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A resource dedicated to improving poster presentations. Part of DoctorZen.net.
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  • 06/09/17--12:25: Critique: Demonic
  • Today’s poster is from Christian Casey, and it won first prize in the student poster competition at the 2017 ARCE Annual Meeting. Click to enlarge!


    My first reaction when I opened this file was, “Oh, that is cool.

    My major concern was the reading order. Do I go across, or down? I wanted to make sure I understood Christian’s intent before shooting my mouth off, so I emailed him, and got this generous reply:

    That was probably the biggest problem I wrestled with while creating the poster, and I don’t think that my solution is perfect. I understand the story as a branching tree of related concepts, which doesn’t lend itself easily to projection into the one and two dimensions of papers and posters, so I struggled to come up with a way of presenting things that conveyed the way I see them.

    The idea is that you can read through in more than one direction, depending on what interests you and the amount of prior knowledge you bring, and still experience a coherent story. If you know what problem I’m trying to solve, you can start under the title at “Proposed Solution,” then go to the demo in the center, and then read the extra stuff on the right. If you don’t come with that knowledge, I hoped that you would go to “The Problem” first, read left to right through the top row, and then return to the left for “Proposed Solution.” It is also possible to get a slightly different view of things by going clockwise first, getting the main problem and the sub problems (fonts, input methods), then going to the solution.

    When I started working on the poster, I put all of the sections on index cards and then moved them around on a big table until I found a layout that worked. I don’t have any record of the alternative arrangements, but you can get a sense of what I envisioned from the flyer I made to go with the poster.


    The timeline is made much more prominent to highlight the importance of the Demotic script in our broader effort to understand Egyptian languages, which is one of the main takeaways that I intended for people to discover. That’s not as clear in the poster, but that was a compromise I had to make during the design process.

    The flyer also had a selected bibliography on the back, mainly so that I could avoid using valuable poster real estate for references while still conveying the fact that I had done my research. IIRC I got the idea to do that from your blog, but I don’t remember where or how. You said something about needing to have references, and I didn’t want to do that, so I tried to invent a way to have my cake and eat it too. (Maybe this? - ZF) I ordered prints of the flyers from Moo.com ($50 for 50), and put them in a holder thing under the poster for visitors to take. All 50 had been taken by the end of the second day, so I think people liked that.

    I still have concerns some concerns about the reading order. Having a section labelled “The problem” indicates I am supposed to read across, in rows. But it breaks down at “Encoding.”

    Having one big central figure helps this poster enormously. The decision to put most of the ancient script in red brings is a smart one. But there is, like many things, a tradeoff. You gain visual interest, but some of the highlighted characters don’t stand out as much as they might have against a more neutral colour. Here’s an attempt to draw attention to the highlighted characters; click to enlarge!


    I can see the individual characters more clearly, but the poster as a whole loses its visual punch. Putting the script in gray turns the central space into a drab block that nobody would look at.

    The colour choices for the central script from the Rosetta stone are continued throughout the poster, bringing continuity. The minor colours blend well, too. They are distinct enough to be different, but not so distinct as to be distracting.

    I also like the addition of the timeline at the bottom. Christian did an excellent job of fitting the timeline to an irregularly shaped space created by his columns.

    Finally, while I applaud the placement of the institutional logo down at the bottom, I can’t help but wonder if Christian is a little too modest in the placement of his name. People do care about whose work they are looking at. At a glance, it’s not clear that he is the author. I might have moved his name up next to the title.


    It doesn’t do any great damage to the flow of the poster.

    The judges who gave out that award made an excellent choice. The combination of both big bold choices and attention to small details make this a very strong poster visually.

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    This Twitter thread by Laura Williams about poster presentations began:

    83% expect 10 or fewer poster visitors at large meeting.

    This reminded me of an unfinished project: a formula to estimate how many people you could expect at your poster.

    This is how far I got:


    My efforts were inspired by the Drake equation. The attendance at the meeting (Nr for number ) is the maximum possible number of people who can see your poster (V for viewers). Most of the rest of the terms in the equation are fractions that reduce attendance at your poster.

    Looking back on this was, my favourite factor in this equation (mid right) was, “fc = fraction (of attendees) more interested in coffee (than your poster).” And the postscript to that still makes me smile: “GEOLOGY fb = beer.”

    Geologists do love their beer, I’ve heard.

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  • 06/22/17--05:00: Handouts and other papers
  • The ESA Student Section tweeted:

    Conference tip: Presenting a poster? Consider giving some sort of handout: a print out of the poster, or additional info. #ESA2017

    It’s a common tip, but I got thinking about it. What’s the purpose of duplicating your poster in miniature?

    I’ve always thought the point of having a poster handout was to remind people about your academic work. But I was cleaning off my desk recently, and found quite a few handouts of posters I’d collected from conferences. I’d hauled them back from the meeting, but I hadn’t looked at them for their scientific content or contact information since. The handout had failed in their purpose.

    I’m particularly wondering about the trouble of making, carrying, and tacking up poster handouts in the days where these are ubiquitous:


    If anyone wants to look at a poster later, why not just take a picture of it? If someone wants my email, why not take a picture of my contact info on my poster?

    Granted, there are a few meetings where the conference organizers try to prohibit photographs of posters. It’s dumb and ineffectual, in my estimation, but a handout makes sense at such meetings.

    There is value of creating handouts, but not to give them out when people are standing in front of your poster.

    First, by making handouts, you force yourself to do the “arm’s length” test. If you can’t read the poster when it’s shrunk down to letter sized paper, your audience will struggle to read the full sized version on the poster board.

    Second, you should have handouts so that you can give them to people who are not at your poster session. Most poster sessions are shorter than meetings, but you will be meeting people all through the conference. If you have small handouts of your poster, you can show someone your work at a coffee break, even if your poster session is already over and done with.

    Making a poster handout is usually simple. I export my poster as a PDF, and PDFs can be readily printed to fit the size of your printer paper. As I noted above, if you have a good poster that passes the “arm’s length” test, you won’t have to redo or adjust anything.

    There are maybe two other kinds of paper that are worth having ready to give.

    • Business cards are compact, socially expected, and can be verybeautiful. Even better if they act as invitations.
    • Reprints can be useful if you have already published material that your poster builds upon. People might read those on the plane home.

    Related posts

    Don’t get mad, get playful
    Invitation cards
    Link roundup for December 2012


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  • 06/29/17--05:00: Link roundup for June 2017
  • Neil Cohn wins the “Best poster reuse" award for this month:


    Neil writes:

    Given my last poster, I can't help but design my poster for #CogSci2017 thinking how I'm just going to turn it into pillows afterwards

    This short (30 second) video shows the same data, plotted different ways:


    D3 Show Reel from Mike Bostock on Vimeo.

    Think about what your intuitive reaction is to these different plots. As I have said before, design is all about choices, and sometimes we underestimate how many choices we have in showing our data. You can find more about the data here.

    I’m not sure what the difference between a fact box and an infographic is, but I’m intrigued by this article about the effectiveness of fact boxes. Hat tip to Hilda Bastien.

    Speaking of infographics, there’s a whole gallery of them here.





    Hat tip to Brett Favaro.


    I have become obsessed with titles. This slide about headlines makes the point:


    On average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.

    Hat tip to Barry Adams and Garr Reynolds.

    I think I missed this paper on ways to improve data visualization.


    We review four key research areas to demonstrate their potential to make data more accessible to diverse audiences: directing visual attention, visual complexity, making inferences from visuals, and the mapping between visuals and language.

    Hat tip to Jarrett Byrnes.

    I think whoever made this graph might have benefitted from reading the aforementioned article:


    What is going on with that Y axis!? Why is the Y axis on the left and right? Hat tip to Caroline Bartman.


    There is a course on scientific illustration 20-24 November 2017 in Barcelona. The course will be taught in English by Julienne Snider, whose work is above.

