26 March 2015

Link roundup for March 2015

It’s hard to ignore an article that claims to have found the “best poster ever made.” It’s below, and you can read more about the author’s approach here. Hat tip to Catherine Scott.

I’ve talked about placeholder text before. Here’s an article about the history of the most common placeholder, lorem ipsum.

19 March 2015

Posters at the front of Science

It’s a little unusual to see posters mentioned in one of the magazines that likes to position itself as a “journal of record,” namely Science. Here’s what editor in chief Marcia McNutt had to say on posters, which should be familiar advice to all readers of this blog.

I encourage students to request a poster presentation at a large meeting. This format can be less stressful than speaking in front of a large audience. Furthermore, the student personally converses with members of the scientific community who share an interest in his or her research. The back-and-forth is good training and a reminder to students that discussing their research with experts or nonexperts should be a two-way conversation. Another advantage of presenting a poster is that the student can tailor the narrative to the interests of whoever stops by, in a Q&A exchange. I recall years ago when a graduate student was disappointed that her research would be described “only” in this format, until one of the giants in her field spent considerable time at her poster to discuss the work. As he left, he said, “I wish I had thought of that.” She was later hired into his department.

To be effective, posters need to be eye-catching as well as informative. In a convention hall lined with poster boards, scientists will bypass those with large blocks of texts and tables of impenetrable numbers. A cartoon that summarizes the model or findings, attractive displays of data, and photos that illustrate the experiment are good ways to grab attention. Creative ways to display pertinent information are a definite plus. I personally like posters that begin with the motivation for the work and end with the findings, areas for follow up, and broader implications of the results.

McNutt goes on to say:

Training the next generation of scientists to communicate well should be a priority.

This statement causes me a little exasperation, because I hear, “We need to train young scientists to...” more often than the chorus of a top 40 pop song.

“We need to train young scientists two write better.”

“We need to train young scientists to talk to the media.”

“We need to train young scientists to do better statistics.”

“We need to train young scientists in ethics.”

“We need to train young scientists in grantsmanship.”

“We need to train young scientists about social media.”

And everyone is convinced that this training is an urgent priority. To borrow a phrase:

I do completely agree with McNutt that the more established faculty have an important role to play here: go the the darn poster sessions. And don’t just chat with your conference buddies!

And researchers attending meetings should take some time to judge a few student papers, visit student posters, or attend student talks.


McNutt M. 2015. It starts with a poster. Science 347(6226): 1047. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aab0014

13 March 2015

Critique: Inexhaustible sediment

Today’s poster comes from Sokratis Papaspyrou. As always, click to get a closer look!

Sokratis notes:

It was designed and made in two days... could be better (always). I used a colour wheel  to select the colours and made use of the “circle draws attention” trick I read in a book and also read in one of your posts.

Sokartis’s deliberate consideration of the use of colours and circles both pay off. Both features work very well. I would have tried making the position of the “callout” circles more consistent. The two left circles just don’t agree on a pattern.

There could be two ways to achieve this. Either you could place them all in the upper right corner:

Or, you could place them all by the margins:

I slightly favour the third of these, but the difference is minor.

The other thing that you might see in my mock-ups above is that I tried to make the blue boxes the same width as the others in the column.

While I’ve stated before that a reader should be able to follow the reading order of a poster without arrows, I don’t mind their use here. I think it’s because apart from the very first transition from the “Premise,” you’re simply moving down the page. The brush strokes used for the arrow bring an nice organic touch.

The only other small thing that comes to mind is to remove the underlining from the headings and author list.

Finally, this poster benefits from simplicity. It has very little text. It has clear highlights in the circles to help browsers through the poster quickly.

Related posts

The eye loves the circle
Don’t hold my hand
Undo the underline

05 March 2015

The Capra principle

At the most recent Oscars, Ben Affleck quoted this man, legendary director Frank Capra:

Capra said:

There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness.

Despite being a bit of a movie nerd (I paid my way through university working mostly as a movie theatre projectionist), I’d never heard this quote before, and love it. And t applies so well to conference posters as well as films.

About the only rule about poster making is that your poster has to fit within the allotted space. Beyond that... you have free reign.

Yes, conference organizers may tell you that you need to have an abstract. An institution may grumble about whether you have the institution’s logo on the paper. But I have yet to hear anyone say that they were stopped from presenting a poster because of such thing. I often joke, “There are no poster police!” or “Let anarchy reign!”

But... as Capra knew, “no rules” does not mean everything is equally good. Some ideas are better than others, or work better in some contexts than others. And like movies, a dull conference poster is – in either the content or the design – is a sin. The good news is that dullness is only a venial sin. You can do your penance by making your next poster better.

Are posters a visual aid, or a stand alone document?

Jason McDermott has an excellent question:

SciTweeps - which camp are you in? The A) “poster as a visual aid to a presentation w/minimal text” or B) “poster as a complete manuscript”?

There are some definition issues here. When I hear “manuscript,” I think that implies a journal article. That, to my mind, is way too detailed and too much stuff. A poster is not be a journal article and should not necessarily follow its conventions.

The other part of option B, though, is “complete.” As I’ve said before, a poster should be self-contained. It should present a complete narrative that does not need a speaker to guide you through it or explain it. A poster should be more than just a billboard or decoration; a poster should have substance.

