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A resource dedicated to improving poster presentations. Part of DoctorZen.net.
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  • 04/06/17--05:00: Critique: Fear of death
  • Today’s poster comes from Anthony Biduck. Click to enlarge!


    This poster is unusual, because there are not graphic elements here. There is only text. This poses a challenge, because text blocks are not terribly visually appealing.

    The good news is that the typesetting is clean. There poster is written in sentences and paragraphs. There is not an over reliance on bullets, with the couple of numbered lists making sense. I personally would prefer to have zeroes before the decimals in the results (that is, -0.36 instead of -.36) and conclusions (that is, 0.07 rather than .07).

    I results in the table are listed in order of “strongest correlation to weakest correlation.” That some correlations are positive and some are negative confuses the ordering. Instead of the raw correlation, r, an alternative might be to use r2. This value is often reported, because it explains how much of the variation is explained by the factor at hand. It also happens to make all the values in the table positive.

    There is not much colour, but orange and blue draw from the logo, and are nice contrast colours.

    The one problem I have is the title placement. Placing it on the right de-emphasizes it. I will say again: the institutional logo is not more important than the title. Nothing should be more important than the title. This becomes even more true where there are no graphics to draw in a viewer. The title becomes your one and only shot at capturing passers-by. You cannot afford to bury the lede, as journalists say.

    At the very least, the order could be flipped:


    Now the title is in the place where a reader will look first. But even with the switch, the institutional logos is competing for attention. The title will benefit from being much bigger:



    Now the title can be read more easily. I know some people are attached to their institutional logos, so here is a version that includes a logo in a more subtle location.


    The logo used here is a transparent version grabbed from online. It has the same palette of blues with blues and a hint of orange, so still fits. A transparent version of the one in the original would fit the space better, though.

    Related posts

    Your title is 90% of your poster

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    Today’s poster comes to us courtesy of Catherine Chen, who was kind enough to share. Click to enlarge!


    Catherine supplied this in an editable file, so the easiest way to go through this critique is to show how this poster could change.

    The first thing that jumped out when I opened up the file is that title area. The longer I write this blog, the more interested I am in the titles of posters and how they are presented. Titles are just critically important. As I wrote last week (and before), nothing should compete with the title.

    Here, your eye is drawn to that big blue band running across the top, and not the title. It is arguably the most optically dominant thing on the entire poster. I kind of like the idea of the bar as a separator, but it needs to be smaller, opening up the space around the title.


    In addition to shrinking the bar,  I made other, less obvious tweaks.

    I shortened up the institutional addresses. Will anyone need a zip code while viewing a poster? Rather than footnotes leading to institutional addresses every author, I just had one for the single person who was different than the others. The result is more white space that clearly separates the logos from everything else.

    Speaking of the logos, I added a thin blue line around the top “Parkland” logo so that it was more clearly a rectangle. Now, it becomes more obvious when the two logos are the same width.

    Next, I continued creating space. This poster has so much text that it looks like a manuscript draft rather than a poster. When I have the chance to do a makeover, I always try to preserve the original style of the poster, so I didn’t edit the text much.

    The effect of so much text was made worse because everything was pushed far too close. I selected “View grid,” set a grid for one inch. Then I made sure everything was an inch from anything else. That is:

    • The text is an inch from the margin.
    • The columns have an inch between each of them.
    • The figures have an inch of white space left, right, top and bottom. Exception: when two pictures are parts of a single figure.Then you want them to be closer to indicate visually that they belong together.


    At this point, I realized that some of the figures had arrow in them. I literally had not noticed them until I zoomed in for some other reason, which tells you those are too innocuous. The ones over the right hand images were were so low contrast (dark brown over black) that they were practically camouflaged. I made those white, and made them bigger.

    I also added the “A” and “B” to the black figures on the right. I harmonized all the figure labels, making them the same font (Franklin Gothic Medium Condensed) as the rest of the text.

    I also took out a lot of lines in the table.


    I still wasn’t done with that title, though. I didn’t like that there was so much unused space at the top.  I upped the ante, and made it even bigger.

    I also tweaked the spacing so the top of the letters in the title were aligned with the images on either side. The automatic “snap to grid” doesn’t always do it correctly, so sometimes you have to do it by eye.


    I did a little editing to make the left column fit more comfortably in its space. I also made the text in the right column the same colour as the left.


    I also tried the poster with the text justified.


    The difference isn’t large, but it does emphasize that items are squared up in a way they weren’t before.

    Here’s the transformation in animated form! Hopefully, this makes the impact of the changes easier to see.


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    Today’s contributor is Jodene Pappas. This poster is a bit of a break from the usual natural science that we see here on the blog, for which I am grateful. Click to enlarge!


    My computer was not able to import the font correctly for the makeover I am about to show you. So the text does not quite represent what the author intended. But I wasn’t focused on the text, anyway. No, I want to talk about those arrows.

