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A resource dedicated to improving poster presentations. Part of DoctorZen.net.

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    A feature in The Atlantic asks a big question: Can posters still change the world? I’m unsure posters have ever changed the world, but no matter. Still a great article on the power of the poster format. Hat tip to Siobhan O’Dwyer.

    The latest demonstration of how fonts affect interpretation...


    Hat tip to Jim Ducharme and Danielle Lee.

    I am an advocate of one space after a period. However, I appreciate this spirited defense of wider spacing after a period. In particular, the historical aspect of this blog post is well worth reading.

    If the (early editions) Chicago Manual thought it was okay to use large spaces after periods, and it had been common practice among the typographers who invented these typefaces, can we seriously claim that the only right method to set them is with a single space after a period? I CANNOT BELIEVE THE GALL OF MODERN TYPOGRAPHERS, ARGUING THAT THE PRACTICE OF THOSE WHO CREATED THEIR FONTS IS ABSOLUTELY, UNEQUIVOCALLY “WRONG.”

    Make it all the way to the post-script if you can. I still say the single space is the modern standard (this post has the single space winning out around the 1940s), and you shouldn’t put put spaces after a period. Hat tip to Robert J. Sawyer, from his Facebook page.


    Above you see a nice critique and makeover of a poster. Not a scientific poster, but still. Take a few minutes to let John McWade walk you through the process in a nice video.

    The British Library adds over a million public domain images to Flickr.

    The title of this article – Should you ever use a pie chart?– is a bit misleading. It includes a lot of history as well as best practices.


    Hat tip to Justin Kiggins, if I remember right.

    This month is the huge Neuroscience conference, possibly home to more academic posters than anything else on the planet. Don’t believe me? Check this panorama from Dwayne Godwin:



    Before the meeting, people sent tips! From Lauren Drogos:

    Let people pause and read before trying to engage at your poster, some of us are shy and need a moment to muster.

    Andrew Pruszynski wrote:

    Meeting new people is the only reason to go to SFN. The posters/talks are just pretext.

    I appreciate the sentiment, but I would replace “only” with “main.” I find seeing talks and posters useful. I find catching up with people I know useful.

    And from Drugmonkey:

    Think of your poster design as a massive troll. The point is to engender conversation!!!

    Though I don’t necessarily think you should put this on your poster...



    From the meeting:

    Peer review: shit just got real. (From Dr. Jenn)


    And there is the inevitable aftermath of deciding how to use posters after the session is done. Tal Yarkoni has decided they are a fine place to rest one’s weary bones.



    A critique of common scientific presentations: “Your protein acronyms and figures look nothing more than ambiguous letters and Pac-Man shapes to us.”

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  • 11/05/15--05:00: Casing a poster
  • I’m fascinated by the ways people recycle posters. Traditionally, posters are one-shot ephemera, which usually gotten reuse only by decorating department hallways. While fabric posters has some shortcomings for display compared to high quality paper posters, I have to admit: the reuse possibilities are much greater.

    Christie Rowe has been steadily converting her posters into these awesome pencil cases! She shared this with me back in September:


    And here’s some more finished ones.


    The earth tones come naturally for Christie, who is in an Earth & Planetary Sciences department.


    Data flash!






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  • 11/12/15--13:24: Critique: 3D sound
  • Today’s poster comes from Erlend Magnus Viggen. Click to enlarge!


    Erlend had a few notes on this creation.

    Since the article is about a computational method that we developed, the poster is a flowchart of the method.

    The flowchart works reasonably well, although the reading order of the “Propogation” box in the upper right is a little tricky. If there was a little more room, I might try placing “Sound processing” slightly lower than the text block flanking it. That way, the “Source sound” and “Propogation” would sort of funnel down into “Sound processing.” But this poster has a nice balance of text and margins, and you couldn’t move “sound processing” down without messing with that.

    There’s no introduction. I’m not sure to which degree an introduction beyond the title is useful on a poster in any case, but in this case our method is far more relevant for our conference audience than our motivation is. Our use-case is basically outside the scope of the conference.

    Smart move, and an excellent example of how designs are often improved by taking things away.

    I like how subtle colour gradients are used to distinguish blocks of text instead of heavy-handed outlines.

    I’m particularly interested by Erlend’s comments about using institutional styles. I’ve been wary of institutional style guides, because they often prioritize advertising the institution over the content that a poster viewer cares about. Erlend, I think, takes a sensible approach:

    I tried to follow the guidelines of my research institute: use a grid, use the official typeface (though I only used it for headers as it’s more of a display typeface), and use colours from the official scheme. While there are more colours in the official scheme, the dark blue one is our main colour and the light gray-brown is the only bright-ish colour among our “main” colours.

    Erlend isn’t slavishly following a template, but looking for ways to use elements of the institution’s style. Institutional colour schemes are usually closely examined by professional designers, so you end up with palettes that are harmonious, and maybe a little conservative. The colours should work in lots of different conditions. And you don’t have to use every official colour.

