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A resource dedicated to improving poster presentations. Part of DoctorZen.net.
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    Contrast matters, and web page designers are starting to forget that. Kevin Marks delves into how grey text is becoming so prominent on the web. Marks notes something I’ve talked about before: the difference between the screen and a poster handing on a wall.

    (W)hen you design in perfect settings, with big, contrast-rich monitors, you blind yourself to users. To arbitrarily throw away contrast based on a fashion that “looks good on my perfect screen in my perfectly lit office” is abdicating designers’ responsibilities to the very people for whom they are designing.

    Hat tip to Robert J. Sawyer.

    It’s great when you have a lab to go to a conference with. But not everyone has a lab. Here are tips for how to rock a conference solo.

    An occasional reminder that if your poster hangs for several days, create opportunities for people to give feedback when you are not there:



    Hat tip to Ciera Martinez.

    Stephen Heard is unimpressed with most conference badges. This led me to another discussion of badge shortcomings, both of which reminded me of an older article on conference badges in American Scientist (paywalled).

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  • 11/03/16--05:00: Critique: Catalyst judging
  • Today’s contributor is Luca Biasolo, who gave me permission to show this:


    This poster has more ambition and design sense than probably 90% of the posters I see at conferences.

    I like that Luca committed to the green colour scheme, but I almost want a little more variation in colour. There is a little red and blue in the figures, so I wonder if those could be used someplace else in the poster, like the numbers in the headings. Maybe even some lighter or darker shades of green would break it up a little more. I’m not sure if I’m right on this; maybe it should stay the way it is. Luca wrote:

    I’ve tried few colors more but it was a bit confusing. Maybe I haven't choosen them right ones or I mixed them to much. You are free to try. ;)

    My major in looking at this poster was whether the numbers in the headings reflected the intended order? Luca replied that yes, that was the intention. That is, the reader is supposed to go around the poster clockwise:


    My reaction to this might be summed up thus:


    I think the idea is that because the central image is a cycle, the rest of the poster should also follow the path of that cycle. I think that’s going a bit too far. That might work if that central cycle was much bigger and more dominant part of the poster, but it isn’t. So the cycling around just seems out of place.

    In fairness, I do think that the use of numbered headings here is appropriate. If you are going to deviate from the expected reading order, I do appreciate that you warned me about it.

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  • 11/10/16--05:00: Critique: Establishing axons
  • Today’s contribution was tweeted out by Christopher Leterrier. Click to enlarge!


    This poster promptly attracted compliments, and Christopher asked for my take.

    This poster has one obstacle standing between it and total victory: it is dense.

    This poster was made for the massive Society for Neuroscience meeting. With attendance usually around 30,000, people at that conference are already coping with information overload. Unless someone is already very interested in axons, she or he is unlikely to stop at a poster with 108 micrographs and 25 bar graphs (I counted).

    That said, this poster convinces me that anyone who does stop to talk to the author will be rewarded. It’s clear that Christopher put a lot of thought into organizing this.

    The layout is clear. All the data sections are structured exactly the same way, so that once you understand one, you should be able to follow them all.

    Each section has a clear take home message. The one exception is one that Christopher himself identified:

    Now that I look at it, “Conclusion and Perspectives” is wrong. Obvious title and zero specific info!

    I agree with that self-assessment. Positive statements win over generic headings!

    Looking at this poster shrunk down at thumbnail size, the poster number in the upper right is a shade too big. It’s bigger and more prominent than the title, and I generally argue that nothing should compete with the title. That said, this problem is not a bad one, because the poster number is well separated from the title, and the title is large and easily read.

    This poster tries to fit an entire manuscript on to a single piece of paper. I do not recommend that as a strategy for a poster. But, given that decision to put all that information on the page, this poster solved the problem probably as well as it could be solved.

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  • 11/17/16--05:00: Critique: Making enzymes
  • Today’s contribution come from Ian Haydon, who is kind enough to share it with us. Click to enlarge!


    Ian writes:

    The attached poster won best in show at my departmental retreat last week. I think why this took best poster was that two of the judges commented that I “told a nice story” (at least when I talked them through the poster, not clear it's as evident as a static document)

    I designed the entire thing in Google Slides.

    I think that makes Ian’s poster a first. I don’t think I have ever shown a poster made in Google Slides on the blog before. Ian wrote:

    I love Google’s web apps. I make all my presentations in Slides and use Docs for all word processing so I’m quite comfortable with the controls. They offer all the essential features I’d use in fuller apps like Powerpoint/Keynote/Word, plus they cut out all the junk fonts and themes that I’d never use anyway. The ability to access all my media from any device is a huge plus. The collaboration tools are also top notch. I shared this poster with labmates in comment-only mode to get feedback before printing, for example. And Google apps never crash on me.

    The only trick to using Google Slides to make a poster in is setting up the slide size. File > Page Setup > Custom. This should be done before you do any work, because changing it later will cause everything to scale to the new slide size.

    Once I am happy with the final poster design, I save it as a giant PDF and print that.

    This poster is built on a solid foundation. It’s a three column layout with a clear reading order, and everything is big enough that it can easily pass the “arm’s length” test. The colours are consistent and relaxed.

    I appreciate that the institutional affiliations in the title bar are widely spaced. That makes it easy to match the subscript behind the author’s name with the institution.