    Arrows generally represent not only a failure of design, but a public admission of that failure. It says, “I know I screwed up, and that the order doesn’t follow the normal reading rules.”

    The ethos of this blog, though, is to make things better. This means you work with what you have, and not always throw away the existing style.

    My first concern is that the arrows are darker than almost everything else on the page. And the dark blue fill isn’t represented anywhere else on the eposter. This makes them stand out optically more than almost everything else on the page. The first step was to make the arrows lighter and harmonized with the other colours in the poster. I pulled the colour from the blue down in the left hand side.


    The next things I wanted to address was the placement of the arrows. The arrows weren’t obviously aligned in any consistent pattern. I tried to center each arrow to something, but still had to give up in the top right most one, which pointed into white space.


    Another little bit of colour harmonizing was in the text boxes. In the versions above, there is a thin light line, surrounded by a heavier, darker shadow. I make the two of them the same colour. I also wanted to make the shadows equally thick, but couldn’t figure out how to do it.


    Finally, the placement of the arrows was still bugging me. The arrowheads weren’t consistently clearly past the outline of the box they were pointing to. I moved them so that the flat end of the arrow was flush with the text box it was emerging out of.


    I turned the lines around the images from a black to the same light colour that surrounds the text boxes and outline the arrows.

    Now, when you look at this poster, the emphasis is on the content, not how you navigate through the content.

    Here, you can see the changes unfold:



    Related posts

    Don’t hold my hand

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  • 04/27/17--05:00: Link roundup for April 2017
  • I’ve seen a few creative re-uses of fabric posters before, but Rolf Hut is the new champion of poster recycling. I think Clicking to enlarge is mandatory to appreciate this in its full spendour.


    This Netherlands site also promises to allow you to re-use your poster in equally creative ways.

    Hat tip to Elizabeth Sandquist.

    Hanna Isolatus ran a poll on Twitter that is relevant to the interests of this blog! Justify the text on a poster, or ragged right?


    With just a 2% difference, clearly the battle is set to rage on. I personally have no strong preference for a poster.

    Vivid Biology is a Twitter account from a scientific illustration studio of the same name that brings a strong graphics sensibility to illustrating biological facts. The approach that they bring is one that would work well for posters, too.


    Hat tip to Dan Tracy.

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  • 05/04/17--05:00: At a distance
  • Here are two posters from the same conference, photographed at roughly the same distance. (Identifying information has been slightly pixelated.)


    This poster is not using its available space well. The board is half empty. But although I cannot read virtually anything at this distance except maybe the headings and title, I can see that there are bar graphs on the poster. I can see blocks of colour.


    This poster is about the same size the one above, and suffers from not using its available space well. But it’s suffering in so many more ways. The content of the poster has faded away in the distance like disappearing into a fog. There are no blocks of colour; everything has turned to gray. You can make out that there are columns of text, but you can’t make out anything about the figures.

    I am not sure either of these posters would pass the “arm’s length” test. But while both posters are far from ideal, the top one succeeds in that at least at these long distances, you can make out something that is recognizable.

    The smaller and further away you can get from your poster and recognize something on it, the more successful your poster is likely to be. Even if that is just blocks of colour.

    Related posts


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  • 05/11/17--06:27: Critique: Motor math
  • Not one but two posters are up today! This is fun, because I don’t often get to show people trying different things. Today’s posters are both from Chris Miles, a graduate student in mathematics. Chris writes:

    I’m in a weird misfit field: mathematical biology, which seems to take certain aspects of each culture, like posters from biology. However, this leads to some culture clashes, like having a math-heavy poster. I guess my question is: how math-heavy is too math-heavy if math is the focus of the poster?

    This is an excellent question, and reminiscent of a similar question I got about posters in the humanities. Let’s see.

    Here’s Chris’s current poster (which you can click to enlarge):


    I like this. Clean, straightforward. Colouring a lot of the text bring some visual interest.

    There are a couple of elements that distract me.

    The right side of the title bar. The logo on top of the names on top of the department affiliation are not harmonizing. I expect to see more space around the logo, and the right side of “diffusion” in the title over Christopher’s name also throws me.

    I like the light dashed lines between the columns, which add a nice graphic touch in a text heavy poster. I’m not crazy about the horizontal lines between the sections, though.

    For comparison, here is a poster Chris did from last year, about which he says, “It had a very different vibe (but I won an award for despite being not super thrilled with).”



    This one suffers from the clutter, which is such an easy hole for new poster makers to fall into. The title is too small, text is too close to the margins, and there is just a sense of “too much stuff.”

    On the plus side, this one does a bit better job of giving a viewer an “entry point” and conveying the topic at a glance. Since I am a biologist, I recognized the images of motor proteins and microtubules under the title and on the right column immediately.

    I wonder if a line of microtubules might be used in the current poster to replace the dashed lines dividing the columns.