    I did something similar recently, when I made a new logo for my homepage. I deliberately wanted to harmonize it with my institution’s logo:


    Like Erlend’s case, my university has navy blue and green as secondary colours, but I didn’t use those. I used the same primary colours and font (Caecilia), and customized a swishy capital:




    By using the institutional typeface for headings, you evoke the institution in a subtle way. It’s got more finesse than just shoving a logo somewhere on the page. And if you do put in a logo, you avoid having a lot of different fonts fighting each other.

    I'm not too happy with not having more pictures, but unfortunately we just don't have any more that would fit well.

    Alas! I agree that more graphics and a little less text would be more appealing. Nevertheless, this poster has enough space on it that it doesn’t become an indistinguishable block of grey from a distance.

    Related posts

    Misplaced priorities on institutional templates


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  • 11/19/15--05:00: Critique: SAS depot
  • Today’s poster come from Maxine Davis, which she did for a small conference. Click to enlarge!

    There are a couple of things that are very successful on this poster. The colour scheme is very cohesive, helped by the poster being a pastiche of Home Depot branding. As I’ve said before, basing a poster on an existing colour or branding scheme is a handy shortcut, because they’re tried and tested designs that you know will work.


    The yellow highlighting breaks the colour scheme slightly, but it is so effective at drawing attention to key elements of the text that it is okay.

    The poster clearly shows that it is meant to be read in rows, so there is no problem in determining reading order. The big orange “How to” balloons on the left are very good guides.

    Still, there is probably too much going on in this poster. I suspect that the individual sections might looking fine when you’re looking at part of the poster, but when you step back, there is a lot of stuff competing for attention.

    The typesetting is a little frantic. I count at least six different typefaces, which I’ve highlighted below:


    Even when the typeface is the same, there’s a lot of other variations that contribute to the feeling of mild disorganization (bullets, bolding, boxes, italics, highlighting, rotation...). Wider margins might also bring a needed sense of calm to the poster.

    I like the idea of having the top left image acting as an entry point (and making the homage to Home Depot obvious), but the execution is compromised because the picture is distorted. The store logo should be square, like so:


    I would have kept the image in its original, slightly narrower form, and made more room for the subtitle over at the right.

    While it’s not visible in thumbnail, there are some overlap and ragged edge problems between the image anf the author credits:

    I’m not sure about the winking face next to the name. Some will find it friendly; some will find it frivolous. Home Depot employees do have buttons and badges on their store aprons, and this might potentially be continuing the imitation of the flair of Home Depot staff. But it’s not quite a match, and I feel that if you’re going to follow the design of something, you need to go all the way.

    This poster is off to a good start, but would benefit from a very thorough polish of the text, with attention to making the text more consistent across the poster.

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    Posters are a visual medium. But not everyone sees equally well, and I’ve written about taking factors like colour blindness or presbyopia into account in design. But I had not considered the challenges faced by a blind presenter, which makes this article absolutely fascinating.


    Ashleigh Gonzales (pink blouse on left) is blind, and her poster is on converting flat images to three-dimensional ones that could be felt by blind students. I’m fascinated that Ashleigh’s poster (abstract here), has Braille in the title and headings. I can’t make out whether this is actually readable Braille (i.e., raised paper) or not, but would love to find out more.

    The Society for Neuroscience introduced “dynamic posters” a few years ago, and the response has been... well, flat. As it happens, I have not made it to this conference since these have been introduced, so I haven’t had a chance to see, or create, one myself. I’m tickled that the Neuwrite blog has a long post detailing the creation of a dynamic poster. To be honest, dipping into the process of creating something that truly exploits the dynamic format is intimidating:

    My goal this year was to make my “dynamic” poster interactive. ... I didn’t know how to do any of this, but I new it is possible and that, with a bit of effort, I could figure it out. A “bit of effort” turned out to be 6 weeks of sleepless nights(.)

    But the results are pretty amazing. Go to the post to see these in models that you can rotate and zoom.



    The PLOS Paleo blog has started a series about academic conferences. Their first entry tries to characterize the type of people who attend conferences.

    With this potential range of attendees in mind, there is no single uniform audience at a scientific conference.

    Looking forward to more!

    Apple has long been recognized as a company that spends a lot of time thinking about design. But former employees takes the company to task for forgetting the user (not to mention a few swipes at other products, like Google Maps):

    Gone are the fundamental principles of good design: discoverability, feedback, recovery, and so on. Instead, Apple has, in striving for beauty, created fonts that are so small or thin, coupled with low contrast, that they are difficult or impossible for many people with normal vision to read. We have obscure gestures that are beyond even the developer’s ability to remember. We have great features that most people don’t realize exist.

    Probably the deepest article in this month’s round-up. Hat tip to Clause Wilke and Leonard Kruglyak.

    Vox magazine makes the argument that Y axes shouldn’t always start at zero.


    I try not to be a zealot about things, but in general, starting axes at zero is a better practice than not. Will there be exceptions? Sure. As the Vox video points out, if you have negative numbers, you have to extend past zero.

    One thing that Vox overlooks is that there is a standard way to extend a section of a graph: it’s to insert a break in the axis. It alerts a viewer to the non-standard start.