    My main concern is with the amount of white space on this page. Everything fits. Nothing is touching, but nothing feels comfortable, either. It feels like:


    For comparison, standard letter paper (8½ × 11”) usually has about a one inch margin. If this poster is shrunk down to about that size, 7½ × 10”, the margins would be something like an eighth of an inch. When we are so used to seeing documents with larger margins, tiny margins look weird, no matter how well organized everything is within them. I would try shrinking major elements of the poster by 90-95% to provide those wider margins.

    I’m never a big fan of logos bookending the title. But the title here is short, at least, so the logos are not chewing up room the title needs. But my objection to having the logos in the title is compounded a bit by the right one, the stylized “P,” being repeated down in the right corner. Putting two logos down in the corner doesn’t quite work. First, one is left aligned, while the other is centered, creating some visual tension between them. Worse, the two don’t line up:



    Some of the colours used to highlight phrases in the text are a bit cryptic. The colours seem to be referring to elements in adjacent images, but I’m always not sure how. In the example below, the highlighted gold text refers to “missing side chains,” but the yellow in the diagram below (the closest visual match) seems to show alpha helices that are present, not side chains that are missing.


    This may reflect my own ignorance more than it represents a design flaw, however.

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    The posters up for the National Science Foundation’s annual Vizzie awards make for an interesting gallery. Some nice work there! Vote for your favourite!


    Every panel in the figure above shows the same data. It’s a nice example of the choices you have to make in the design process, from Rousselet and colleagues. They are also the latest to fire salvos against bar graphs, with neuroscience being their main target:

    Unfortunately, graphical representations in many scientific journals, including neuroscience journals, tend to hide underlying distributions, with their excessive use of line and bar graphs.


    Your colleagues in Human Resources are making posters, too. Check this guide for making posters for Human Resources procedures.

    I disagree with the final advice of, “Start with a template,” though. To me, that leaves too many decisions in the hands of other people, and they may not be good ones. How many below par PowerPoint decks have we sat through because people just grabbed whatever template was there?

    Hat tip to Sarah McGuire.

    I’ve been on a social media diet, so I don’t have as many poster related goods from Neuroscience 2016 as I sometimes do. But:

    Fabric posters still don’t look as sharp as paper, according to Anne Martin:

    I’ve yet to see a fabric poster that isn’t fairly wrinkled.

     Elizabeth Sandquist gave us this haunting image of a poster graveyard:


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    I recently got the chance to rewatch one of my favourite movies of the last few years on Blu-ray: Pacific Rim. It has a fantastic commentary track by director Guillermo del Toro. There is a lot of interesting stuff in the commentary (for a film buff like me, at least), but I was particularly struck by how well he articulated some points I try to get across on this blog all the time.

    1. Design is all about making choices. When you listen to the commentary, you soon realize that nothing on the screen – nothing– is there by accident. Everything is a the result of a careful, deliberative process (my emphasis).

    We designed everything in this movie and patches in the shirt and uniforms. We designed the banners, badges, all the advisory and doors. We designed the Jaegers to the minimum details. You know, we designed the Jaegers so that if you zoom in into the controls, you would see electrical discharge warnings. You would see ladders; you would see places where you would connect. Engineering this amount of detail mechanically, the amount of detail in design is staggering. We spent about a year texturing this world. And the accumulation of that mosaic of details design-wide gives you the sense of a real world.

    People think that world creation, movie, for example, is big gestures. But it is not. It is all these small details. Look at the markings; look at the vehicles that open the doors; look at the banners and this marking, the crawlers that move the robots. Everything is full of detail. We design these. Look at the bomber art on the chest. Gipsy Danger, this robot is designed to resemble a war plane from WWII.


    So we have big riveting; we have the majestic lines of article building in New York. We gave the gait of a gunslinger of western fighter. Each of the robots has a personality and Gipsy has that strong personality of gunslinger out of a duel, sort of John Wayne gait.

    2. Design isn’t about making this look pretty. Too often, design is derided, particularly by academics: “Serious people care about the content, and don’t care about eye candy.” I love del Toro’s riposte (my emphasis):

    It is very important for me to not just design for design, not to create eye candy but to create eye protein. Because I think that 50 per cent of the narrative of a film is submerged in the audiovisual details. And you are not doing this for doing this just because it looks cool. You are actually doing it for a narrative reason.


    It is important, for example, to see the two brothers are in white. And we are going to stain this white with a color that I am very careful to use in my design, sparingly, which is red. Red is very fundamental in this film to be used carefully as I will explain it later. It becomes vital for the story of another character. And basically it is going to symbolizing the way of life.

    So we stain the white suit of the pilot with red. It is fundamental, it is very dramatic moment. ...

    Everything is telling you the story. They are not just aesthetic choices, they are narrative choices. For example, look at this sequence [Fight between Gipsy Danger and Knifehead - ZF], and you realize that it is not lit like a normal movie sequence where everything has fill light and key light. It is mostly lit with the light of the Jaeger lighting the kaiju. Listen to the sound track, there is no music. Look at the way we are, just when the light of the Jaeger hit the kaiju, you see the kaiju. But if you don’t, you are almost in the darkness. We break the line of the water. We stain the lens with water. We deliberately put “mistakes” into shots that are very expensive and very elaborate. Why? Because it is (not only) an aesthetic choice, but also a narrative choice.