    I don’t drink. So this article’s point resonated with me:

    (I)t’s worth thinking about who is excluded in academe when we found our conference conviviality on drink.
    Hat tip to Jon Tennant.

    Type crime spotted by Ben Valsler, who notes, “Always consider how your layout will look from a variety of angles.”


    Hat tip to Dr. Rubidium.

    Nice set of typography tips. Hat tip to Ellen Lupton.

    California state employees – including public universities – can’t travel to states that discriminate against LGBTQI communities using public funds. That includes for conferences. Simiarly, the Society for the Study of Evolution has struck several states out of consideration for hosting future meetings due to discriminatory laws. Hat tips to Janet Stemwedel and John McCormack.

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    Many conferences have some sort of awards for “Best student poster.” But John Vanek recently noted something I pointed out early on in this blog: the winners are often not very good looking posters.

    Pet peeve: when posters that are simply walls of text win best poster awards, despite all the advice that stresses not to do that.

    This is not surprising. I’ve judged many presentations, and there is always some sort of scoring sheet to guide the judges. Those scoring schemes always weight the content of the presentation (whether poster or talk) more heavily than the visual excellence of the presentation.

    Hey, conference organizers: be like the Oscars. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognize that there are many components to making movies. These all deserve to be recognized. So they have the main Oscars, and a separate ceremony for scientific and technical awards.

    If you are going to judge poster presentations, make two awards.

    • Give one award purely for the scientific content of the poster. Does it have a clear hypothesis, appropriate controls, important finding, and so one.
    • Give one award purely for the visual excellence of the poster. I already have a checklist ready for judges!

    The problem would be getting people to get past the idea that an award for graphic design at an academic conference is like the “Miss Congeniality” award at a beauty pageant. Yes, it’s an award, but not the one that people are there to win and that isn’t taken seriously.

    Related posts 

    The Better Posters checklist

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    Microsoft Publisher is my go to software package for making posters. It hits a sweet point for me between power and ease of use. I recently found another reason to use Publisher: it lets you in to a whole new realm of type you might not have known existed.

    Many professional fonts in the OpenType format include not only standard letters, but alternate letter shapes, or “glyphs.” For instance, you can have you choice of shapes for lowercase “g”:


    Or fantastic artistic swashes:



    I recently bought a new font for a poster, Plusquam Sans, in part because I wanted to play with the alternate glyphs. I almost had a heart attack because I couldn’t find the alternate glyphs at first. But I got lucky, and stumbled up how to use them.

    Of the entire Microsoft Office package, it seems that only Publisher lets you play with alternate glyphs and swashes without too much effort.

    Here’s how.

    Select your text, then go up to the ribbon an pop up the fonts menu.


    Once you have the font menu, look for the “Typography” section.


    In this case, the alternate glyphs are more dramatic forms of capital letters, with expressive swashes. So I check the “Swash” button, and the preview below shows the difference.


    But wait! There’s more! Some fonts also come with alternative number forms, too. In that same section of the font menu, check the drop down options for “Number style.”


    This font has three alternates for numbers. Again, selecting one option immediately shows a preview.


    You can get the alternate numbers in Word. Open the “Font” menu from the ribbon, click on the “Advanced” tab,and check the drop down options for “Number forms”:


    Word also lets you get different “Stylistic sets” for the main text (straight versus curved lowercase “l” and “i”, for instance). But I still can’t get to the swashes, as far as I can tell.

    PowerPoint doesn’t do any of those things.

    I’ve seen some online instructions that say you can get to the swashes in Windows through the old Character Map app. In Windows 10, Character Map is located in the “Windows Accessories” folder,  under “All Apps.” But so far, I have not gotten those swashes to show up.

    You can see a little bit of those swashes in action on the poster I recently presented at the American Society for Parasitologists meeting in San Antonio:


    I have much more to say about the design of this poster (I was very happy with it), which I will talk about as soon as the paper is published. It’s already in the hands of editors, so I am hoping that won’t be long!

    External links

    How To Access All Glyphs In A Font
    How do I access the alternate glyphs in my OpenType font?
    Secret To Add Swashes + Extras to Your Fonts…. Use The Private Use Area in a Font

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    Today’s contribution comes from Annie Snow, who was kind enough to share this poster with blog readers. You will probably need to click to enlarge this one!


    The rainbow background pops. A rainbow is the symbol of pride for a wide community that includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer, intersex, and others (I apologize to anyone who love the rainbow that I neglected to mention). And since lesbian, gay, and bi people are the subject of study here, the rainbow is a clear visual signal for the topic. The rainbow is clearly visible as a rainbow and not just as random colours, because Annie made the margins between the columns wide.

    I also love that the rainbow is even continued into the colour fills for the bar graphs in the second column.

    But I am experiencing some cognitive dissonance when I dig into the content of the poster. The bright rainbow colours of pride say exuberant and joyous, which is not how people normally describe the poster’s topic: suicide and depression. There is a risk that the bright colours might make people see the poster as flippant, trivializing a serious topic. This might be a good opportunity for comments; would be curious to know what others think on this point.

    There are many other elements of the poster than work.

    I love pushing the title into a big central circle, and using different point sizes for emphasis. Even at the small scale, you can’t miss the word “suicide” in the title. It’s bold and different and works well. The cost to this is that the author credit is moved over to the left, in the area normally reserved for the “fine print.” People reading the poster often want to know who did it, and there is a pretty long cultural tradition of author names being close to titles all kinds of written text.

    Annie further breaks the rectangle monotony by using other circular and organic forms as big design elements. While I am not sure how “Earth seen from space” is tied to the poster content (“No borders, we’re all one,” maybe?), the globe, and Émile Durkheim and his quote, have been blended in to the poster well. (Though Émile is missing his accent aigu on the quote credit.) 

    I am concerned about the main body of the poster. There is a lot of text, and the main text is very narrow. This allows for generous margins in the boxes, and makes the layout clean. And there are some smart decisions in the use of icons to break up the monotony. But even with those positive aspects, I worry that this poster can’t be easily read from a distance, or by those older conference goers starting to deal with presbyopia. I am not sure this poster would pass the “arm’s length” test.

    Speaking of readability, I completely missed that the sections of the poster were numbered until I got in an enlarged the text. The poster’s reading order is so clear that the numbers are superfluous. There is an argument, I suppose, for leaving them as they are as a subtle design element. My own inclination would be to lighten them up as much as their adjacent boxes.

    This poster has many interesting and smart design choices, but is weak on addressing one key need of the reader: that is, to read it.

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  • 07/27/17--05:00: Link roundup for July 2017
  • Diana Hernandez has this month’s “best re-use of a poster” nominee:


    How to deal with awkward questions at a conference, by Dani Rabaiotti. Hat tip to Stephen Heard.


    Netflix recently premiered an original documentary about design called Abstract: The Art of Design. I’ve been waiting to mention it until I finished it. Each of the eight episodes showcases one designer in a different field. Each is a combination of biography and case study. It’s good, but not great.

    For poster makers, probably the most relevant is Episode 6, featuring Paula Scher, which is mostly about typography. I also like Episodes 2 and 5, on shoe and car design. respectively, because those are the furthest from my experience and the most novel to me.

    Speaking of typography, Bear Knee Sanders probably had no idea what he was wading into with this tweet:

    Heaven.
    God: You may ask me one question.
    Me: Why aren’t there lowercase and uppercase numbers?
    God: What?
    Me: I wanna write loud numbers.

    Watch the type nerds emerge in the thread to talk about oldstyle letters. If you read this post a couple of weeks back, you would know how to find and use those!

    Being a man, I never knew that women often get told they shouldn’t go to a conference sleeveless. But the struggle is real. Caitlin Vander Weele mentioned she had been told many times she should wear things with sleeves at conferences. Didi Mamaligas‏ replied:

    Dude, this is bs. There’s nothing worse than being sweaty while presenting a poster.