    KatieSci on Twitter:

    Presentation Preference choices for #EB16 abstract submission: Oral, Poster, Indifferent. The “Indifferent” is kind of cracking me up.

    The “indifferent” abstracts are like this:


    PeachPit Press asked Jim Krause for typography tips. I like these:

    Explore your font choices THOROUGHLY before picking a winner.

    Combine fonts that are either clearly alike or clearly different. Middle-ground=bad

    Hat tip to Garr Reynolds.

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    And I thought I was pushing the envelope when I talked about how lingeriedesign could inform poster design. Well, here we go for the edge of the envelope again...

    This post was inspired by the article on the design of sex toys. Once you get past the giggles inherent in talking about sex toys, it’s a very thoughtful article on design more generally, and there are lessons that can be applied to conference posters.

    As I’ve mentioned before, anyone designing anything must always have empathy for the end user. That article talks about how you have to know those users in detail, not just in a vague, “they’re kind of like this” way.

    For instance, if a designer is making something to be held by a hand, there are measurements for every dimension of the hand. And not just for one hand, the average hand, either — measurements exist for every dimension of the 5th and 95th percentiles of hand size as well. “But that’s just not available for designing sex toys,” (engineer Janet) Lieberman says. There is no corresponding data for vulvas. There is no official classification for the many different types of vulvas, and no sense of how common each type might be.

    For conference posters, this might mean considering the average height of people, which would affect where the eye level of a reader is. You should also think about the readers who might have problems like colour blindness or presbyopia.

    The part of the article that made me think the most about my own design practices, though, was the discussion of user testing. Sure, it might sound like fun at first... but think about being the first to try an untested prototype with your most sensitive bits.

    (N)ot surprisingly, getting data on the efficacy of a sex toy isn’t always easy. “If you’re designing a (children’s) toy, you can put 10 kids in a room together and have them all play with that toy and get a bunch of data really quickly,” says Lieberman. But with adult products, designers and engineers are rarely present for the actual product testing, and getting feedback can be challenging. With Eva (a hands-free vibrator for use during intercourse), Lieberman found that women who tested it out struggled to describe why something did, or didn’t, work well for them. And the trials are time-consuming: a week’s worth of testing time for each pair of participants. ...

    Dame Products has also employed the services of a team of gynecological teaching associates — women trained to provide medical students with hands on guidance through the particulars of performing a GYN exam — for one-on-one product testing sessions. Though the GTAs don’t provide insight on how Eva works during intercourse, they do help the Dame Products team examine how well the vibrator is secured by a wide array of labia; and, with their training in anatomy, they’re able to offer the nuanced, thoughtful feedback that many earlier testers could not.

    I realized that it had been a long time since I had showed drafts of my posters to anyone else before printing them. This is dumb of me. I rehearse my presentations I give with slides. Why don’t I do something similar for posters?

    Now, having written this blog for over six years, maybe I do have a little more knowledge that allows me to create something passable without having other people look at it. But that doesn’t let me off the hook for user testing.

    Back in February, when I did a poster workshop, I did a little user testing, and noticed:

    (T)he difference between the intended order of information, and how people actually looked at the poster. Even... posters, with a clear three column order, were not often read in that order.

    How I think people will read through my posters is no guarantee that this is how they will actually read through them. There is no substitute for criticism and feedback. I badly need to get into the habit of showing my posters to others before taking them to the conference again.

    As I was writing this post, I saw this on Facebook, from my buddy game designer John Wick:


    FIRST RULE OF GAME DESIGN: External contact always causes dramatic change to your design.The moment you hand any game—...
    Posted by John Wick on Tuesday, November 24, 2015

    One problem, though, in getting proper feedback is that printing full-sized can be expensive. It would be helpful if you could print a greyscale draft version on cheap newsprint paper before going to the full-coloured glossy paper.

    Finally, the article talks about another barrier to getting the feedback you need for great design: social pressures.

    “The only difference I noticed [between designing mainstream and adult products] was the stigma… that was attached to designing a vibrator compared to another consumer electronic product,” says Béhar.

    People don’t want to talk about their experience with sex toys. (See this probably NSFWthis Sex in the City clip about the reluctance to talk about them and the difficulty in getting user feedback.) I’m willing to bet that when most people get a badly made sex toy, about all that happens is silent grumbling to themselves. There are strong conventions about keeping sexual experiences private, so it takes a certain amount of courage even to leave a one star review on an online shopping site.

    There’s a similar social stigma about calling out bad posters or presentations at conferences. We might say, “Did you see that?” sotto voce at the conference lunch table. We might write a tweet. But to say to a speaker at the time, “The design of your poster needs work” doesn’t happen all that often, because we’re worried about being rude. And that’s impeding our ability to get better posters and presentations.

    Related posts

    Lessons from lingerie
    More lessons from lingerie: details versus decoration

    External links

    Why aren’t vibrators as good as other gadgets?
    Let’s stop enabling bad speakers

    Hat tip to Gerty Z. Picture from here.