    Overall, I think the new one up top is better that the one below. It’s simpler and cleaner. I’d be more likely to stop at it if I was browsing, because I would be turned off by the clutter of the old one. But, if motor proteins were my thing, I might be more likely to stop at the old one because I can more easily see what the topic is.

    To get back to Chris’s question, “How much math-heavy is too math-heavy?” Not all math is created equal for poster purposes. For instance, I could write this on my poster:

    y = ½x + 2

    Or, I could put something like this:


    Because I am not a mathematician, I don’t have a good sense of when you can show something visually versus when you need an equation. But equations alone are tough. The standing joke is that each equation loses half the audience.

    Perhaps the key with a math heavy poster is to provide something on the poster that is not math, to give people a way in. I recall one math poster that had a lot of equations, but it also had a picture of one of the historical mathematicians whose work was the basis for the poster. It made the poster much more approachable. 

    It’s hard to underestimate the value of having even just one thing on a poster that is instantly recognizable and does not need to be deciphered or explained. A photograph does that. Artwork or a single word might do that. A sentence, graph, or equation won’t do that.

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    Margaret Moerchen wrote:

    Every poster needs an executive summary like this!


    I appreciate the sentiment here. Summaries are good. Highlighting those summaries is also good. But this doesn’t go far enough.

    Four bullet points is too much.

    Let’s turn the mic over to “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, who famously pronounced:


    Would Austin get the same reaction from the crowd if he said, “And those are the bottom four lines”?

    Do we say, “Get to the points?” “Cut to the chases”? No. It’s singular in every case.

    Here’s what I would suggest. Drill down those four points to one. Looking at the points above, I might suggest: “New techniques to measure carbon contents in vapor bubble,” or “Carbon content in the Hawaiian plume may be higher than in the MORB mantle.” Which I’d use would depend on whether I wanted to emphasize the techniques or the preliminary results.

    Then, instead of sticking that one point away as a bottom line, make that one point the title of your poster. Don’t make people with 30 seconds hunt for your most important thing. Make it literally the first thing they read.



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  • 05/25/17--05:00: Link roundup for May 2017
  • R users may be interested in this poster... not sure what to call it. Template? Package? It’s here, in any case. I am not an R user, so I am not in a position to evaluate it.


    Hat tip to Karthik Ram and Milton Tan.

    Rolf Hut proclaims this the best poster from EGU 2017 meeting.


    Nevertheless, controversy erupted.



    Hat tip to Nasty Lab Manager.

    Dani Rabaiotti has a long post on conference etiquette. It is mostly concerned with asking questions and avoiding the “all out war” scenario. Hat tip to Stephen Heard.

    Catherine Cavallo forwarded this advice from Graham Phillips of the Australian television show Catalyst. While I think it is geared to journalists, it applies to posters, too.


    Hat tip to Melissa Márquez.

    A free little ebook on using Inkscape for biological illustration. Hat tip to Chris Borkent and Morgan Jackson.

    Melissa Márquez has a post on conference networking.

    At its core, networking isn’t about how other people can help you… it is how you can help other people.

    This is an example of blackletter:


    You don’t see it used much any more. The historical reasons why are fascinating:

    The government of one of the world’s great powers banned a typeface. That is the power of a symbol.
    .
    It is just one example out of a longer piece on typography and politics by Ben Hersh.

    Speaking of typography, YouTube has a typeface all its own. The designers used the power of pastiche to good effect while creating it.


    Hat tip to Nancy Duarte.

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    Wearing black make you cool. Everybody knows that. But while black on black makes an awesome fashion statement, it is a terrible communication statement.

    I saw a poster earlier this year that had its title – the thing that is the only thing most people at a conference will see about your poster – in this colour scheme: dark green text on black.


    Rather than posting a picture of the poster itself, I used the eyedropper tool to copy the colours from a picture I took of it on the board. Keep in mind that the colours you see might vary, depending on how the image is positioned on your screen. But I doubt anyone will look at that and think that colour combination makes for easy scanning.

    Let’s put the same dark green text over the black, as it was on the poster, and white for comparison:


    You have to enlarge and squint to read that text over the black background. The white background makes the text almost infinitely easier to read.

    The authors of this particular poster weren’t done, though. They ran with their colour scheme, and used black and green again for section headings. Plus ten points for commitment, minus several hundred points for practicality.


    This colour combination is a tiny bit better than the title, but again, it would be easier to read over straight white:


    If you liked the black background, you could go the other direction with the text, and lighten the words up:



    Forget that black on black looks cool. Your title needs to be high contrast. People have to be able to read your title, at a glance, from a distance.

    Journalists call it “burying the lede” when a story sticks the key point of information way down near the end. This poster didn’t just bury the lede with its dark on black colour choices, it buried the lede in an unmarked grave in the woods at night.

    Top picture from here.


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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.