    Arms and shoulders of the world, unite! Be free! (By the way, if you haven’t seen Caitlin’s Interstellate magazine, it’s beautiful stuff.)

    Although this article in The Condor and the responding blog post on The EEB and Flow blog are about conference presentations, the key question of “How much data do you show, and how much do you hold back?” apply to posters, too.

    Random design inspiration: Vintage Vogue covers from the 1920s and 1930s are something to behold.

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    Today’s poster was presented at this year’s Evolution 2017 meeting by Stephanie Aguillon. Click to enlarge!


    Stephanie spelled out her design goals with this poster:

    I worked really hard on minimal text and focusing on visuals. ... I think this is one of the best posters I have designed.

    Stephanie achieved her goals. Her poster is graphic, it’s bright, and you can pull out the main points very quickly. She clearly put some thought into her colours, using them consistently to identify her different bird populations.

    I wouldn’t change much on this poster, but nobody reads this blog for “Yup, it’s good” and no suggestions. The first thing I tried is to go Samurai Jack on the boxes and get rid of the thick black lines:


    My next concern is that the graphs for the results are quite close together. I tried shrinking them by 95% in the version below.


    I also shrunk down the Cornell logo, so that it was roughly the same height as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Then, I nudged both logos so that the right side of the Cornell logo was in alignment with the right side of the title, and both were in line with emails in the author’s credit. Alignment is good!


    I didn’t change it here, but the “Results & Discussion” section lacks a clear visual hierarchy. Here’s the problem.

    The “Results & Discussion” heading is all caps and set large type, both of which are visual cues to importance. But the two sentences below the heading are almost as large, and set entirely in bold text. Bold text is another, different visual signal for importance. Consequently, the two bits of the poster are sending conflicting messages about which is more important. So rather than emphasizing the text, the bolding across the board ends up lessening the impact of the text.

    Stephanie printed her poster using Spoonflower (which I mentioned a while ago). Here’s how it looked on the day:


    The colours are vibrant, but you can still see some distortion from the fabric stretching near the tacks. I think I still prefer paper for most purposes.

    The changes, animated to make comparisons easier:


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    I have created a couple of new resources for this blog.

    First, and more important, the blog has a new, dedicated email address: BetterPosters@gmail.com. If you would like to submit a poster to the blog, or get in touch for anything else poster related, please mail me at this address. (DoctorZen@gmail.com still works, too.)

    Second, the blog now has its own dedicated Twitter feed: @Better_Posters. That’s “Better underscore Posters.” The plan is that this will be an automated feed that will tweet out new blog posts. Blog readers on Twitter no longer have to wade through my other random thoughts about crayfish, scientific publishing, Doctor Who, or what have you. (Those are all still available on @DoctorZen, too.)

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    Today’s poster is from Jacob Martin, which he presented at the Commonwealth Science Conference. Click to enlarge!


    Jacob wrote:

    This was to a very diverse group of scientist and policy makers, so the poster is made for a general audience. The font size is relatively small as I wanted to draw people into the poster to read it and as the poster was A1 (Note to Americans: That’s 23.4 inches × 33.1 inches. - ZF), it was not too difficult to read. While presenting the poster, a lot of people wanted to read the whole poster before then asking me questions about it. I assume this is because of the small amount of text on the poster meant they could commit to reading it.

    I played around with linking the text with aspects of the graphs using arrows and underlined brackets, as I find it takes a lot of text to fully explain a plot without these devices. I also made use of the perspective in GIMP to make the graphs stand out, but this made them a bit harder to read.

    I agree with Jacob’s assessment that adding perspective to the images was perhaps a bit of unneeded flash. Here’s a blow up so you can better see the use of perspective, arrows, and brackets:


    I understand the goal here, but I’m not sure if this is an optimal solution. In this particular example, that the arrows are laid down flat over the graph’s Y axis and label bugs me.

    I am not a big fan of photo backgrounds, but this one works better than most. The “busy” parts of the photo, the plane and the sun, are removed from the text. The text sits over parts of the photo that are mostly colour gradients, with very little complexity.

    Having the four main text blocks circle the plane creates a nice focal point around the plane and the title. This is fortunate, because the title is a little undersold here. The black text, particularly the first line, is not very high contrast against the dark blue of the sky image. Using italics makes the title feel like fine print, rather than the most important thing on the poster.

    The circles are also a nice visual change from ractangle

    The logos are nicely corralled down in the bottom, where they are aligned with each other and not intrusive.

    This poster works well from a distance. It has a strong and distinctive look, and it feels inviting. I am not sure if the details are as successful when you get in close-up. The text and line weights feel a little bit too fine and fussy for easy reading.

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    Today’s poster is from Jonathan Mohr. Click to enlarge!


    Jonathan says of this poster:

    Our study focuses on measurement, which is a pretty dry topic. I can’t say we’ve made any progress on making the material come alive. However, we’ve tried cutting down the amount of detail (which may be hard to believe after viewing the poster!) to create at least a bit more “white space” (actually not white, but you know what I mean).

    I sympathize with the problem. Some topics are more visual than others. Measurement tends to be less visual.

    This poster was based on a template provided by PosterPresentations website. Using a template has pros and cons. Here, the “pro” is that the template provides a clean layout, with everything aligned nicely. Nobody will get lost reading this poster.

    The “con” is that I am skeptical of some of the colour choices. The poster looks muddy and monotome. The text has a low contrast against the background, especially at the bottom. This isn’t bad in the middle, where the darkening background helps make the graph more prominent. But the text on the left and right hand sides fades away. The author credits are hard to read.

    A few small points of contrasting colour would go a long way to adding some clarity and interest to this poster. Adobe Color suggests some cyan blues would be a good contrast to the tans.

    As Jon notes, the biggest challenge here is the amount of detail. Editing always feels tough to impossible, but I have some tips here. I do appreciate that this poster starts with “Key points.” If you know you have a lot for people to read, a summary is not a horrible idea.

    If you have a text heavy poster, as here, consider not using one of the standard fonts. This one is mostly set in Times New Roman for the main text and Calibri for the headings. Those are workhorse typefaces for a reason, but they are not distinctive. And they are maybe even a little out of datenow. Look at new fonts, play with alternate character sets. There are thousands of typefaces out there! Splurge and buy something new! That can help break the visual sameness of a text heavy poster.

    Related posts


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    Today’s poster comes from Francisco Pastor. Click to enlarge!


    I like the central part of the poster. It’s very visual and colourful. The two columns are so clear you could probably do without the central dashed line. There are some alignment problems that could be easily fixed. For example:


    On both the left and right, there are twelve maps, arranged in three columns by four rows. On the right, the right edge lines up with the bar above them, but on the left, they don’t. Similarly, the rows are squished together on the right, but not on the left, even though the left needs more space, because it has a bar graph immediately below it.

    But I can live with that.

    It’s the corners that are driving me nuts.

    This may be a little hard to see unless you click to enlarge, because the white poster background on the white black background makes it hard to see the edges. While the central material has been given generous white space, every corner is crammed to the edges.

    Here’s a closer look at the top, as if it were on a poster board, so you can see the edges better:


    I am not sure you could hand this poster without sticking a tack through the institutional logo (not a great loss) or the author credit (that is a loss, because that matters).

    I have no idea why the author credit is aligned with the right side of the poster.

    And here is the bottom:


    Again, notice how the text in the bottom right is positively threatening to overflow its container, and the logo on the left wants to pop out of its box like a stripper out of a birthday cake.

    When so much of the poster is set in a clean serif font, it seems strange that the bottom suddenly switches to a script font. And not a very readable one at that. If you want to use two fonts, that’s fine, but both should be used throughout the poster.

    Here are some changes to the bottom of the poster to tidy it up. Spot the differences!