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    Lots of poster presentations would benefit from having something that’s hard to show on a static, flat piece of paper. The question becomes how to bring in other elements, like video. People have tried a lot of hacks, several of which I’ve described in this blog. The latest contender? Near field communication (NFC) chips.

    Biochem Belle pointed me towards NFC technology, which this article says are meant to pick up where QR codes left off. Basically, NFC chips are a quicklink to the web, like QR codes. The difference is that instead of scanning a code with a phone camera, you tap your phone to a spot.

    Belle asked if this could be something used on posters. My gut reaction: no. Or at least, not yet. It’s too new and unfamiliar, not transparent, and takes too much work on the part of the recipient. And what percent of phones are NFC enabled? This 2011 article suggested slightly more than half of phones would have NFC by this year. But I can only find predictions, not actual numbers for right now.

    We’ve seen how QR codes are used. A few people using them on posters, but they never really took off as an enhancement to posters. NFC chips don’t seem to solve any of the issues QR codes did.

    Having thought about this for a few years now, I think that the digital future of poster presentations is not in things that let you link to other sources, but in lots of big, cheap screens.

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    Crossposted, with slight edits, from NeuroDojo because I am way behind on grading!

    Michael Eisen recently took all the journal titles off descriptions of his papers on his lab website. This upset some people, which Eisen chalked it up to “the cult of the journal title.”

    Alternate hypothesis: maybe it upset people because it was a bad design decision.

    In exploring design on this blog, one of the most powerful lessons I’ve learned has been that good design is about empathy. Good designers empathize with their users, anticipate their needs, and fulfill their needs.

    One of the things a person going to a lab publication list wants to do is to be able to find articles that interest them. Removing journal titles makes it harder for users to find articles. And while many (but, importantly, not all) articles have DOIs and links, they are not necessarily things that people relate to as much as a journal title. If you need to scribble a reference on a piece of paper – which you often have to do at a conference – a journal name, volume, and first page number is easier than a DOI link. Change one digit in a DOI and it doesn’t work at all. A journal based citation has more forgiveness for error.

    The argument that you don’t need journal titles because everything is on the Internet overlooks that the Internet doesn’t need journal articles. People do. And people don’t always have great access to the Internet, like, say, at a poster session in a conference where there is not always WiFi. People work with imperfect memories (some of us more than others) before starting a search on Google Scholar or PubMed. There are many papers that I look at, and I will never commit the DOI or link to memory. I remember the journal that papers were published in quite regularly, though. I don’t remember journals because of their Impact Factors, but because of the content of the journal, the layout and formatting, and other features. A PLOS ONE paper looks different than a PeerJ paper.

    By removing a piece of information that users expect and want, Eisen is not meeting the user’s needs. Quite the opposite, he’s explicitly criticizing users who want this information. But good design is not about the designer. It’s about the experience of the end user.

    That said, running in the opposite direction is no better:


    This was a joke from Yoav Gilad (archived by Claus Wilke; it doesn’t look like that now). But for the sake of argument, let’s analyze it anyway. Here, the changes in text size for the journals (related to Impact Factor) is, for those outside of academia, pointless, and therefore confusing. For those in academia, it looks like an ego trip. (“Oooh, look at the fancy journal I published in!”)

    Again: design is not about you.

    Now, there is more to life than good design. Removing journal titles from a publication list is a successful act of advocacy against evaluation by “prestige,” which is a much-needed discussion to have. But it may be that users are upset not (only?) because of a cultish belief that journal titles are important signifiers of quality, but because they realize that the design effectively gives them the finger by leaving out something they want.

    External links

    What’s in a journal name?
    Picture from here.

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    Anyone performing live dreads screwing up. At least in theatre, it’s unlikely to be recorded. But on television, those epic fails will live on for a long time.

    This weekend, everyone was talking about this year’s Miss Universe pageant. I am not particularly interested in these events, but host Steve Harvey made an astonishing mistake on live television. He named the wrong winner.


    It was just terrible for everyone concerned.

    But soon after the event, the card Harvey had to read was posted:


    Although this article says, “it’s safe to say it wasn’t the cue card’s fault,” it’s not that cut and dry. When the card was posted on Facebook:

    The post has received almost 5000 comments, many agreeing it was understandable he misconstrued the order.

    Suddenly, the path to the screw-up seems much more clear. This card did not help Harvey. And the problems with this card are ones that I see on posters all the time.

    First, the card doesn’t follow our expected pattern for reading. Instead of the list running from top to bottom, after two names, it suddenly veers right into unknown territory. As this article put it:

    (W)hy would they put the winner all the way down at the bottom, underneath “2nd runner up” and “1st runner up?” Everyone knows what “1st” means, and that’s just confusing(.)

    There’s actually a term for the phenomenon of tending to ignore things that are placed over to the right: banner blindness. In this time of high Internet use, we’ve gotten used to mostly irrelevant stuff being shoved over to the sides, so people don’t look there very much.


    The positions of the three slots on the card becomes more critical when you consider the circumstances when the card is read.

