted at FailBlog.

12 November 2009

Following the rules

The White Stripes have rules.

Clothes must be red, black, or white.

No bass guitar.

No equipment made after the 1960s.

And so on.

In an interview in The Guardian, Jack White said:

OMM: You must have considered how life might be outside of the White Stripes framework. Does any part of you yearn to work beyond those limitations? Or extending them?
JW: No, they stay in place. We either follow the limitations, or once in a while we break the limitations, but the point is that there’s limitations, but if there's not any limitations there, there's no point to anything. ... (T)he boundaries are there for us to play with. Since we’re trapped like that, we can keep going, and find new meaning and new depth to something really simple. There’s a male and a female, and there's three components of the music, over and over again. It never dies.

No, you haven’t stumbled into a music blog by accident; this is still the posters blog. I’ve made many suggestions about poster design that limit your choices.

Laying out your poster on a grid establishes limitations for your poster. Choosing a font establishes limitations for your poster. Being conservative in your design choices establishes limitations.

Working within limits requires discipline. Setting yourself limitations does not necessarily limit creativity; it can do just the opposite.

And if you don’t like The White Stripes as an example of creativity working within self-imposed limits, ask if Shakespeare’s sonnets are poor examples of poetry because they follow a rigid rhyming scheme. Or, if both are too high falootin’ for you, see how much mileage Dinosaur Comics has gotten out of six pictures that never, ever change.

05 November 2009

Holding the center

Bulletin board noticesNext time you walk past a bulletin board or message board, have a look at all the various notices that people have posted on it. They will probably be on different colours of paper. They will almost certainly have a dizzying array of typefaces – sometimes on the same piece of paper. But there is one feature that almost all of them are likely to share.

The text will be centered.

Similarly, if you look through a poster session at a scientific conference, I’ll bet over 98% of their titles are centered at the top of their posters. Why? There is no advantage in reading. Most word processors and other publishing programs start with text left aligned by default, which implies that people deliberately center the text all the time.

David Jury noted, “Centered arrangements were, and still are, considered to be the appropriate way of presenting a text of distinction.” I can’t find if he says it explicitly, but elsewhere in his book, he discusses that “economical and fast” is often interpreted as “cheap and low status.”

People’s tendency to center text seems to be holdover from the days when books were hard to make, and typesetting was a craft. Consider how books were typeset before computers. They had to be physically set by moving around small blocks of metal. Now think about how difficult it would be to center words, with varying letter widths and sizes, on a page by moving around metal blocks one by one: hard, time consuming and costly.

Systema NaturaeThus, centering became classy. Dignified.

The flipside of that is that, as Ellen Lupton noted, centered text can look “like a tombstone.”

My point, and I do have one, is not to say, “Don’t center the title of your poster.” I’ve centered the titles of most of my posters (though I will say, I’ve liked the results when I’ve left aligned my title). The point is to raise your awareness of a little decision that you make to follow an arbitrary convention, probably without ever noticing it.


Jury D. 2006. What is Typography? Mies: RotoVision SA. Amazon

Lupton E. 2004. Thinking With Type. New York: Princeton Architectural Press. Amazon

04 November 2009

Does embellishment improve graphs?

A new article on the Science Daily website (seemingly based on this press release) provocatively claims:

Those oft-maligned, and highly embellished, graphs and charts in newspapers and other media outlets may actually help people understand data more effectively than traditional graphs, according to new research from North Carolina State University.

Unfortunately, some people will take this article to mean that those who have argued against such embellishments, notably Edward Tufte, are wrong, and that it’s okay to make cutesy infographics that so many people think is the only way to make people pay attention to numbers. That’s premature.

The research discussed in the article was presented at a conference. Anyone who has been to academic conferences knows that a lot of research discussed there is often incomplete. Sometimes, the work never finds a home in a journal. But I thought it would be worth looking to see if there was an abstract. (Later found it at the bottom of the press release.)

A little searching turned up the online program (PDF). More complete proceedings of the meeting are available, but I don’t think I’m curious enough about this one bit of research to shell out the cash to buy it.

Searching it for the author, Doug Gillan turned up five papers he gave at this conference. It seems the one being discussed here was titled, “Minimalism and the Syntax of Graphs: II. Effects of Graph Backgrounds on Visual Search.”

In research, the devil is in the details. The abstract is so spare that it’s almost impossible to say anything about this research except that it sounds interesting. For instance, it’s not clear how reading was measured. It’s not clear how many different backgrounds were tested. It sounds like eighteen people looked at three graphs. If it was only three graphs, I would really want to see those actual graphs and how they differed. It sounds a bit like the researchers have shown an effect of contrasting shapes that is analagous to colour contrast. It may well be that a rectangle stands out against circles just that as the red petals of a rose “pop” against green leaves.

It looks like the opening (quoted above) overreaches what the study actually does. The research only looks at backgrounds, but “chart junk” comes in many other forms: pointless 3-D effects, crazy colour schemes, excessive gridlines, cutesy cartoons, and more. The summary of this research in no way provides a scientific basis to argue, “I like the 3-D effect, and science supports it’s easier to read!”

This research might provide some interesting suggestions for improving graphs. I look forward to seeing the final published paper.

Additional, August 2012: Another conference paper makes similar claims. I am not sure if this is a peer-reviewed paper, though.