    1. Shrunk the text in the bottom right corner box by 90%.
    2. Moved the text in the bottom left corner down to a more central placement.
    3. Removed the dark blue line around the box containing the concluding four bullet points.
    4. Shrunk the concluding four bullet points by 90%.
    5. Fixed one pixel overlap of “Acknowledgements” box on the two dark blue boxes it touches.
    6. Realinged “Acknowledgements and references” text so it was left aligned with the text below it, and closer to the optical middle of the light blue bar it is in.

    The moral of the story is: Every part of the poster needs the same attention to detail.

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  • 08/31/17--05:00: Link roundup for August 2017
  • This month’s nominee for “Best poster ever” comes from the Ecological Society of America (ESA) meeting, and was created by Julian Resasco, with pictures by Andrew Bell:


    I got multiple people forwarding this to me, and saw many positive comments on Twitter, so this one is definitely a fan favourite. I am hoping Julian will submit this to the blog so we can talk about it in more detail later! Hat tip to Jacquelyn Gill, Michele Banks, and Megan Lynch.

    The ESA meeting also gave us a candidate for “best poster reuse”:


    Hat tip to Nathan Emery and the Ecological Society of America.

    Data is the Spotlight is a blog that does for figures what this one does for posters. Hat tip to Arjun Raj and Prachee Avasthi.

    Terry McGlynn makes an important point about conference scheduling, using the ESA meeting as an example:

    Many with “late-breaking” posters are stuck on Friday because they weren’t aware of the deadline, or didn’t have funding 6 months ago. Who is most likely to not get the heads up about the deadline? Undergrads, and folks who aren’t surrounded by ecologists at work. I was bummed to see so many undergraduates - the future of our field - lonely at posters on this Friday morning. If we’re taking student development and equity seriously, can we not punish folks who miss the deadline with a crappy time slot?

    (A) poorly attended talk will have people at it. But a quiet poster session can have zero visitors and that’s crushing.

    Keeping with that theme of scheduling, I’ve noted on the blog several times that most people prefer both giving and listening to talks at conferences. Because talks are perceived as “better,” there is the potential for those slots to be biased towards certain presenters. A new article by Sardelis and colleagues recommends that conference attendees should be assigned talks or posters at random.

    To avoid bias toward later-career men filling presentation slots, conferences should randomize program assignments. Delegates could be informed of and agree to this format in advance of submitting an abstract. Accepted abstracts can be randomly assigned to full oral presentations, speed presentations, or posters, making each program presentation category more diverse.

    Hat tip to Craken MacCraic.

    I’ve been expecting conferences to go fully electronic for their posters for some time now.


    We’re getting closer to this becoming the norm, as this picture from this year’s International Botanical Conference in Shenzhen, China shows. Picture by Robbie Hart; hat tip to Richard Prather.

    Brittney Monus is ready for electronic posters:

    Pros of traveling with a poster tube: you get to meet other tube-carrying #ESA2017 people at your gate. Cons: literally EVERYTHING ELSE.

    But poster tubes matter! Melissa Márquez has a blog post outlining her presentation tips for posters. There’s a little bit of design, and a few other tips rarely talked about. For instance, the importance of a poster tube:

    I travelled from the US to the UK without a poster case and I was a bit embarrassed by how wrinkled mine ended up being.

    Hat tip to Melissa Márquez.

     

    Looking for some lettering to capture the look of vintage scientific figures? Try the Routed Gothic font (sample above). Apparently, some scientists want their figures to look like they came from the 1940s. Hat tip to David Shoppik and Charles Poynton.


    And if you like the handwritten look but recognize that Comic Sans is not up to the job, try FF Uberhand, sampled above.

    I’ve written about the importance of considering colour blindness when designing posters. This post has the same take home message – colour blindness is common, design for people with this condition – but Oliver Daddow’s first person perspective provides welcome clarity about its importance:

    Opinion polls, leadership ratings, PowerPoint lecture slides, pie charts of public expenditure, Brexit negotiation flow charts, political party election manifesto summaries; all get the full treatment. Most books and journal articles are limited to publishing graphics in black and white, due to the cost and other barriers to the use of colour in mass printing. On Twitter, however, they are presented in a veritable riot of colour. In an aesthetic sense, why not?


    The problem is that, being colour blind, I can only read around half of them at best. I can spend time deciphering what is going on in a few of the remainder. The rest remain an impenetrable mass of lines and words, the content of which is meaningless, unless some kind soul provides an accompanying narrative, which in 140 characters is, really, impossible. Where colour “normal” Twitter users can process the data quickly and move on, having learned something new and valuable, the colour blind either must spend a long time fathoming it, or are physically unable to process the data at all.

    This is a list of ten tips for getting the most out of conferences. The plot twist is that this list is full of tips by students, who are still new to the whole conference experience. Here’s some material about posters:

    Nicki Button: Poster presentations at first seem easier than oral presentations. But they provide the opportunity for one-on-one conversations, which can either be extremely beneficial for advancing your research or extremely stressful (or both!)

    Embrace poster presentations as opportunities to learn from experts in your field. Pick their brains for suggestions and invite them to collaborate on your research. To prepare for your poster presentation, practice an elevator pitch and write out and answer all possible questions that someone might ask you. Practice in front of your lab group and non-scientists. Even though this isn’t a formal presentation and you might not ever present your pitch exactly how you prepared it, it is still fundamentally a presentation.

    Hat tip to Paige Jarreau.

    When I started the blog, I did some posts exploring basic terminology. But that’s been a few years ago now, so if you’re looking for a refresher, here are 50 terms used in graphic design. Hat tip to Garr Reynolds.

    Cory House nailed something that I think is lurking in the background of this blog. I’ve said from time to time that posters are not just to convey information. Cory put it this way:

    After attending many conferences, I’ve realized: I don’t attend to learn. I attend to learn what I need to learn.

    A conference speaker’s primary impact isn’t teaching... It’s getting you excited enough to learn more.

    Conference speaking is sales, for ideas.

    Too often, academics focus on posters as vehicles for information. They treat them like a research manuscript on a single piece of paper. And they kill the excitement that way.

    Hat tip to Melissa Vaught.



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    Today’s poster was sent in by kindly contributor David Selby. It was created for the useR! conference in Brussels earlier this year. Click to enlarge!


    The main data visualization gives this poster a strong graphic element at its core. The visulizations almost look like abstract art. David did the right thing by making these as big as possible. You wouldn’t be able to interpret these otherwise.

    David has skillfully mixed both a serif and sans serif font in the type in a way that is not distracting.

    There may be a mild problem with reading order. Looking at the text, this was the pattern I expected to follow:


    Instead, I realized that I was supposed to go like this:


    In fairness, the acknowledgements can be skipped, so I don’t have to drag my eyes all the way back to the lower left. But still, I was confused when I realized that black of text was acknowledgement. “Wait, I’m not supposed to read this yet!”

    David was very clever to link the “Web of Science” data and “Statistics” data using colour. But it still bothers me that the two “Statistics” graphs are spatially separate, rather than adjacent.

    David has a brief blog post about the poster, and wrote:

    One of the key things when doing the analysis was to keep everything reproducible. To this end, all code for the graphs and results is presented in a GitHub repository and vignette, along with the Scribus file for the poster itself. All software used was free and open source. Modulo the raw data, anybody can recreate the design and repeat the analysis for themselves. I also used the vignette to track my ideas during the design process and list some sources of inspiration, even though it’s not really relevant to the actual research.

     Here is the poster on the board (photo: Oscar de León):


    I am pleased to report that this was an award winning poster: first place (shared with two others, like the Nobels)!

    External links

    useR! poster: ranking influential communities


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  • 09/14/17--05:00: Critique: C’est difficile
  • Contributor Abigail Kelly is the maker of today’s poster. She bemoans that she never gets feedback on them. Well... we aim to please here on the Better Posters blog. Click to enlarge!