    I don’t want to make the narrative, regular narrative CG movie that every shot looks super cool. I want to get in the way. I want to give you reality. Stain the lens with water, have error on the operation of the camera, make the images obscured by water, by fog, by… later in the movie, obscured by the compensation in the lens.

    And del Toto gets all these points in during the opening scenes, before the title of the movie even appears on screen! del Toro has the advantage of working with a team of creative people to help him realize his vision. But your advantage is that you’re just making a single poster, not a two hour movie. You can use some of the same principles that del Toro does.

    External links

    Pacific Rim Director’s Commentary by Guillermo del Toro

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    Today’s poster comes from Corey Duke. His Neuroscience poster got lots of love when he posted it on Twitter. (In flagrant violation of Neuroscience meeting rules, I expect.) Click to enlarge!


    Corey generously shared a lot of commentary on creating this poster. He wrote:

    In the work we present here, we put a great deal of thought into determining exactly what stories we wanted to highlight. When dealing with large data sets, there is a delicate balancing act in trying not to overwhelm or detract from the larger broader story lines, while still presenting the interesting findings that are more “in the weeds”. With audiences at meetings like Neuroscience being so broad in background and knowledge, our general goal with this poster was to strike that balance, to give brief captivating broad overview presentations, particularly to those less familiar with the field, while still presenting the more detailed findings that experts would perhaps find most interesting. Although it is overwhelming at first glance, I believe we were able to achieve that here, and in a way that we found alluring.

    With all of that in mind, we chose to build the poster around the large circular plot we present in the middle (a circos plot), which shows the specific location of the genomic changes we were interested in across the genome. We wanted to blow it up to emphasize just how robust the changes we observed were, and to highlight some of the interesting analyses we performed in the middle of the circos plot. Because it was so large, we were able to add quite a bit of detail and make it intricate without fear of it being too small to read or pick out. It also became quite fun, as attendees could search for genes they knew out of the ones we highlight in the middle, and follow them down to the bubbles to learn about what they were doing. This was much more captivating than for instance presenting gene lists in a table, etc. Although I’m not always a fan, once we tried the plot on it we fell in love and had to go for the solid black background.

    In general, I avoid posters that are walls of text, and we tried to minimize it here. Because we didn’t have much of it here though, aspects of the poster would have been difficult to understand were I not there to present it. I really like our methods section diagram, as it was simple, straightforward, and easy to understand and refer back to as I presented, which really helped to keep the larger picture in mind as I went through our results. I also think all the circular data presentations go beautifully together. We had another earlier version of this poster where all of the data is represented through circular plots, and the way it all came together was stunning. In the end, we elected to swap that out for the plots on the right side though, as we thought that told a few more interesting arcs than the circles.

    We made the plots using several software programs and several of our own lines of code, but we put it all together in Adobe Illustrator. Overall, we’re very happy with how the poster turned, and everyone seemed to love it. I had 3 different run-throughs depending on the audience: 2 mins, 5-6 mins, and 10 mins. I think being able to cater the presentation so readily to the audience’s interest, background, and attention span was appreciated by all, and allowed for many people to be drawn in who were from different backgrounds. Because the poster was so aesthetically pleasing, we drew quite large crowds at Neuroscience. When you devote so much effort to the science, it’s unjust not to devote yourself to the presentation as well.

    Hat tip to Caitlin Vander Weele.

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    Inkscape is a free software that creates vector-based illustrations. As such, it’s the freeware answer to Adobe Illustrator and CorelDRAW.

    Inkscape has been on my radar for some time, but I hadn’t had a chance to sit down and use it seriously until the second #SciFund poster class earlier this year. We had used Adobe Illustrator in round one of the class, but this year, we decided to let people try Inkscape in case they didn’t have access to Illustrator.

    At one point, I had read that Inkscape followed some of the same conventions as CoredlDRAW rather than Illustrator. I’ve used CorelDRAW for a long time, so I expected to be able to pick up Inkscape quite quickly. This was about 50% right.

    Drawing was reasonably straightforward. Making objects and layering was much like I had encountered in other programs. Making a grid was not intuitive, but I chalked that up to unfamiliarity and interference from previously learned software.

    It was working with text that drove me nuts. On posters, you often have to work with paragraphs of text, so this was a major sticking point. In most graphics programs, you put text into a text box. In PowerPoint, there can be a lot of automatic resizing to make the text or box fit. In CorelDRAW, you can opt for “paragraph text” that fits inside a box you define.

    In Inkscape, a regular text object forms a single line. A paragraph will make for a long line. You can put that text into a box, but the text and the shape are always two separate things. You have to create your text, create your shape, then flow the text into that shape.

    Inkscape allows you to have text fit into any shape you choose, which seems quite powerful on the surface. But I was constantly struggling to have my text appear how I wanted it. Resizing the shape didn’t always treat the text in the way I expected, leading to weird placements. Rather than moving or resizing shapes, I would draw a new shape, cut the text out of the old one, then place the text into the new shape.

    When you look at the Inkscape gallery, it’s clear you can get some fantastic results from this program. But when you look at the examples, you’ll notice very few of them have much text.