    Harvey first reads the card when three finalists are standing to announce the second runner up. Then, to announce the winner, Harvey reads the card when two finalists are standing. When you have two people standing, it’s easy to make the link from the two people to the two words on the left, USA and Colombia. And which one are you going to read? 

    And there’s one more problem:

    “Philippines”... is printed precisely where a user would likely place their thumb.

    Second, the size of the text doesn’t signal importance consistently. The best design feature of this card is that “Miss Universe 2015” is set in a large point size. But the critical word, the winning contestant, is far too small. It just vanishes off the page.

    If “Philippines” had been the same size as “Miss Universe 2015,” I think the chance of a mistake would have dropped way down.

    One other possibility would have been to make one separate card that declared the winner, with nothing else on it, so you could not confuse the sequence. But it’s easy to say that in retrospect, knowing that Harvey made a mistake.

    I like this redesign:


    Another redesign is here.

    This card may well become one of the most intensely scrutinized pieces of design since the “butterfly ballots” in the 2000 American presidential election.
    Everyone would like to think that they could read a card like the one that was posted. It wasn’t as though the text was unclear or incorrect. All you had to do was read. But the reality is that people make mistakes, and the way you expect someone to read a card is not necessarily the way they will read it.

    External links

    Look at Steve Harvey’s Card – He Was Set up to Fail
    Would you be confused by the Miss Universe winner’s card?
    Here’s A Look At The ‘Miss Universe’ Ballot Card That Caused Steve Harvey To Malfunction 
    Steve Harvey Didn’t Ruin Miss Universe, Bad Design Did
    We asked design experts if Steve Harvey's Miss Universe flub can be blamed on the ballot card
    Don’t Blame Steve Harvey: Bad Design Caused the Miss Universe Fiasco
    Last night’s Miss Universe screw-up could have been prevented with good UX

    Hat tip to Sakshi Puri.

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    I’ve been tracking hacks for videos on posters for some time. Now, Pieter Torrez is working on another version of interactive posters. Read more about this here.

    This poster was nominated (informally) as the best poster of the Dutch chemistry conference:


    Hat tip to Vittorio Saggiomo and Megan Lynch.

    The poster above tries to make use of readily recognized symbols. But how hard is it to make a symbol that is universally recognized? Learn the origins of... Helvetica man.


    Hat tip to Atlas Obscura and Ed Yong.

    In Baby Attach Mode ponders whether a student should go to a conference alone. Some students have gone to conferences without me, and I’ve been fine with that. Others, I would not have suggested they go to the conference if I thought they would go on their own.

    Is simplicity in design overrated?

    Is it as clear as it can be? Then no one cares how complex it is. Build complex things if you need to build complex things. Just put your good design chops to work and make them as clear as you can. It’s the one thing you can do every time.

    Part of a conference is about asking questions. Here’s a guide on how to do it well. Hat tip to Toby Lasserson and Anna Sharman.

    Designer Ellen Lupton talks about design processes here. I like that even experienced designers still have issues picking typefaces:

    Ultimately, you end up going with your gut, but looking at history and context can be a starting point.

    Speaking of which, do designers ever realize they’re bad? The Dunning-Kruger effect suggests not, but this Quora thread has some interesting insights on design just the same.

    Carolina Gómez reminds us that academics are unfriendly:

    in a scientific congress, it’s always harder to approach the “big heads”. It’s not impossible, but circles are so established that breaking into them can be extremely difficult and truth be told, they are not very inviting to let you join. Talking with several of my friends who have left academia, I realized the feeling is a very common one. ...

    The other thing about scientific conferences is the patronizing/condescending tone that some people (big wigs or not) take when asking questions after your presentations. There is always this “frenemy” vibe to these interactions: laboratories that are working in similar fields will ask questions that are aimed to throw you down, rarely to make your research better. It’s not that the questions are destructive per se (sadly, some are) but there are questions charged with dismissal of other people’s work.

    What can we do to make scientific conferences more welcoming to newcomers?

    Prof-Like Substance reminds us not to make figures in PowerPoint.

    I just may have gotten a smartwatch in the past week. So I was primed for this story on how Fossil is going about trying to enter the smartwatch arena. I was fascinated by how clearly they prioritized design (my emphasis).

    Fossil split its team in two. One team worked closely with Intel on the raw technology, making something as small and usable as possible. Another worked on the design and identity of the products themselves. If there were ever conflicts between the two, the tech team lost.


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    It’s been a while since I’ve been to a conference, but this week I was at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology in Portland. These were things that I noticed while looking at the posters.

    Fabric posters are still a minority, but I think you can always count on seeing a few. I finally saw a fabric poster made by Spoonflower. I’ve blogged about this service, but hadn’t seen one “in the wild,” so to speak. The presenter was generally happy with how it looked, although was putting in quite a bit of effort to make it hang right. It is a very stretchy fabric, almost like spandex, so tends to sag.If you are going to have a fabric poster, remember to iron it before bringing it to the session.