    I hate to say it, but Abigail’s poster shows the lack of feedback. There are many problems that I have featured on the “Key posts” on the blog’s sidebar.

    • Uneven columns, contributing to unclear reading order. (Do I go across in rows, or down?)
    • Very narrow margins, and noticeable uneven ones, too.
    • Boxes around everything.
    • A barrage of bullet points. The bullets are disproportionately large, and not aligned with the first line of text, as is standard.
    • Uneven logos bookending the title.
    • The tables are in a data prison.
    • Vague and generic title.

    My first thought was that the best approach to this poster was to blow it up, take it as a lesson learned, and start over.

    But my second thought was, “That’s not in the spirit of the blog.” The spirit of this blog is that you can always find ways to make an existing poster better.

    I went back to my usual first step when I try to improve a poster: take out the trash.

    First, I cleaned up the top. I ditched the logos to create space to rearrange the title and author credit. I also shrunk the main image in the upper left, which needed more white space around it. I probably could have shrunk that diagram down even more.


    Then, I got rid of the boxes, and the vertical lines in all the tables.


    The hardest bit was figuring out what to do with the icons in the methods. They were too big, and didn’t line up with the text, or each other. I didn’t want to get rid of them entirely, because they added some much needed colour to the poster. I decided to shrink them way down, and lined up each with the top line of the paragraph they were in.




    Finally, after removing a lot, I added one thing to the poster.

    Shrinking the method icons had helped reveal the structure of the poster. The “Methods” and “Results” now have a clear margin between them. But I wanted another visual cue to indicate the different sections of the poster. I also wanted to add in a little more colour.

    Using an eyedropper tool, I picked up some red from the main figure in the top right, so the colour was consistent with what was already on the poster. Then, I used an artistic brush tool to paint a line above each main heading. That the intensity drops off as the stroke moves right gives the line a bit of an organic feel, so that it isn’t a rigid rule.


    This poster still has many issues. There’s still too much text, and the irregular column structure is problem. But with these changes, the poster is starting to look organized.

    Here’s an animation so you can see the changes a bit better.



    Down the road, it might be a good exercise for Abigail to revisit this poster. Start with the same material, and quickly knock out a new version. I did this to one of mine here.


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  • 09/21/17--05:00: Critique: Sand crab summer
  • Some projects show up as posters at conferences, and then are neatly converted and are published as journal papers soon after. My newest paper (Faulkes 2017)... did not happen that way. The bulk of the paper never got presented at a conference.

    I featured bits and pieces of my new paper on an Ecological Society of America poster, way back in 2012. I wasn’t even there for that meeting; I had my co-author put it up. Now that I have some distance between that meeting, it’s a good time to review how it’s held up. Click to enlarge!

     
    This was a big poster; seven and a half feet wide!

    The graphs in this paper shows up as Figure 4 in Faulkes (2017). But one bit, the crab at the bottom of the third column, made it into a separate paper earlier (Faulkes 2014). Looking back, that picture was a bad choice. One thing I think I still like is the repetition in the four central columns: they all have a map above and a graph below, and a little explanatory text underneath. The picture in the third column breaks the pattern. Not sure if I should have tried to include it at all.

    It was also dumb of me to put the photo on the right column underneath a block of text, instead of aligning it along the top with all the other images. All of the images along the top should have been the same width.

    The poster is mostly grey, because the sand crabs were grey, and the maps I made were mostly grey. When you enlarge, you can see dots on the map are in brighter, saturated colours. I might have made those dots even bigger.

    Although I never presented most of the data at a conference, I did use it in an example I did for a #SciFund poster class in 2016. When I do that class, I always make a poster at the same time as the students, so I am working alongside them and facing the same struggles they are. (Here’s a poster from an earlier #SciFund class.)

    When I was teaching this class, I had just come back from the Evolution meeting where I had seen what has now become the most popular poster ever on this blog. I was very influenced by it and wanted to make something similarly big and simple. I’m happier with this poster today than the one above. Click to enlarge!


    I still like the approach of making the picture of the animals big to act as an entry point to the poster, and staying very focused on a small number of graphs.

    I’m not convinced I found the right colour palette, or typeface. The brown was lifted from the colour of the beach they are found in. The font was Sitka, which I had blogged about as being highly readable.

    I made this poster in Inkscape. I struggled a lot with Inkscape. I know now that some of the things I complained about were not fair comments about the software. I was working with new software and didn’t know how to do certain things. Some of the walls I ran into were the limits of my knowledge, not of the program.

    I did learn how to “export” in Inkscape, though. I managed to keep a bit better track of the “making of” than usual. Watch the poster take shape in this animation!


    You can see that the big changes happen early, as I make decisions about the layout. After that, it’s mostly a lot of tweaking. Moving here, changing the colour there, rewording the text. Trifles make perfection. I may not have reached perfection here, but the degree I got close to it was due to the trifling I did.

    Related posts


    References

    Faulkes Z. 2014. A new southern record for a sand crab, Lepidopa websteri Benedict, 1903 (Decapoda, Albuneidae). Crustaceana87(7): 881-885. https://doi.org/10.1163/15685403-00003326

    Faulkes Z. 2017. The phenology of sand crabs, Lepidopa benedicti (Decapoda: Albuneidae). Journal of Coastal Research33(5): 1095-1101. https://doi.org/10.2112/JCOASTRES-D-16-00125.1
     

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    Best repurposing of a conference poster for the month goes to Wendy Yoder:


    (For something on this Internet, this blog has not had enough cats.) Hat tip to Colin Purrington.

    A collection of awesome seminar posters at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. I may have featured these on the blog before... but there have been more since then, so it’s worth revisting.

    Dan Rokhsar

    Yun Tao (via Holly Bik) observed:

    Our current crappy seminar posters (word doc, comic sans) trivialize the gravitas/seriousness of seminars.

    Hat tip to Jenny Merritt and Dr. Becca.

    Quote of the month from Benjamin Mazer:

    “So you have to make a poster for the science fair? Didn’t you do that in elementary school?” – my mother, clearly not an academic.

    Sparklines are mini graphs inserted into text, created by Edward Tufte. Now it’s easier than ever to create them with a special typeface. It’s called ATF Spark. Hat tip to Dr. Becca.

    Typography jokes:


    Hat tip to Janet Stemwedel.

    If you have anxiety about attending conferences, try this post from the Where There Is Light blog:

    This is a really difficult thing for anxious people, because new things are scary and we love to overthink and play out every worst-case scenario in our head beforehand. However, I know from experience that it is highly unlikely that any of these scenarios will ever become reality and what also helped me is to approach anxiety as excitement and chances for bravery.

    Graphic design appears in a New Scientist feature, of all places. It’s a review of a Wellcome Collection exhibition, “Can Graphic Design Save Your Life?” The exhibition is feature on the Wellcome Collection website.

    This is a tribute to the joy of using something well designed and well made. In this case, nail clippers.

    This nail clipper was forged, not stamped out of cheap sheet metal. It wasn’t just forged, it was forged well, with machines without any rattles or squeaks, and probably inline measurement of temperature to keep the steel exactly hot enough. I don't know how to explain the shock of seeing such a skillfully forged nail clipper to someone not in the metalworking industry.  It was like seeing a dog with six legs, or opening up a lawnmower and seeing the jet engine from a 747. Nail clippers simply aren’t forged, nobody puts that much thought and quality into tools for trimming nails. ...

    I took off my other shoe and sock, and trimmed those nails unnecessarily, just for an excuse to keep using this wonderful tool, all the while wondering “What is wrong with me? Why am I enjoying this chore of trimming my nails, when I could be out skiing?” That’s how amazing those clippers were.

    Rounding out the month with this quote from Sophia Wassermann:

    Posters: my favourite part of a conference cause of all the people & research you can see.

    Me too, Sophia. Me too.