    My experience with Inkscape makes me unlikely to use it again for posters in the near future. Microsoft Publisher remains my software tool of choice, hitting the sweet spot between power and ease of use.

    Update: Luke on Twitter said:

    Inkscape does have text boxes though – created by click and dragging the text tool. Resizing is trivial then!

    I will look again, but still. I cannot figure out why I was fighting so much.

    Related posts

    No more slidesters, part 2: Three Publisher tips




    Text wrapping in Publisher, or, “Why are you still using PowerPoint for posters?”

    External links

    Inkscape
    Inkscape manual

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  • 12/23/16--05:00: Critique: Water balance
  • Today’s poster is up a little late because the contributor asked that it be shown after the conference ended, and totally not because of bad time management on my part. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

    Anjuli Figueroa just got done preseninting this poster at the annual American Geophysical Union fall meeting. Click to enlarge version 1!


    My first reaction was, “This poster looks like it’s yelling.”

    I wanted the typography to calm down a bit! There are multiple fonts, multiple sizes, multiple methods of emphasis (size, colour, bullets). I suggested trying to pare down the number of styles, and using sentences instead of bullet lists. Similarly, the headings are big enough that underlining for emphasis was not needed and just contributed to making the poster look “shouty.”

    Another thing made the poster feel loud is that lots of things are pushed right to the edges of space.

    • The maps in section 4 are almost crowding out of the box they’re in.
    • The text in section 2 feels like it’s crushing the globe underneath it.
    • The title is ramming into the poster number divider.

    More white space would calm the poster, so I recommended using blank space to divide the poster instead of lines.

    The biggest request, though, was probably to fix the, “1, 2, 3, 5, 4” reading order. It was just  frustrating. I suggested breaking section 4 apart, and putting the top half where 5 was, and the bottom half of 4 where top half of 4 was.

    Anjuli sent back version two:


    I thought this was already much improved, but that it could go even further. I’m not a fan of underlining, and have rarely found reason to use it. Here, it drew attention to inconsistencies like whether spaces or punctuation marks were underlined.

    Similarly, using bold plus red for the key results still seems like “crushing a walnut with a sledgehammer” emphasis.

    Version number three was the one that hung on the conference posterboard:


    I hope the conference goers were happier to see version three on that board than version one!

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    Who else got a Christmas present delivered in poster-styled gift wrapping?


    Hat tip to Shit Academics Say.

    Sometimes we have a best poster of the month, but this is probably the first nominee for best poster tube (click to enlarge):


    Hat tip to Ashley Cambell for discovering the whiskey tube scientist. From a geology meeting. Naturally.

    Post of the month for December goes to Scott Cole, who analyzed the attendance at 2,579 posters at Neuroscience.


    It is disappointing to learn 17% of posters had nobody at them. But if you ever have more than two people at your poster, you’re in the top half! Hat tip to Adam Calhoun.

    Your title is the headline for your poster. This article looks at how headlines matter like never before, particularly online.

    (E)ven with the best-crafted headline in the world, for every person who clicks on it, there are hundreds, if not thousands, who see it, digest it, and simply move on. People get their news from headlines now in a way they never did in the past, just because they see so many of those headlines on Twitter and Facebook.

    People are used to getting news from headlines. Pay attention to your title. Your title is 90% of your poster.

    Julie Lee has several poster viewing tips she learned from her first Neuroscience meeting.

    Posters > Talks

    I was repeatedly told this by SfN veterans and I’m glad I listened. The few talks I went to (that were directly incredibly relevant) were fairly useful but I definitely got more out of interacting with poster presenters. Also, for presenting, I would almost unreservedly give a poster for the longer interaction it offers with attendees (five minute Q&A vs. Four. Whole. Hours.).
    • Keep your eyes open. Due to the aforementioned advice, I ended up getting more free time than anticipated, and was able to randomly wander around quite a few times. The most interesting things I saw at the conference were often not planned. A few times I ended up double-taking because the poster I just walked past was being presented by authors of papers I’ve used as inspiration for my work or read because they were doing very similar things. Additionally I ended up walking past some very interesting work that may not be relevant but were still cool to learn about.
    • Budget for only a few posters per session. For me, 3-5 posters per session was the sweet spot for really getting the time to engage with posters (15-30 minutes each). However …
    • Keep a back-up list. In case the posters are busy or withdrawn, or maybe turn out to be less interesting than you anticipated, save a list of 5-10 others of secondary interests or friends if you get the time (which I did, frequently).
    • Priority label your itinerary. With the above said, it’s super useful (if you’re over-organised like me) to label your posters by priority (you can export your itinerary to google calendar!). Sounds like overkill but this gave me a quick way to see how many posters were essential per session and ration my time accordingly. Perhaps most importantly, it also let me (once) see which morning I could give a miss after a late night..

    Head scratch of the month goes to Magda Havas, who convinced editors to use this figure as a graphic abstract to a journal article:


    Hat tip to Neuroskeptic.

    In the last few weeks, “fake news” has been the topic of much discussion. Part of the issue is that design decisions are taken away:

    Over centuries, print media developed a visual language of credibility that became second nature to most readers: crisp type and clean, uninterrupted columns communicate integrity, while exaggerated images, messy layouts, and goofy text inspire doubt. On a physical newsstand, it’s still easy to tell the National Enquirer from, say, The Atlantic Online, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between the two. ...