I am intrigued by the responses. Most responses favoured minimalism.

I prefer (A), but there should be enough text for the reader to understand the results without you being there - Kelsey Wood

A, always A - Auriel Fournier ‏

A. Always! That's the difference between a poster and a journal article. Posters are for work in progress. Publish once done - Matthias Lein

The contrary point of view is interesting, though:

I don’t want your song-and-dance routine, I want your data; plus, what if you're not there when I am? - Bill Hooker

90% A, 10% B. (Some things really need text.) - Chemjobber

Depends on venue. If you never leave poster, A. Otherwise, needs enough B for people to critically evaluate. - Peter Thompson

Noah wanted to dig deeper:

Can’t we split the difference? C) "poster as cues to provoke interesting questions, answer boring ones."

And from there the conversation went all Game of Thrones:

We already suffer about as much carnage as G.R.R. Martin’s characters - and about as much job security. - Jason McDermott

“The red conference” - noah ‏

Book 1: “A trial of tenure.” Book 2: “A lack of funding” - Francois Gould

Related posts


Picture by char booth on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

26 February 2015

Link roundup for February 2015

Miss Mola Mola has our latest contender for best poster title:

However, there was differences of opinion on this:

Apparently one judge scolded him and told author it was inappropriate.

I think the title is awesome and the judge is being a sourpuss. What do you think? Have your say in the comments!

And we have a second contender this month for best poster title! Paul Coxon wrote:

I learned if you want people to talk you about your conference poster, give it a bold/intriguing title.


When I ask someone with a beautiful poster at a conference how they made it, a high percentage of the time, the answer is, “Adobe Illustrator.” It’s powerful, but not easy to learn. Gary Poore has a guide to how to make line drawings in Illustrator here.

This is a fascinating discussion of sound effects in comics, where “catch” can be a word or a sound effect:

(S)ound effects are loaded with more information than just what a thing sounds like. ... they can often clarify the events in a panel by enhancing an action that is hard to capture in a still image. A sound might suggest degree or severity, for example, of an impact.

Emilio Bruna shared this interesting variation on a poster from grad student Christa Roberts:

It’s a good reminder that in a poster session, there are few rules!

A review of how decisions about typesetting can make text more readable, particularly for dyslexics. The two big take-aways: make the letters bigger and the lines shorter. Hat tip to Chris Atherton.

19 February 2015

Better Posters on the road: The MEOPAR workshop

I spent the first part of last week in beautiful Québec City giving a poster workshop for MEOPAR. I’d given presentations about making posters before, but this was the first time I’d tried to turn this into a half a day workshop, which was intimidating. The participants (dubbed “Meopeers”) were good sports about it all.

One of the things that made the job easier was that several of the Meopeers brought posters with them. As it happened, between the five there was a good mix of different features to talk about. These five posters gave me the chance to talk about logos, abstracts, eye levels, reading order, entry points, and much more.

This first was one of the cleanest, simplest posters. I would have put the right picture above the text, not below it, to bring the great picture closer to eye level. I also might have tried paragraphs instead of bullet points.

This second poster has a clean three column layout, but the amount of text is truly intimidating. The introduction – the whole right column, if we’re honest – is not welcoming to a casual passerby.

The poster above got caught in a lighting “dead zone" much of the first day. There were lights on to the right of it, to the left of it, but not above it, and it was noticeably dark. Compare the lighting of the middle poster to the two flanking it. 

This demonstrated that posters are not always displayed in good lighting conditions, and lots of conference poster sessions are in hotels like this one.

On poster number three, there are a few unnecessary boxes around the columns of this one. The logos here throw off the nice centering of the title, so I suggested left aligning the title and leaving the logos where they are.

The colours of the graphics are all over the map. This is a situation where I don’t know if the colours can be harmonized while keeping the scientific content intact, however.

This fourth one tries to provide skimming readers with a quick entry point, with a box that reads “Goal” in the upper right corner. The box is a bit dark and hard to read, though. Points for concept, but penalties for execution.

A couple of other issues here are that all the graphics are corralled at the bottom, and are rather small. The reading order switches around, with the central two columns reading across then down, instead of down, then across.

This fifth poster had the best title bar of all of the posters. The picture of the ferry is an excellent entry point, the title is big and clear and not crowded, and the logo is appropriately low key, tucked away in the lower right of the title bar.

Then, the bottom falls apart. The left column is okay, but... that right hand side. Oh dear. As soon as you hit the Methods and Results, you’re awash in a sea of small, intense graphs. Even after two straight days of looking at this poster on and off, I still haven’t been able to which way I am supposed to read the figures without going in and studying each one in detail, like these Meopeers were doing:

Some of the points that came up in discussion was the difference between the intended order of information, and how people actually looked at the poster. Even the first three posters, with a clear three column order, we're not often read in that order.

Several Meopeers admitted to being “skimmers,” looking at the start and finish of the poster for the main points, and not bothering with with the stuff in the middle at all.

There was some contention about the use of logos. One participant said, “My university will insist that they be there.” I am still baffled by how an institution can stop you from doing whatever you want with a poster. Even then, like everything else, there are some ways to include logos that are better than others.

I thank all the Meopeers for their willingness to listen. I thank the MEOPAR coordinating team for inviting me back home to Canada (first time home in seven years) and being most excellent hosts. I hope it helped!