    I ran across multiple posters that tried to say something about differences that were not statistically significant. I read text like, “The experimental group was slightly higher than the control (p = 0.07).” No! If the difference is not significant, saying anything more about the relative values of the averages is meaningless. Because if the difference is not statistically significant, you are saying that difference is due to chance, which mean that the difference you are describing could just have easily been in the opposite direction.

    I referred multiple people to this blog post, “Still not significant.”

    Too many titles were hard to read from a distance. The poster sessions are busy, with a lot of browsers, so your title should be visible from the moon.

    I bugged many presenters about their error bars. Most posters I saw had at least one bar graph with error bars, and about 80-90% of those had no indication anywhere on the poster of whether the bars were standard deviation, standard error, or something else. This matters a lot for interpretation.

    Update, 8 January 2016: My efforts to make a graphic for this post backfired. I’m leaving the image here, but several people busted me on an insufficiently nuanced quote about p-values. I’ll pick this blog post from Scientist Sees Squirrel for further discussion.

    While the image here could be better, I think the larger point still makes sense: if your model says your results are probably due to chance (however you set that model up), describing experimental conditions as larger or smaller doesn’t make sense.

    Related posts

    Don’t make errors in your error bars

    Picture from here.

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    This week’s poster is like those “Spot the difference” cartoons that used to appear in the classified ad section of newspapers (dating myself there). Qamar Schuyler sent me a work in progress, so there are two versions. You can click either to enlarge!


    There’s a lot to like. The sea turtle provides a clear cue as to what this poster is about. I wonder if a picture of a turtle ingesting debris might be an even better indicator of the poster’s topic. The trade-off could be that a poster of a turtle in trouble might be disheartening and a turn-off to a potential reader. Maybe the healthy, charismatic turtle used here is the right choice.

    The main data, the maps, are up front and center. The big coloured map is placed just where it should be: right in the upper middle. The caption for it, though, is a little problematic, because it’s been severed from the image it describes.


    In general, you want to place descriptive text as close to the image it’s linked to as possible.

    A similar problem occurs with the smaller maps. While they don’t have to be read in any particular order, they do wind around, snake-like, between the colour map and the captions.


    Part of the problem here is that five maps are the same size, and one – for Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle – is narrower. I would still try to put these in a more consistent two by three grid, and just suck up that the last one isn’t a perfect fit. Perhaps the figure caption could slot into the extra space, maybe like this:


    Or this:


    Of course, I’ve cheated in the sketches above because I haven’t relocated any of the text. Repositioning the figures would require a massive revision of the right side of the poster, perhaps moving the “Results” section into the upper right corner.

    Here’s Qamar’s tweaked version. Spot the differences!


    Some of the differences I caught (not intended to be an exhaustive list):

    • The box around the conclusions has been given a red border to “pop” the take home message. I like it.
    • A graph has been added to results. I like this, too. Visuals are better than words.
    • A poster number has been added. I’m very mildly against this, because I’m not sure it does much besides take up space. On the other hand, it is unobtrusive and might help someone.
    • The proportions have changed a little.
    • The “Contact me” box in the lower right has been tweaked a bit, and is better aligned with the box above it. I would like it more if it was the same width as the box above, though.

    You can see this poster with Qamar at the Ocean Sciences meeting in New Orleans in February. If you can’t make it to the Big Easy, you can read the pre-print of the article here.

    Reference

    Schuyler QA, Wilcox C, Townsend KA, Wedemeyer-Strombe KR, Balazs G, van Sebille E, Hardesty, BD. 2015. Risk analysis reveals global hotspots for marine debris ingestion by sea turtles. Global Change Biology: in press. http://dx.doi.org10.1111/gcb.13078

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  • 01/21/16--10:11: Critique: Thale cress RNA
  • Today’s poster is from Andrzej Zielezinski. It was shown at the twentieth annual meeting of the RNA Society last year. Click to enlarge!


    This poster feels very contemporary and in tune with the times. The style is very close to “flat design” seen a lot on the web: clean, primary colours, sans serif type, very little shading. (Indeed, the website mentioned on the poster has a similar aesthetic.) I love how the core of the poster (the intro, methods, and results) looks.

    The abstract is problematic. At a distance or shrunk down, that big rectangle in the upper left just dominates the poster’s visuals. It draws you in, and give you... blocks of text as a reward.

    I would have tried to lighten up that block so it isn’t so visually dominant. In this quick and dirty redo, I’ve made the text that nice green, for emphasis, but put the box into a lighter, more neutral grey.



    It’s not quite right, but I think the balance is a little better. The better solution would be to remove it entirely!

    The grey stripes in the background are subtle enough that they are not overwhelming. Like the abstract, however, they might be lightened up around the edges f the poster a bit. The stripes are running at three different angles, too: the set running across the bottom is not lining up with the upper left. And if the stripes are going to radiate out from the center of the poster, maybe they should do that in all the corners.

    The title bar is unusual: very few people right align their titles, because that’s not where we are trained to read. In this case, because you have that big abstract block in the upper left, having the title on the left too would have been far too much. Having space around the abstract block helps the overall look of the poster.

    The title text feels a little light. Because it is set in a low contrast light green in a thin font, with a few grey stripes behind it, it might not be easily readable or noticeable from a distance.

