Friday, 8 September 2017

Nothing left to take away

I was having a think about what good design consists of. What has brought this on was attending a poster competition at the Griffith Uni business school recently. I was strolling around, looking at the posters, and fell into conversation with a Griffith professor. He kept asking me what I liked about each one, and I dropped straight back into my seventh form art class - that's year 13 in new money - where we were taught by two artists. These teachers were great: as practitioners, they dissected what drew the eye (no pun intended), and were able to connect theory and practice, distil and simplify and pass that on to we budding arties.

Some of us went on to arts study (a friend of mine has been an artist all her adult life and is just polishing off her Masters in the field), and others of us did things like Business or Pol Sci. But funnily enough, we are all still fascinated by design. Our teachers gave us a gift of seeing that has given us all a lifetime of pleasure (so far, anyway!).

So, to return to the Griffith professor's question, I talked to him very economically about posters needing to clearly tell a story, how to lead the viewer, about design simplicity (ie,  nothing left to take away), how saying less is more, the power of colour, blocking, flow, thirds, the rule of fives, the divine proportion, emphasis, tone, the colour wheel, fonts and message. I did that mostly by walking him around the room and saying what I liked about the various posters. Then, when we got to vote on the 'people's choice', he voted with me, because he too could now see which posters told a story powerfully and economically.

Below are the posters from Griffith which I thought told the best story: and please note just how much text there is on some of these. The rule of thumb for academic posters is 500 words. Some of these have closer to 1500. 

Remember that saying "a picture tells a thousand words"? Creators academic posters need to ensure that graphics make up 50% of the work. Try taking away the text to see if the graphics stand on their own (now there's a challenge!). But that's only half the story. We also need to teach judges what good design is, because I suspect they don't know. As a result, they give prizes to posters which tell a science story, not a visual story.

Many of academic posters I have seen are just plain boring, wordy, or muddled (check out here and here!). Some have so much text, they had to be read close up (not what you want with a poster - and yes, I know we are talking about academic posters, but the principle is the same). There was often no obvious starting point. In many cases, graphics interferes with text instead of replacing or supporting it. It is obvious that many posters aren't planned, they are just an academic article reworked and plonked on a page. The creator hasn't gone through a process of thinking about what can be replaced, and what can be taken away.

Good research should lead to a good poster. An old hand at academic poster judging, Professor Colin Purrington, found that "the attractiveness of a poster is highly correlated with the quality of the science" (Zielinska, 1 September 2011). Now there's something to aim for.


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