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  • 10/05/17--05:00: Critique: Crab parasites
  • Most of the time, I think my poster aesthetic might be described as Swiss style. That’s the period that saw the creation of Helvetica, for instance. It’s a style that is very spare and very organized, with lots of emphasis on grids. You can see it in this poster I made for the American Society for Parasitologists meeting in 2014. Click to enlarge!


    This was a noble, but in my mind, failed experiment. I wanted someone to get the main point of the poster by reading across the top row. I wanted people to get the supporting details in each column.

    It kind of works, kind of doesn’t.

    The top row works best because it is all photos. The graphics in the rows below that are not consistent enough to make the idea work. The text block in the bottom right doesn’t follow through with the lines established in the two rows above, and the three images to the left of it.

    I still like using huge numbers to bring home the main difference in infection rates between the two species instead of a graph. Simple numbers can be almost picture-like at that size.

    But I’ve wanted, for a long time, to make an elegant poster. I wanted something warmer, artistic, maybe even a little romantic. And I think I’ve finally come close.

    This poster started with an email I got from MyFonts, announcing a sale of a new typeface,  Montecatini. I was very inspired by this font sample for (among others).


    The description said:

    Montecatini takes its cues from the elegant Stile Liberty travel posters of Italy in the early 1900s. The font features distinctive ligatures typical of the time when Art Nouveau emerged as a worldwide phenomenon.

    I wanted to make something like that sample. Evocative and graceful. But when I looked at the available characters in Montecatini, I realized it wasn’t going to do the job.

    There were no lowercase letters. Montecatini might be great for a title, but with no lowercase letters, it wouldn’t do for an entire poster. There were no italics. And I had species names that needed to be in italics.
    I kept looking, and I got lucky. Hitting the jackpot lucky. How could I know that a perfect font for my needs had been released just a day or two before I looked?



    I bought Plusquam Sans just three days after it had been released. The main letterforms were clean sans serifs, but the swashes added the calligraphic look I wanted. (See this post for uses swashes.)


    Here’s the poster I made for the 2017 meeting of the American Society for Parasitologists conference. Click to enlarge!

    This is one of my favourite posters I’ve ever made. Here’s why.

    Using Plusquam Sans gave the poster exactly what I wanted: a little humanistic flair. It was obviously not one of the default fonts that gets used over and over (Arial, Calibri, and so on). But it was still clean enough to read well from a distance.

    The background is a light cream instead of pure white. I wanted the paper to look like a page from an old book. Book paper is often a bit off-white, not the bright white of the sort we see on computer screens. Again, that gave the poster some warmth.

    I picked up on the light pinks and blues in the Montecatini sample that started this whole thing. This turned out to work well, because the light blue picks up on some of the colours in the left picture of the crab. The light pink (used in a couple of symbols in the graph) picks up on the pinks in my hand in the left top picture, and a bit of the warmth in the bottom row of pictures.

    The poster is laid out on a six column grid. This lets you divide the poster in two thirds (the graph), halves (divided by the two pictures on top; sand crab data on left, mole crab on right), thirds (the top pictures), or sixths (text columns and small pictures at bottom). That variation in width of objects makes the poster more interesting, but the underlying grid gives the poster organization and structure.

    Of those six columns, the central four are mostly graphics. Only about a third of the poster is devoted to text. Thus, the poster is very visual, and quick to understand at a glance.

    Plotting the boxes of summary statistics and the raw data made the graph visually interesting enough to hold the space allocated to it. The poster would have looked boring if there were just two boxes in that big block in the middle. Plus, It helps the poster a lot that the difference between the two species is so stark. You can see what is going on easily.

    I am not a 100% happy with this poster, though. I wish the two crab pictures were more similar. One is on my hand, one is on a benchtop. I fixed this in Figure 1 of the paper that arose from this.

    The crustaceans definitely get pride of place in the layout, reflecting my interests. Considering that I presented this at a parasitology meeting, I may have been a little dumb to not have a close-up picture of the parasite species, even if it was relegated to the bottom row of images. I didn’t fix that for the paper, though: still no close-ups of baby tapeworms.

    I felt I met my goals in making this poster: something warm and human that was reminiscent of old European posters. I think it was successful because I didn’t make a straight copy of the Montecatini font sample that started this. I didn’t copy the colour using the eyedropper, or buy the Montecatini font. Instead of stealing the specifics, I stole the sentiment.

    Having had the success with doing something a little more adventurous with type in this poster, I have a goal for my next poster. I want to push the typography even further. I want my next poster to push the envelope with typefaces even further.

    That is one of the joys of a successful project: it makes you excited about the next one!

    Related posts

    How to swash: using a font’s alternate glyphs, text styles, and numbers
    Critique: Protein biosynthesis

    External links


    When two lines of research collide


    References

    Faulkes Z. 2017. Filtering out parasites: Sand crabs (Lepidopa benedicti) are infected by more parasites than sympatric mole crabs (Emerita benedicti). PeerJ5: e3852. https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.3852

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    Today’s poster is a contribution from Antje Girndt, who presented this at the European Society of Evolutionary Biology (ESEB) 2017 meeting in Groningen, the Netherlands. Click to enlarge!


    Antje was kind enough to write her own analysis of this poster:

    It uses a Dutch colour theme and comes with little text. The introduction is pushed to the bottom and I am almost not explaining the methods. QR codes link to my profile and the accompanying data and script at the Open Science Framework. ...

    I like my final product but at the same time, I am not fully satisfied. The lower bit with the bullets, affiliations and references somehow bugs me, but I cannot pinpoint why.

    Antje’s approach is very much in line with the style I have been moving towards lately: make a simple, big statement up top. I think it could have been an even stronger title if the title said “why it matters.” Maybe something like “Sampling methods affect bird sperm data” or “Bird sperm should only be collected with one method.”

    Despite the title being large, it feels less prominent than it should be because the colours are so muted. The authors are jumping out, when the title should be. I would have flipped the colours of the title and authors: used dark text for the authors, and white text for the main text. The shadowing on the title is not helping the cause, either, because it is reducing the contrast between the text and background.

    I would also have put a little space between each graphic element; the two pictures and the graph. The two pictures, in particular, don’t clearly separate out visually.

    Maybe Antje’s concern about the bottom half of the poster springs from a couple of things. I think each element  needed more vertical space between them. It also seemed to me that the “Future studies” statement was a stronger as a concluding sentence. The placement of the QR codes breaks the logical flow of the text.

    Here is a quick revision that tries to address those issues:


    It has more punch from a distance and flows better.

    There are a few other things that I might change that I didn’t put in the revision above. The key graph on the right is a little tricky to interpret. I think each line is an individual. The mean is highlighted, but the difference between the average and the raw data could be enhanced even a title more. There is a lot of white on either side of the data.

    The typeface is a handwritten script that is attractive, but is all capitals. This might make it a little harder to read.

    The institutional affiliations are listed in footnotes at the bottom. I’m unsure about this. On the one hand, affiliations are the sort of disposable information that footnotes are made for. On the other, if you are going to list affiliations, it makes sense to put them at the point of need. It’s also weird that institutional affiliations come between the references about sperm. The references are incomplete, too. No volume or page numbers.

    The QR codes do not follow a good practice: there is no description of what I get if I scan them. There is plenty of white space around them, so it would have been easy to include a description of what each is.

    If you want to compare the poster to the final paper, the published paper is here.


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    This month’s link round-up begins with a big tutorial on making posters by Desi Quintans, “How I make conference posters.”

    Excerpt:

    About my design ethos

    I think that visual design is just as important as content. I believe that by adapting lessons from other fields of publishing, we can design posters that are unconventional and surprising, and yet attractive to look at and informative to read. The alternative is to be cursed with posters that all look the same.

    This lengthy piece covers some material that’s familiar to regular readers, but provides it in a convenient one-stop shop. It’s this month’s “must read!”