    I’m a little puzzled that a website link shows up in two places: under the authors’ affiliations, and down in the bottom green bar. I would be tempted to have it in one place alone. My instinct would be to cut the top one, so I could make the title and author’s section a bit roomier, or maybe larger.

    Similarly, I can’t quite figure out why two logos are sensibly corralled in the bottom, while one is taking a primo spot in the title bar. I’m guessing the one in the title is the institution and the others are funding agencies?

    The genus and species names (Arabidopis thaliana) are not in italics anywhere. My reaction:




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    We have a new contender for “worst graph ever”: the pie cloud.


    What... I mean... Why... I... I give up. Shudder. Hat tip to Andrew Gelman.

    Pieter Torrez has an article on how to create a beautiful scientific poster.There’s good advice on use of colours, text, software tools. The only thing I’m not sure I agree with is adding a picture of yourself.

    Eve Heaton decided to use the trick that every conference vendor learned long ago to attract passers-by:


    Hat tip to Colin Purrington.

    Because PowerPoint is so often used to make posters as well as presentations, I have to link to this long, thorough analysis of PowerPoint’s history and use. The history is impeccable, although the analysis of PowerPoint’s importance is variable and sometimes told in fancy academese instead of plain English. Here’s an excerpt I like (that applies to poster presentations, too):

    Rich Gold, manager of the Research in Experimental Documents group at Xerox PARC and self-proclaimed PowerPoint maestro, characterized presentations as jazz. Slides are merely the starting point, the “bass rhythm, and chord changes over which the melody is improvised.” ... Reading from notes or slides violates the expectation that a speaker can lay it down fresh every time, connecting with the group around a commonly held artifact.




    Check out the list of 2015’s most popular fonts. Plenty of gorgeous fonts, though quite a few would only be good in very small doses on an academic poster.

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  • 02/04/16--05:00: Critique: Gull movements
  • Today’s poster is courtesy of Christine Anderson. This was presented at last year’s World Seabird Conference. Spoiler alert: this poster contains seabirds. Click to enlarge!


    Christine wrote that she was a blog reader, and posts like this and this inspired her.

    Many things work on this poster. Neither the big, big title nor the picture of the gull can be missed. The picture being in a circle helps draw in the eye. The choice of colours, I think determined by the maps, is generally harmonious.

    One of the unusual things about this poster is how it handles the author list. There are six authors, but the lead is quite a bit bigger than the others. I am guessing that Christine was the presenting author, and thus the only person at the poster during presentation time. This might have some advantages for the reader, as it allows you to identify who the presenter is quickly. On the other hand, having the presenting author’s name larger than those of the co-authors might be viewed as a downplaying of the contributions of the other authors.But then again, just the ordering of names does that.

    This technique probably can’t work if the presenting author is not the first author. It would look dumb if the author list was:

    Christine Anderson
    Mark Mallory
    Grant Gilchrist
    Rob Ronconi
    Chip Wesloh
    Dan Clark

    There are two things that might improve this poster.

    First, almost everything could do with some more generous margins. The poster looks a little crowded. The Figure 1 legend looks like it’s just about set to bump into the latitude numbers on the neighbouring map.

    Second, the recommendation for a little more spaciousness also applies to the text. The crowded feeling isn’t helped by the bullets. If you’re going to have bulleted lists, I like them set with hanging indents, like this:


    I also added 6 points after each paragraph.

    Christine wrote that the poster got a good reception, which I am always pleased to hear!

    Related posts

    Critique: fetal movements 
    Critique: Rein it in
    Bullets versus sentences

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  • 02/12/16--12:47: Critique: Autotune
  • This week’s poster from Chris Cummins (used with permission) is not about correcting pop stars who cannot sing on key. This was presented at the computer science conference HiPEAC 2016. Click to enlarge!


    My first reaction when I opened the file was, “A magazine cover!” The title band, the big graphic central graphic surrounded by short bursts of copy all look like a magazine to me. The biggest visual clue was the “5X speedup!” circle is very reminiscent of the sort of thing you see on magazines all the time. You can see this on this MacUser cover:


    I enjoy the overall appearance of the poster so much that the tweaks I might suggest are fairly small.

    The red highlights in the text are dark and potentially difficult to read. While it doesn’t do it in this case, red on blue together can cause an effect called stereopsis:






    I tried lightening the textual highlights (“expensive,” “automate,” “Omnitune” just a bit to match the red in the “5X” circle:


    The difference is subtle, but the reds aren’t vanishing into the dark blue behind them quite as much as before.

    There are at least four fonts in play on this poster, which is more than I normally recommend. It works, though, as the you often see a lot of play on fonts in magazine covers.

    The subheadings seem to be set in Impact. I might have tried looking for a different font, because Impact has been used so much in recent years that it’s starting to look a bit tired. Worse, Impact is almost universally used in LOLcats and memes, so that font might signal silliness more than serious scholarship. On the other hand, memes do say “Internet and computers,” so that might not be a bad thing for a poster on computation.

