22 March 2018

Critique: The Capricorn Experiment, plus: Font families

Today’s poster is about the Capricorn Experiment, not to be confused with the 1970s conspiracy movie, Capricorn One:


The only conspiracy in the new poster, from Vidhi Bharti at Monash University in Melbourne, is the justification for “Capricorn”. It’s supposed to be an abbreviation for, “Clouds, Aerosols, Precipitation, Radiation, and Atmospheric Composition Over the Southern Ocean.” The experiment should really be “Capracoso.” I mean, you just don’t get to make abbreviations out of any letter somewhere in the word! It would be like abbreviating the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley as “EXONE”.

But I digress. Let’s look at the poster, which you can click to enlarge!


Vidhi wrote:

I work on boundary layer meteorology, which basically deals with a lot of mathematical equations and unattractive diagrams. Therefore, presenting it all in an attractive package is a big challenge.

Vidhi does a good job of rising to that challenge with this poster.

I like the way this poster tackled the two column layout. While I normally would prefer the two columns to be even in width, when there are only two, having the two columns differ in width is perhaps not so annoying as when there are three or more columns.

Everything could use more space around it. I would try shrinking a lot of elements, maybe 85-90%, to give each bit a little more breathing room. The main text of the poster is so readable that it can afford to be a little bit smaller, so that the overall appearance isn’t so crowded.

The poster could also use a stronger sense of visual hierarchy. In particular, the author and institution names are bigger than the text below them. This causes two problems.

  1. The bylines chew up space that this poster needs to reclaim.
  2. The size indicates those names are more important than what the poster is about. With respect to the team, who I have no reason to think are anything other than fab human beings and scientists, the person reading the poster is probably more interested in the text of the poster than who wrote it.

The bottom of the “Analysis” box is driving me a bit crazy, because the bottom margin is obviously thinner that the top or left. The text on the right of that box occasionally strays a little close to the edge.

I like the fonts, but I noticed there were two of them: one in the main text, and another in the lower left box. I asked Vidhi if there was any particular reason to switch to a different font in the “Capricorn Experiment” box. She replied:

I derived the layout inspiration from magazine articles where they usually divide the sections into different columns and keep one highlighted box. For my poster, I wanted “Capricorn experiment” to be that highlighted box.

I’ve used callout boxes myself (see the 2012 Neuroethology poster here), and I applaud the idea. The execution might be improved with some different font choices. The two fonts are, to my eye, too different from each other, and they clash a little bit. What Vidhi needed was a font family: a set of complementary fonts deliberately meant to work together. Usually, they are all designed by the same person or foundry.

Here’s an example of a font family in action on an infographic I made for CBC’s Quirks and Quarks radio show (the version below was tweaked slightly after I submitted to the show):


There are at four or five different typefaces on that image. But they are all part of the same font family, Adorn. Adorn is an excellent example of a font family. In the case of Adorn, none of the edges are perfectly smooth. Every typeface, whether slab or Roman or script, has a hand-drawn feel, like it was created with ink and paper.

For Windows computers, Arial is a font family that many would recognize. It comes in a narrow, black, and rounded fonts.Not as different from each other as Adorn, but the idea is the same.

MyFonts, Fontshop, and other online font stores usually have bundles, families, or similar things for sale. Sometimes the fonts are simply different weights or styles of the same font (bold, italic, book weight, thin, etc.; see FF Tisa for an example). Sometimes, particularly with display fonts, the mixes of styles is more dramatic and ambitious, like Adorn or Phonema.

While I do think imposing limitations on yourself can be useful, the system fonts are that come on most computers are sometimes too restrictive. Times New Roman was a default font for a long time, and many people still use it for much text. Yet it still seems limited on many computers to a single font. There aren’t light or heavier weights.

While there is an initial cost outlay to buying a font family, just a couple of font families in your toolkit opens a lot of possibilities in design.

 Additional: Peter Newbury shared an example of fonts not working together:


It’s like somebody was trying to win at Font Bingo.

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