    •••••


    Nichloas Rowe has authored Academic & Scientific Poster Presentation: A Modern Comprehensive Guide for Springer. I may have a longer review later, but wanted to bring this to people’s attention now.

    •••••

    Earyn McGee also has a thread on Twitter that describes her lessons as an early poster presenter, presenting at the SACNAS 2017 conference. Hat tip to Toby.

    •••••

    Dan Quintana also provides helpful advice, but it’s more concise.

    Can it be read by three people standing three meters away after three beers?

    That’s the whole thing.

    •••••

    An academic poster in a cartoon style.


    Hat tip to Rainer Melzer.

    •••••

    Kayla Brandi makes a cape of her poster.


    Hat tip to Juan Ruiz and Auriel Fournier.

    •••••

    Amber Dance has a nice feature in Nature on what makes for a good conference. The take aways are that you need to create “hallway conversation,” have a diverse group of people, and pick a good location.

    •••••

    Up for discussion in the PeerJ preprint server by Foster and colleagues is a discussion paper on “Good Practice for Conference Abstracts and Presentations.” Here’s what they say about posters:

    3.2 Posters

    3.2.1 While it is technically possible to make posters permanently available (e.g. on conference websites or platforms such as F1000 Research), some journals regard this as prior publication so it may prevent full publication. Authors should therefore check the policies of their target journal(s) before agreeing to a poster being publicly posted.

    3.2.2 Posters are not peer-reviewed by conferences and may not describe all aspects of the research . Posters should therefore not be viewed as a substitute for a full article in a peer-reviewed journal. However, if a poster is publicly available (and, ideally, searchable via an indexing system or DOI ) it may be cited until the full publication is available (although some journals consider citation of posters as unpublished information rather than full citations).

    3.2.3 The lead author (e.g. principal investigator) should be given the first option to attend the poster session(s) but this role may be taken by other authors or a local presenter (if the authors do not speak the language of the conference). The poster presenter should be agreed before the abstract is submitted.

    Hat tip to Jackie Marhington and PeerJ.

    •••••

    Mice, as depicted in scientific journals:


    This collection, curated by Neuroskeptic, is a good opportunity to think about the choices behind each figure. No two are the same. Which ones work, and which ones don’t?

    •••••

    Jared Spool said:

    “Great designers do not fall in love with their solution. Great designers fall in love with the problem.”

    Hat tip to Julie Dirksen.

    •••••

    Men ask more questions than women in conference sessions. I wonder if this holds true in poster sessions, too? Hat tip to Amy Hinsley and Joshua Drew.

    •••••

    When competing for attention, playing against expectations can be powerful:


    Hat tip to Jason and Asia Murphy.

    •••••

    Kimm Hannula has a little Twitter thread about how conferences can create “social capital.”

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  • 11/02/17--05:00: Critique: Life in the cold
  • Max Showalter had the worst possible poster experience. The thing we all dread. Max wrote:

    I recently presented this poster at a large conference and of the thousands of people walking by literally no one stopped to look at my poster. Ignoring that could just be me (I thought I was charming!), could you provide some feedback on what aspects of the poster might be telling people “keep walking”?

    Ouch. I feel for you, Max.

    What happened? Let’s have a look at Max’s poster, which he gave at the 2017 Association for the Science of Limnology and Oceanography “Aquatic Sciences” meeting. Click to enlarge!


    Max’s poster is far from the worst I’ve seen. The layout is clean and the colours are attractive. Why didn’t it find an audience? As journalists say, this poster “buries the lede.” I think the issue is there is no clear entry point.

    For starters, the title is maybe a little small, and what it says is not helpful to me. I know what “low temperature” and “taxis” are. But I do not know what a “psychorphile” is.

    I don’t recognize the species name. I don’t know if it’s a fish or a flea. It’s a good idea to try to put sort of plain English common name in titles for that reason. In this case, the title might have said, “the marine bacteriumColwellia psychrerythraea.” To make matters worse, the poster switches from the full species name to Cp34h with no warning. If you are glancing at the poster, that is another little obstacle.

    The title says what the poster is about, but not what it found. The result numbered “1” give what may have made for a more compelling title: “a new low temperature record for chemotaxis.”

    A record? People love records and extremes! I might have just made that phrase alone the title of the poster. Extremes are scientifically interesting, because they tell us about what the limits of possibility are.

    The question right below the title helps bring some clarity that the title itself didn’t. But it’s too small, and not high contrast enough. The answer to that question is a block of text that is in a small point size, and stretches all the way across the width of the poster, making it hard to read.

    The layout of the three sections of the results is good. But bar graphs are so generic that they don’t help me know what this poster is about.

    The iceberg graphic in bottom third is promising. The idea of an infographic is awesome; it just needs refinement to clarify what you are looking at. It is a little unclear that I am supposed to be looking at an iceberg, rather than just a shape.

    Finally, the future work section is trying too cram too much stuff in not enough space. Pictures are too close, the type is not laid out consistently (sometimes centered, sometimes not), and boxes overlap boxes.

    There may be other ways to clarify and improve this poster, but I think the lack of turnout is due to a failure in the top third of the poster.

    Fortunately, Max did have a happier story to tell:

    I recently made another conference poster using some tips from your website and won the first place poster prize! Thanks for all the help!

    No, Max, thank you. Contributors like you keep this blog alive!

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    Iva Cheung fires a shot across the bow with a long blog post titled, “Why academic conference posters suck.”

    Ahem. Obviously, I have thoughts on this.

    Cheung begins by noting that there is not a lot of research on conference posters. This is true, but it is expanding. Melissa Vaught has been tracking this on Twitter with the #conferencetopub hashtag. Some fields, more on the health and medical side, are all over this.

    She then makes the arguments that poster sessions are socially awkward. “No one’s quite sure what to do or how to react,” she writes. First, this is a problem with the entire concept of going to an academic conference, not just poster sessions. She even goes on to say, “posters save people with anxiety from having to speak in front of a crowd.” Second, this is a case of, “Your mileage may vary.” I have seen many people who know very clearly what to do and how to react. Some people feel awkward during any social interactions with new people. People can get better at this.

    Institutions should have poster printing capabilities


    Cheung argues that “posters are expensive.” That is not a problem with the poster format. That is a problem of institutional support. I have not paid for a poster in years, because my university has invested in a large format printer and paper. Department chairs and deans should realize that conference posters are a routine part of academic presentations, and invest accordingly.

    Posters force you to think about what you’re doing


    “Posters take an enormous amount of time to prepare,” Cheung writes, “whereas presentation slides can be (and frequently are) prepared on the flight over to the conference.” This is a feature of posters, not a bug. You have to think about your content in advance, and make hard decisions about what you are going to include. When you print a poster, your work is mostly done. Making a PowerPoint deck on the plane trip is rushed, half-assed preparation in comparison. If you make a PowerPoint deck on the plane, you still have to practice delivering the talk so that you don’t go over time. At least you should!

    Cheung notes “travelling with a poster can be cumbersome. Because of their length, poster tubes technically exceed carry-on size restrictions(.)” I have no doubt this happens sometimes, but it seems to be vanishingly small. I know of nobody personally who’s had a problem taking a poster on a plane. Getting a laptop through security seems almost as bothersome.

    Cheung’s next section has the header, “most academic posters are a visual nightmare.” Well, yeah, that’s what keeps this blog in business. But so are most PowerPoint talks.

    We can do better on poster accessibility


    Cheung’s most important argument is about the accessibility of posters. This is an important conversation, and one that I don’t think conference organizers and presenters think about enough.

    Posters are a visual medium, which poses a problem for someone with poor or no eyesight. Cheung argues that “oral presentations give people with visual disabilities immediate access to at least some of the content.” This is true if there is no presenter at a poster. If there is a presenter at a poster, however, the one-on-one nature of a poster presentation means that a presenter can more readily adjust the discussion to take into account the visual issues of the listener. A presenter giving a talk is unlikely to adjust the talk to accommodate anyone in the audience with a visual issue. (See this post about the experience of a blind colleague listening to conference presentations. Also see this post about a blind poster presenter.)