    Like last week’s poster, this one doesn’t treat authors equally. Instead, it emphasizes who is the presenting author in two ways. First, it uses colour. Not only is the presenting author’s name in a highlight colour (red), the other authors’s names are put in alight gray, rather than white. Second, it uses contact information to emphasize who you should send questions to: only the presenting author’s name gets an email address.


    Like a good magazine cover, this poster is great at saying to conference goers, “Hey you! Yes you! Come across the hall and read me!” The potential problem is that in a magazine, you can flip into the covers to find more depth and details in the actual articles. A poster can’t provide that. It’s difficult for me to tell whether an aficionado has the key details that he or she would like.


    Stereopsis slide from here.

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    Signal boost!

    The American Geophysical Union just tweeted out  a link to a virtual poster competition for undergraduates. You have to sign up my 3 March 2016 for the spring round. Anyone who wants their poster critiqued beforehand... my email address is not hard to find.

    Additional: When I retweeted the link, Terry McGlynn responded:

    AGU meets in San Fran, too $$ for students. The fix? Just put them on the internet. They need a real network too!

    This is a valid point. Is a “virtual poster session” the academic equivalent of the “kiddie pool”: intended to be a safe environment, but kind of demeaning at some point?

    External links

    American Geophysical Union virtual poster showcase
    Conferences need students: make them affordable

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  • 02/18/16--05:00: Critique: Manta ray thoughts
  • This week’s contribution comes from Kenneth Chin. Click to enlarge!


    Let me get to a couple of good things before moving to the ways it could be improved. First, the title is big and cannot be missed. If a title truly is 90% of your communication effort (as I’ve argued elsewhere), this poster is ahead of the game.

    Second, there are lots of pictures of charismatic animals, including up at the top at eye level. It helps to have a subject that people generally like. I don’t know of anyone who hates manta rays.

    Third, the main organization is a simple pair of columns. The reading order is not confusing.

    That said, there are more frustrating things on this poster than good things. This poster is a compendium of common pitfalls.

    There is way to much text, way too close together. That the poster is so dense calls attention to awkward dead spaces in the poster, shown in red below.


    I tried a quick and dirty edit to move sections apart by shrinking the text and images a bit. I also took away the box around the conclusions and bar chart.

    Even though the edit creates its own problems (makes alignment worse), it now has a little room to breath.

    In the edit above, I flipped the order of the figures. Originally, Figure 7 appears on top of Figure 6. Also, there are two diagrams labelled “Figure 5.”

    While the text is a clean sans serif, the bulk of it would be better in regular type instead of italics.

    This poster needs to go back almost to the very beginning. The strongest course of action would be to give this poster a ruthless edit. Cut down the amount of material dramatically. Keep one big picture of a manta ray, show one graph of data, and list one to three major conclusions instead of nine(!).

    But there is room for improvement even without going back that far in concept. Take off almost all the text and pictures. Make a grid. Draw lines for two evenly spaced columns, with a wide space between them, and wide margins. Make all those text and picture edges line up perfectly. Make sure every text block is an inch from pictures, and vice versa.

    A clean two column layout is hidden deep in this poster; I can see hints of it. A disciplined adherence to a grid would reveal it, and leave an acceptable poster.

    After I wrote all of the above, but before Kenneth had read it, he sent me a new version of his poster:


    We’d converged on many of the same solutions! The major one is that the poster is now in two clean columns. Regarding the italicized text, he’s suffering form some mystery software glitch: they’re not supposed to be in italics.

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    I often use highways signs as metaphors for conference posters. This article describes the typeface selection for highways signs in the United States, and the decision to return to an older (possibly inferior) typeface. Hat tip to Amanda Krauss.

    Speaking of highways signs, here’s how they might look if designed by academics:



    Photo from Dan Taber at the recent AAAS meeting. Hat tip to Jamie Vernon.

    The National Science Foundation has announced the winners of the annual visualization challenge, the Vizzies.



    There are some nice ones there. I think this baldderwort image is close to the sweet spot for an academic conference poster.

    What is it about pie charts that bring out the worst in design?



    Vice magazine should know better than to make the thing above. Hat tip to Arthur Charpentier and Dawn Bazely.

    Lenny Teytelman caught this rebellious moment:


    There’s a longer post about the often confusing social media policies of research conferences here.

    I just learned of Jane Richardson, who created a now standard way of drawing protein structure. Computers do it now, but her hand drawings are so lovely:


    It’s a lovely example of how you have to think deeply about something to create a good graphic, but that good graphic can clarify so much for so many. Here’s a blog post and an interview with Richardson. She says:

    Producing a good image is always a lot of work, making a single illustration that shows a point really well is always a challenge.

    I still have to review Ellen Lupton’s How Posters Work, darn it. Meanwhile, here’s a summary of the book.

    A list of logos that make good use of negative space. I do hope the UTRGV Vaquero starts making those lists one day.

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  • 03/01/16--05:00: Lucky seven!

  • This blog began seven years ago today. And it’s still one of my favourite projects. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I do writing it.

    Picture by Lee Bryan on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

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