    Over the last several years, upscale publishers that don’t draw a large percentage of revenue from banner display advertising, like Medium and Vice News, have embraced an extreme minimalist style that features text and blank white space above all else — the better to differentiate themselves from the noise of fake news and chum boxes. This visual austerity is the new mark of an upscale publisher.

    Yet questionable outlets are starting to adopt these very same aesthetics of reliability, albeit on a delay of several years. Sites like Civic Tribune and the satirical National Report look no worse than The Huffington Post or Drudge Report, which are seen as legitimate publishers, more or less. Some, like the semi-satirical Real News Right Now, have even echoed the clean, gridded layout and decisive typography of sites like Digg and the defunct Atlantic Wire, an aesthetic that once suggested value-added aggregation.

    Hat tip to Ellen Lupton.

    This segues nicely into a look at the importance of the low design of the Trump campaign hat. Designer Matt Ipcar is quoted:

    It was easy for me, as a Brooklyn-born creative director, to describe the hat as bad design. But the hat was worn. It was simple, unisex, familiar, and practical during a summer of hot crowded rallies throughout the South. Design-wise, it was lazy and loud, but also deceptively brand-aware and unmistakably Trump—a brash and calculated brand extension for a house whose luxury properties are awash in Gotham, understated bling, and lots of white space.

    Another thank you to Ellen Lupton.

    Ann Emery shares six ideas for displaying quantitative data in a more visual way, including putting faces with quotes and icons with text. Hat tip to Katy Kennedy.

    And that, my friends, is that for 2016. Here’s a picture that reflects what many of us think of 2016:

     Hat tip to Hilda Bastian.

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  • 01/05/17--05:00: Picking up the tab

  • I’m stepping a bit away from the poster board this week, so to speak, to talk about conference etiquette more generally. Conferences involve travel and eating out, usually in locations that cater to a lot of tourists (e.g., San Diego, New Orleans, Washington, DC) and partially hosted by hotels that are normally catering to business class. Since most conference attendees are usually early career stage scientists, cost is an issue.

    Amy Lynch-Biniek wrote:

    Tenured profs at conferences: adopt a “grad students and adjuncts don’t pay” rule at dinner/bar. Some did this for student-me and I never forgot.

    Kate Washington added:

    I was once in a grad-student dinner group that got stiffed by tenured profs who skipped out; I never forgot that either.

    In fairness, that would be rude behaviour from anyone, regardless of career stage.

    Drugmonkey, however, noted:

    I never assume that just because (someone is a) tenured prof = moneybags that can pick up $$$ dinner checks. Should be voluntary.

    Angela Vergara supports that:

    I do it as much as I can, but as a prof in a state school in California, my conference budget is usually tied.

    There are several issues at play here. For instance, how many people are at the conference with the professor? There’s a big difference in the cumulative tab for one trainee and half a dozen of them.

    Many institutions support student travel to conferences. If a student has a per diem food allowance for a conference, it seems a little excessive for a professor to absorb all of those expenses when there are other sources of money dedicated to keeping the student fed.

    I’m a little baffled that the original tweet singles out tenured professors. A tenure-track professor is still probably making significantly more than any trainee. Indeed, thanks to salary compression and inversion, tenure-track professors may be making more than tenured ones.

    A professor – regardless of career stage – is expected to be a team leader. A conference is a good opportunity for leaders to say, “Thanks for a job well done,” and a good meal or a few drinks at the pub are a welcome gift. Generosity is a good feature of team leaders.

    External links

    Tenured profs should pick up the check?

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  • 01/12/17--05:00: Critique: Viper shapes
  • Today’s poster comes from Jessica Tingle, who I met at the recent Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting in New Orleans, where she presented this poster. Click to enlarge – if you need to!


    I say, “If you need to,” because the reason I stopped at this poster, was just how visible this poster was from a distance. I could read the title and see the main outlines not only within the poster row, but from the next row back. Even if I shrink the image:


    You might still be able to read the title and see some of the main shapes on the poster. That’s why I think this poster was one of the clear winners at a conference where I was frustrated by how small many of the posters were (more about which later).

    The secrets to this poster’s success are not complicated. Jessica used most of the available space. SICB has big poster boards (8 feet long by 4 feet high, I think), and this one covered most of it. The title is in large point size, and has no colours or logos competing for attention. It has one big central graphic, with few colours that are clear and intuitive (green for snakes in trees, more earthy orange for snakes in deserts). The two colour-coded call out boxes explain the central plot of data well, using simple, icon-like outlines of the snakes.

    The change I might have suggested are small. The title could have been more specific. I might have suggested something like, “Treeclimbing, but not sidewinding, snakes are morphologically specialized.” This would also have removed the need for the big question right above the data.

    Similarly, underlining the headings adds nothing to their visibility. Bolding alone does the job.

    The left paragraphs are in a box, but none of the other regular text paragraphs are. I don’s think anything is harmed by removing the box:




     The boxing of the three call-outs works, because the colour of the lines connects the explanation to the data. The boxes there also make it clear that the text and images are serving as labels to the data, instead of part of the main text.