    I have also seen posters incorporating 3D printed elements, which could make some aspects accessible to a visually impaired people in a way that a talk could not do.

    Some conferences are videorecording talks, which can again make content available to visually impaired people. Some people are archiving posters online, and I thought standard text to voice tools would be able to help this problem.

    I pulled up a PDF of my last poster, and asked Acrobat Reader to read out loud. Reader’s “read out loud” was not working for any document, but Acrobat Standard did read it. I learned that the kerning I did to make the poster look better disrupted the text recognition: it treated words where I had moved a letter as separate words. Hyphenated words were also read as separate words. I learned that if I was to archive posters, I should include a plain text version in the description. Like most issues around accessibility, this is not an unsolvable problem.

    Cheung argues that posters are horrible for learning, citing ideas about glucose use that sounds rather similar to some contentious ideas about sugar and willpower. She argues that academic posters are too complex to learn from. I agree that most posters are too complex: this is, again, one of the reasons this blog exists. It is seems to me that any form of academic communication faces this problem.

    Posters help start dialogue


    Cheung suggests more short talks as alternatives to posters. This looks sensible on the face of it. Most people prefer talks, both as a presenter and an audience member. I love talks in the Ignite format. They can work well for small meetings. But I have extreme doubts that they can replace poster sessions or many meetings. The number of presenters is too large, and there is not enough space or time to accommodate them.

    I also worry that a whole bunch of five minute talks will blur together in memory. It is hard to stand out when you have four or five talks an hour; imagine if you are sitting through 10 talks an hour. For eight hours. For several days.

    Talks, by their nature, are synchronous “one to many” communications, typically with limited time for discussions. (And can you image the difficulty in people switching from room to room every five minutes?) Posters are more complex. Audience members can listen to the speaker at different times. The format permits conversations in ways that talks don’t.

    The other main suggestion she has is for conference organizers to building in more networking time. Those hallway conversations are often the best thing about conferences. But just having “the explicit expectation that people with similar research interests can use that time to find each other and chat” is, perhaps, overly optimistic. Talking to strangers is hard. You can’t just put people in room and expect conversations to flow freely. Having a “social object” like a poster helps people identify others with similar interests, and gives them something to talk about.

    Poster sessions fill a niche. Posters provide a straightforward way for a listener to identify who is working on topics they are interested in. (There is rarely enough time to read all the article titles in the abstract book, but you can easily scan rows of posters to find who is doing what.) Posters give people more opportunities to talk individually, and to take as much or as little time as possible.

    I agree with a lot of Cheung’s points, but not the conclusion that we should kill all poster sessions. Let’s make posters better rather than abandoning them.

    External links

    The Zen of Presentations, Part 34: Lessons from the blind
    The Zen of Presentations, Part 40: Lighting a fire under speakers

    Hat tip to Mary Ellen Foster.

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    Justin Kiggins wrote:

    The zone of PIs chatting with each other between the posters was always super intimidating to me.

    Science writer Bethany Brookshire agrees.

    It was super intimidating to me. The only thing that gives me courage now is a press badge. ☺️

    I know exactly what my colleagues are talking about: little knots of people with grey hair talking to each other, and not to the poster presenters. The age differences make it clear who are students and who are the senior scientists.

    The “zone of intimidation” is probably more common and more obvious at big conferences, because there is ample space between posters for people to mingle. Big conferences are more likely to have attract people who go there every year, so there is greater chances for people to establish annual “conference cliques.”

    While that hallway conversations are the best part of conferences, it can be poor form on the part of conference veterans to interact mostly with each other. Some say they plan on being in the “zone of intimidation”:

    Visit posters from labs you like, introduce yourself. Many PIs will be lurking nearby (including myself) and would be happy to chat briefly then.

    Why “lurk” in the PIZI? And why tweet that you can talk “briefly”? Why not talk extensively to students and earlier career colleagues? The organizers of the Keystone Antimicrobial resistance meeting sent this to their participants:

    Please attend the poster sessions and interact with junior colleagues. You are the reason the rest of the attendees were attracted to the meeting. Please mingle and inspire the next generation of researchers, clinicians, and policy makers to remain engaged in this amazing important topic.

    Yes, talk to your colleagues, but try to not have your full academic reunions (“It’s been so long! How’s your partner and kids? Are you still at...”) in the poster session. Get a phone number, send a text, and meet for dinner.

    Another possible solution to that senior people should present a poster of their own. (This is a variation on my belief that senior scientists should have a project of their own.) Get in there in the trenches and remember what it is like to try to attract an audience and talk about the project for hours at a time. Posters should not be the sole domain of first time conference attendees.

    Hat tip to Kat Holt and Michael Hoffman for the Keystone quote.

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    The National Academy of Sciences of the US regularly sponsors the Sackler symposium on science communication. I’ve had gripes with them in the past. I have another this year :

    Increase of poster sessions, at the expense of actual speaking opportunities, has a negative effect on #scicomm training of young scientists. – John Burris (Tweeted by Kat Bradford)

    “We’ve moved away from encouraging graduate students to speak as part of their training – poster sessions instead of seminars etc. Creates an oral skills gap.” (Tweeted by Lou Woodley)

    Burris: Our educational system has moved away from #scicomm (ex. grad talks have been replaced by poster sessions). (Tweeted by Sarah Mojarad)

    This sounds a lot like a “Back in my day...” opinion that is not provable. Are presentation skills worse than they used to be? Maybe, but maybe not.

    Poster sessions are the domain of academic conferences. Presentations at conferences, whether oral or poster presentations, are not the sort of broad science communication. Giving a lot of academic conference talks to peers does not in and of itself does not make someone an effective science communicator.

    Similarly, it’s weird to worry about an “oral skills gap” when most scientists are never going to get to speak in front of large audiences. Successful science communication isn’t about going on a lecture circuit now. Science communication that reaches a lot of people is about television and the internet. (Smaller scale science communication is important too, but

    I appreciate Mammody coming to defense:

    I mean okay, yes, getting up in front of people is important, but “audience” is not always literally an audience in a theater or conference room – poster sessions do provide great opportunities to talk about your research and actually engage in dialogue.

    Exactly. Burris seems to think that people giving a poster don’t talk. In contrast, someone at a poster session may be talking for hours instead of 12 minutes.

    I’m going to flip the script. We should not chastise conference organizers and poster sessions for taking away students’ opportunities to talk (which I doubt). Instead, we should praise posters for introducing visual skills to students that would otherwise not be taught at all.

    Look, it seems that one of the most effective communication campaigns last year was carried out by Russia. It appears Russia successfully influenced the 2016 US election. What was one of their methods of choice? Tweets, Facebook posts, and memes, like this one:


    This is visual communication.

    This is what thinking and working with posters can teach you.

    And for all its problems, there is no denying the success of I Fucking Love Science, which has something in the neighbourhood of 25 million followers. It got to that number the same way as Russia: with pictures. As this critique of IFLS notes:

    What you actually “love” is photography, not science.

    As I noted elsewhere:

    There is a lot to learn from the successful formula of I Fucking Love Science. Pictures get shared; see the data from Google Plus below:


    People interested in spreading their science shouldn’t just work on their sound bites. They should work on their social media meme images.

    Visual communication is powerful communication. Making posters should teach scientists how to focus on creating fewer, more focused, more powerful images.

    Update: Close to the end of the day, someone finally remembered imagery:

    What picture do you use to illustrate your point? What is this picture conveying to the audience? Finally the importance of #visualcomm mentioned at the #SacklerSciComm – Tweeted by Dominique Brossard

    External links

    Self-defeating prophecy (2012)
    Sackler symposium still doesn’t practice what it preaches (2013)
    Sackler improves (2013)

    Visual communication image from here.