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


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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.