    The discussion is in a box, too, but it’s more subtle: very light gray with no outline. Indeed, the gray is so light that I am not sure anyone notices. And the discussion isn’t in the location you expect it to be (right), so feels like an awkward afterthought. I do appreciate that the discussion is split into two columns to prevent the line widths from getting unreasonably long, though the space between the columns might be widened to signal that there are two distinct columns.

    This poster’s use of one data plot and visibility from a distance pays off.

     P.S.—Jessica is not only a contributor to this blog, she’s a customer! I swear I did not know this when I asked Jessica if she would be willing to share her poster on the blog. But she knew the blog! She was kind enough to write:

    (I)t really is a precious resource in a field where graphic design is important but rarely (if ever) taught formally(.)

    I’m glad it helps!

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  • 01/19/17--05:00: Critique: frog choices
  • The “Best of Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology” continues, with this contribution courtesy of Matthew Murphy! Click to enlarge!


    This is a very successful poster on multiple counts. There is not a lot of text. The visuals are simple, with a strong but limited colour palette. The reading order is clear.

    Matthew wrote:

    Almost all of the elements of the poster were created using open-source graphic design software. Some preliminary work (especially editing the reference image of the frog icon) was done in GIMP. The vector images were developed in InkScape, and the whole thing was assembled in InkScape. I used an individual layer for each section.

    The fonts used are Steve Matteson’s Open Sans and Open Sans Extrabold, both freely available through Google Fonts.

    With open source materials, I have argued that you sometimes get what you pay for. When I saw this poster, I wondered if Open Sans had the chops necessary for the job, because I was struck by the dumb quotes (also called straight quotes) in the title. But a quick check revealed Open Sans had perfectly good smart quotes.


    The problem is apparently that the open source material didn’t auto-correct the quotes, as some software (notably Microsoft’s Office products) have done for years. The solution is not difficult: you just need to know the commands for extended characters. In Windows, this is ALT + 0146 on the keypad. A more comprehensive list is here.

    Speaking of typesetting, some paragraphs end in periods and some don’t. Consistency always helps.

    The use of numbers in circles is a nice graphic tough and keeps the reading order clear. I personally would have started with one instead of zero, though.

    You might expect me to complain about the results being before the methods, but I am not going to. First, having seen Matthew present this work, the order on the poster reflects the order he presented the material verbally. Second, some journals have taken to putting results before methods. This practice has critics, but flipping the order isn’t absolutely crazy.

    Some of the material you would expect to be at the bottom is up at the top: acknowledgements and a QR code. The word “Acknowledgements,” presented here in bold and all caps, is competing with the title. I would have suggested making it smaller and more innocuous, something closer in size to the author bylines under the title.

    Also, when you put a QR code, it’s a good idea to tell people what they’re getting. The upper right one does (“Summary”), but the lower left one does not.

    In the context of this poster, “green noise” might be more precise, but “noise” might more readily understood.

    And, much like last week’s poster, Matthew isn’t just a contributor, he’s a reader!

    I actually used your blog - especially your design critiques - to get design ideas for my poster.

    I’m glad it’s useful!

    Related posts

    Anything free is worth what you pay for it
    Scripting a poster

    External links

    Smart Quotes for Smart People

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    The Columbo rule vindicated again! Another research article has found that simple, declarative titles are the best. (The first was this.) Articles with such title were more likely to be highly rated by Altmetric scores, although the effects are small. Hat tip to Neuroskeptic.

    Biogreography has a poster session guide:

    How to poster session: 1. Grab a snack. 2. Wander until you see someone standing alone by their poster. 3. Say “Hi.” 4. Repeat.

    Hat tip to Jacquelyn Gill.

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    This is the third poster I was able to get submitted after I prowled through the halls of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting last month. This one is from Carolyn Buaer, and you can, as always, click to enlarge!


    Carolyn’s poster is a winner because it has simplicity in spades. It has a simple two sentence introduction, and jumps straight to the graphs that have the answers. No muss, no fuss, no methods, no pontificating.

    This was done in PowerPoint, and I was able to open it up and make a few tweaks. As usual, the changes I’ve made are minor ones: increasing the space between elements on the poster, removing lines, removing underlines, using bold instead of bold and italic.


    The simplicity did not deter the SICB attendees, however. I had to go past Carolyn’s poster several times to get a chance to talk to her, because she always had a good flow of customers!

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  • 02/09/17--05:00: Critique: Feather sections
  • The poster contributors from the last Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting have continued to be generous with sharing their work. I’m pleased to show off another beauty from that meeting. This one was designed by Christian Laurent, and printed by VividInk printing in New Orleans. Click to enlarge!


    Christian wrote:

    This poster took a long long time to become what you see now. The cross sections on the left are actually tiled synchrotron radiation computerized tomography (CT) scans, with 325 nm per pixel! That means this whole poster was ~34 GB! (RAM = Rarely Adequate Memory 😛)

    We wanted to show them in this much detail is because this work is showcasing a new method to identify fibre orientation by imaging proxy voids. These are much more visible in the grey portion of the text, which is an enlarged one of said cross sections. Have a look for the small white feather scale car next to the middle cross section and it should be evident why this poster is 34 GB, and how much data you can see if you look hard enough.

