Thursday, 8 July 2010

Survival has had a facelift!

Bet you didn't notice coz it's been such a long time since this blog did anything interesting. It's still a ready-to-use blogger template, so I suppose it isn't actually interesting. But things may change yet again in the near future! I've been playing with a lovely piece of image editing software called the GIMP, and I might just design myself a pretty background for Survival. Or I might not. We'll see.

The reason I've been playing with image manipulation software is because I am yet again designing a poster. This is actually the second poster I've had to make in the last couple of months. They are two different posters, with different target audiences, different layouts, and different messages, so designing each of them is a pretty unique experience.

The first poster I volunteered to make as part of an exhibition about biodiversity research at my University, inspired by the UN 2010 International Year of Biodiversity. This small exhibition, which included about 20 posters and two live insect displays, was meant to be a showcase of the University's work in biodiversity research and conservation, and was open to the public over the course of about two weeks. The posters were manned on a couple of days, so I had to stand next to my poster and tell people all about my work.

Given that people of all ages and backgrounds were going to be looking at my poster, it had to be visually appealing, have little and simple text and lots of photos, and - above all - be accessible without sacrificing the science! Okay, so I volunteered to do this, I'm sure I can figure it out!

Not so easy.

First reaction: Omg it's too complicated a topic, how are they going to understand what I'm trying to do, there's not enough space, omg omg omg. I made a draft, with loads of text boxes and photos and maps and things trying to be as clear as possible. I had no idea if it was any good so I sent it to my supervisor asking for feedback, and... I was shot down in flames.

I looked at his reply, which basically said "it's a mess, there's no overarching structure, too many words, scrappy" and I got that horrible sharp clenching sensation in my stomach. A second later, I grabbed a piece of paper and drew this graphic on the left. A moment later, I burst into tears. Yeah I got emotional, ok?! It's not every day you try really really hard to do your best, and work long hours to get it done, and when you finally create something, you boss smashes it with a verbal hammer.... Who am I kidding, it happens all the time.

Well in the end I gathered myself up, asked a load of people for advice and suggestions (what wonderful peers I have, seriously, I love them all!) and tried again. My supervisor came over as well and gave me some post-slating help. Key points I've learnt are:
  1. Think of what message you're trying to convey. No more than 3 key points.
  2. Keep it short and simple, with as few words as possible.
  3. Lots of pictures are good, but don't over-do it. One high-impact graphic with some smaller pictures works well.
  4. Blurry background with transparent text boxes looks really stunning.
  5. Make sure there's a structure to the poster - like a path the reader can follow when reading it.

Here is the final product:

My next poster is still in the works. It is a completely different project: it's a scientific poster, which will be displayed at the Birtish Ecological Society Annual Meeting in September. Yes, people, this is my first ever big academic conference! And I'm presenting a poster. Less scary than giving an oral presentation, but possibly more scary coz of the real close personal contact with people who will be looking at my poster, and having to wing it with the research talk (although I suppose I could prepare a little introductory schpeel).

So far, I have a poster skeleton with the structure of the poster, the titles and subtitles and my main diagrams (which I painstakingly created using GIMP)... but no text.

A successful poster is one that tells an interesting story. This is the same for all kinds of posters. But for my academic poster, I need to somehow turn my data and analysis into an interesting story. At first I had the same first reaction as last time: Omg it's too complicated, I don't have enough space to explain everything omg omg. But I'm now just about to step back, and think about it from the audience's perspective, figure out what message I want them to walk away with, and then write down my story. Check me out, I've learnt something!

Anyway, it's not that simple or that easy to extract a clear story from a multivariate analysis, which essentially distributes my farmland bird community composition across multi-dimensional space in a conformation that explains as much of the variation as possible... Wish me luck!