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).

20 October 2016

Critique: Catching a DRAGON

Today’s poster is from Athanasios Psaltis, in my old stomping grounds in in Canada (McMaster University, to be exact). This poster was shown at a school on “Origin of nuclei in the universe,” and appears here with his permission. Click to enlarge!


I appreciated immediately was that I could read everything on this poster, even shrunk down on the computer screen. You only have to go back a week on this blog to see that this doesn’t always happen.

The mix of red, or bold, or red and bold for emphasis would be better replaced with just one style. I liked the use of red bolding for emphasis on the left introductory material, and wish it was carried over on the right side (e.g., “transmission” and “efficiency” in the “Testing the DRAGON” section). Athanasios agreed.

The bullet points in the introduction are adding space, but not much clarity, at least for me. The “1, 2, 3” numbering under “Wanajo” works, though, and I would leave that.

Dashes or hyphens should have spaces on both sides, or neither. Seeing spaces on only one side of the dash in the pointers to the figures (e.g., “Figure 1- Right”) is making me crazy in an obsessive type nerd way.

The ticks in the Figure 1 graphs are a bit obtrusive. I understand log scales need a lot of ticks, but they don’t need to be protruding so far into the graph. They could be shorter. I would try removing the top and right axes, too. Or, if the top and right lines stay, remove the tick marks.