    The CT scans were stitched together in Fiji. The poster was mostly composed in the GIMP, but the vector curved text was made in Inkscape. We’re very happy with the overall look of the poster now!

    Christian’s poster succeeds because it understands that a poster is a visual medium. I can’t say this enough. Everything here starts with the graphics, and text is clearly secondary. This is clearest on the right, as the text wraps and conforms to the images it sits on, respecting that beautiful arc of the feather scan on the one side, and the curve of the wing on the other, rather than taking the more typical right angles. To make that work, Christian was obviously more proficient in Inkscape than I became. (I also tried GIMP for a while, but got too frustrated with it.)

    One downside of this poster is that it is mostly monochrome. This makes it a little drab, but with only three levels of grayscale – black, mid-level gray, and white – everything is distinct from each other, and thus visible. However, the lack of colour in the main poster body does mean that the small patches of colour in the small logos in the bottom end up drawing your eye more than they should.

    Speaking of logos, the “University of Southampton” logo at the top has about the same visual weight as the title. The logo is placed above the title, signalling greater importance. I might have increase the title by abour 10-20% and reduced the logo by 20-30%. Remember, the title of your poster should be the undisputed king of the poster. Nothing should compete with the title.

    In addition to the poster shown here, Christian also some cut outs on his poster board. They were the same cross sections in the poster, printed larger on foam board, laid on top of one another. These again helped to make the board more interesting, and set it apart from the others plain old pieces of paper on most boards.

    Related posts

    The eye loves the circle
    No more slidesters, part 7: Inkscape

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    It’s been a slow month in poster land, but smile this gave me this makes up for the low volume of links this month.

    Scott Kerr says:

    I’m using this kid’s science fair poster for my next presentation.


    Hat tip to Jeremy Fox.


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  • 03/01/17--05:00: Eight is great!
  • We interrupt your regularly scheduled blog about making conference posters that don’t suck to note that this project has been running eight years now! Which is kind of awesome.

    Thank you for your support!

    Photo by Luca Sbardella on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

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    More and more academic projects are collaborative. This means more contributors, and more authors to list on posters. I’ve been thinking about how long author lists might be best displayed on posters, and have a few attempts here. You can click to enlarge any picture!

    This might be the simplest multi-author scenario, where there are many authors, all from one institution.


    Many big collaborative projects involve people from different institutions, however. How can you show the affiliations of those authors? Many people emulate journals and use superscripts.


    This gets very complicated to read and difficult to read very quickly, however.

    Another approach might be to group the contributors by their institution, relative contribution or alphabetical order or whatever other reason you have for deciding the order of authors be damned.


    This chews up more space, so you might be forced to use initials for the authors and cut back on punctuation.


    But if the team is that big, it is unlikely that they are all going to be at the conference. If we step into the needs of the reader for a second, what is the thing a conference goer might want to know? They certainly want to know who they might be talking to, that is, the poster presenter. They might also want to know the person behind the project, who is usually the most senior professor or staffer, and often the most recognizable “name” the poster might have.


    Putting the full author list on an external link or down in find print in the corner might is harsh for the contributors. I know that. But in design, you have to grit your teeth and remember that it is not about you, or your friends. It’s about what the audience needs.

    External links

    When does authorship stop meaning anything useful?

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    Today’s poster comes from contributor Braeden Schaefer, and is shared with his permission. CLick to enlarge!


    Braeden notes:

    The poster theme colors had to fall within ASU’s maroon, gold, black and white color palette. The western blot in the results section is only a placeholder that I found online. I’m still waiting on my western blotting results but wanted to see how it would look now.

    There is a lot to like about this poster. The two column layout is crisp from a distance. Up close, though, you notice that the left hand labels for the figure break through into the left column, rather than staying contained where they ought to be.

    The left hand side is nothing but text, but it is typeset well enough. The text is big enough to be readable, has wide margins, and clear subheading that remove some of the intimidation factor.

    This poster is a nice follow-up from the last entry about the design problem inherent in collaborative posters. In this case, it’s not the authors so much that are the problem as the institutional affiliations. The affiliations are chewing up for more space than I would like in the title bar.



    There are five affiliations given, but four of them are different schools within the same institution, Arizona State University. I would cut the author affiliations down to lines: the university and the institute. Yes, you lose information about the schools, but I’m not sure anyone in the audience cares. You could then put the institutions on one line, freeing up more room for the title.

    Speaking of the title bar, I have no love lost for logos bookending the title. The left institute logo looks like it has been distorted and squished horizontally. But I’m even more baffled here that the ASU logo is repeated at the bottom of the poster. And in an optically heavy black box, no less.

    The use of the campus colours works well, although I have no clear idea if there is any particular reason why some of the bars are in gold and some are in maroon. I seems like the gold might be trying to highlight the main messages, but it’s a muddied signal (if that is the intention) at best.



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  • 03/16/17--05:00: Critique: Oil spill
  • Today’s contribution is an award winning poster from Ryan Gilchrist. Click to enlarge!



    Ryan writes:
    My aim here was to balance on the fence between a poster and an infographic, and try to convey some complex physics in an intuitive manner. My concern is that there isn’t enough information on the poster to keep the reader interested. Additionally, I’ve been trying to find an alternative colour scheme than ‘sideways traffic light’, but haven’t had much success yet!

    This poster would definitely stand out at a typical conference. It makes a strong statement visually, with its big blocks of colours, curved lines, and slightly low fi images. It looks different than most posters you see at academic conferences, generally in a good way.

    There are a few changes that I might try, although I’m not convinced I would implement them.

    I’d try seeing how the central headings (“Subsurface spill dynamics”) would look if placed horizontally instead of at an angle. I appreciate that a little use of the diagonal breaks up the poster and adds some visual interest. But I would like to see it with the order and structure that a more typical placement provides.

    All the different coloured sections have a black line diving them, except one. There is a colour shift between the top and bottom in the middle column. It’s even more noticeable because the implied line along the colour boundary continues on the right hand side, and there’s a black line dividing those sections. I might have tried making that middle section all one colour, or continuing the right hand black line (the one above “Research aims”).

    I like the icons in the “Areas of uncertainty” section, though not their placement. It looks like they alternate between the left and right sides so that the icons don’t bump into each other. I suggest zig-zagging text and images, because it just makes more work for the reader. Again, the right column makes matters worse by comparison. In the list of research aims, the letters are so big and bold that they almost act like icons. And they are all on the left hand side. If you are going to zig-zag the icons in the central column, zig-zag the letters in the right list! Commit to the choice! Commit, I say!

    Behind it all is a picture of an ocean spill on fire. The smoke mostly reads a texture, darkening up the central column, not as an image. I literally did not notice it until about the third time I looked at the poster. This is both good and bad. It’s good that I didn’t notice the photograph, because it means my attention was focused on where it needed to be: the content of the poster. But it’s bad because if I don’t notice it or recognize what it is, what is the point? What value does it add to the poster?

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  • 03/23/17--05:00: Critique: Electric India
  • Today’s poster comes from Anjali Sharma. It is being presented at the Energy For Society conference in April. Click to enlarge!

    It’s... square. This is interesting, because I don’t see many square posters here on the blog.

    Something you may not see (depending on browser settings and such) is that this poster has a wide margin. Margins are very undervalued on many posters, and the margin helps give this poster some lightness.

    I’m having a hard time moving past the title. Those letters touching the top of the box are just killing me. There is room to center the text better vertically, since none of the bottom descenders (the lower case Gs) are threatening to touch the bottom of the red box.

    The lines around the columns are not heavy handed. They are light and well placed far from the text, so they add some visual interest rather than feeling like an attempt shoehorn too much content into too little space. But I always like to see what a poster looks like without boxes.

    Speaking of lines, there are a couple of stray vertical gray lines on either side of the bottom bar graph that seem to be left over from importing the graphic on to the poster.

    Here’s a slightly revised version of the poster. I cheated with the title, extending the coloured box up rather than centering the text. this leaves the poster no longer perfectly square, nor all margins equal. But I think you can see what I was going for.

    This is a rare case where I think the removal of the boxes does not benefit the poster.

    The poster feels grey and text heavy, even though there are some reasonably nice big images on it. This might be happening because of the visuals are buried in the bottom and the right, far from where people look first.

    But this poster is is clean, readable, and no one would be embarrassed to hand it on a poster board.

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  • 03/30/17--05:00: Link roundup for March 2017
  • My last link roundup came out just before this year’s Academy Awards, which featured an ill-fated announcement of announcing the wrong winner.



    This article argues that the card design could have been much better and possibly avoided that memorable but embarassing moment.

    That’s horrible typography. I will emphasize that again: horrible. Or, to be nicer, not good. Look at it again. Of course anyone could’ve made the same honest error!

    The words “Best Actress” are on there  —  at the very bottom  —  in small print.

    You are on television with millions of people around the world watching. You are a little nervous, and you have to read a card. You will most likely read it from top to bottom without questioning whether the card is right. ...

    Here’s what should’ve been changed based on the three critiques I just made:

    • The logo doesn’t need to be at the top of this card. Everyone knows it’s the Oscars. We move the Oscars logo to the bottom where it’s least important in this context.
    • The award category, Best Actress, is moved to the top so that it’s the first thing anyone sees and reads. There is no confusion what the category is because it’s clearly stated first.
    • Emma Stone’s name is bigger than the title, La La Land, because she is the winner of this category. The winner should be the most emphasized thing on the card, with all other information, like the film’s title, in a smaller or thinner font.

    Friggin’ logos mess things up all the time.


    For a few years, some journals have been playing around with “graphic abstracts” or “visual abstracts.” Clearly, many of the same principles that you would use in a graphic abstract you would also use for a poster. This post looks at their proliferation in the field of nephrology. Hat tip to Hilda Bastian.

    A century ago, an artist made a beautiful typeface.


    And threw it into the river.  A brilliant bit of history.

    Speaking of fonts, check out this article on Futuracha Pro, described in the article title as a “crazy gorgeous font” that “evolves as you type.”


    You can pre-order it here.

    This is supposed to say, “Arise.”


    Hat tip to Alistair Coleman and Stephen Curry.

    Ace doodler Sunni Brown posted this reminder on her Instagram:



    Good design is not just about thinking outside the box. It is more about climbing into the box of others. - Caroline Korowicki

    Design is about empathy as much as colour and typefaces.


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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.