11 April 2019

Critique: The Morrison billboard poster

A couple of weeks ago in the link round-up, I featured a video from Mike Morrison. Mike’s year-in-the-making video attracted plenty of attention, and is at the bottom of this post in case you missed it. Eugene Ofofsu has already used this format on a prize-winning poster.

Let’s have a look at Morrison’s template.

Sample billboard style poster developed by Mike Morrison

Morrison’s design has four components.

  1. An extremely large take away message in the middle. This is the biggest difference between Morrison’s design and most academic posters.
  2. A structured abstract in a sidebar on the left.
  3. Fiddly bits for superfans and aficionados in a sidebar on the right.
  4. A QR code in the bottom middle.

While I don’t share his deep pessimism about poster sessions, particularly presenting (“nothing's worse than presenting a poster”), Morrison’s design is thoughtful.

In particular, it takes the principle I have often espoused that “Nothing should compete with the title” and “The title is 90% of your communication effort” and runs with it. The central take home message acts as the title of the poster.

Morrison does include space for “Title” on the left sidebar, but a title is superfluous with this massive take home message. Besides, most titles are not one word, and the space any typical poster title would use in that left sidebar would probably be significantly larger than shown here.

I admire the push to summarize the work in a single sentence. But let’s be honest. Getting to that single sentence is... very hard. Many academics, trained in nuance and exceptions, struggle to cut words.

The design does make a few assumptions that might not always hold.

First, near the end of the video, Morrison simulates a “walkthrough” of a poster session with this billboard format.

In the next screen, a few real academic posters are going to move past you at a walking pace. See how much information you can absorb. Now try these same posters you just saw translated to the new design. Now, this is gonna be a little unbelievable and jarring at first, because when people see this, they don’t believe that these clear findings came from the posters they just saw, but they did.

Here’s a screenshot of this demo. Notice anything? Anything missing?


There are no people. There are no presenters or audience members. This is an empty room. In most sessions, there will be people that can potentially block the view of the bulk of the poster, where Morrison recommends putting the take home message.

Morrison’s portrait version of the poster fixes this.

But it looks much more like a more familiar poster format.

Second, Morrison proposes colour coding the backgrounds.

I think it would be extra efficient to use colours that prime people’s expectations about what type of poster they're about to see, because they’ll notice the colour first. Like, we could use green for empirical studies, because they’re the most common; blue for theory; red for methods, and; yellow, the most attention-getting color, for that rare and wonderful intervention study.

While colours do have things that they suggest, colour associations are usually derived from nature (reds and oranges and yellows are “hot” because they’re the colour of sunlight and fires; greens and blues “cool” because of plants, sky, and oceans) or associations drilled in from an early age (red for “stop” and green for “go”).

I think you would get confused looks if you asked people, “What colour do you associate with ‘theory’?”

The coding system suggested by Morrison would be arbitrary. The only way they would be meaningful is if the organizers set them out in advance, and aggressively enforced them. Most conference organizers are very “hands off” with posters.

This sort of colour coding isn’t very friendly to people who are colour blind. (Hat tip to Alex Merz for the reminder.)

Third, it assumes no audience member ever plans what posters to visit in advance. In Morrison’s description, the only way people find posters that interest them is by wandering the halls. There are no online lists of titles and abstracts ever mentioned.

As an audience member, you have the power to make best use of your time by searching out what posters you want to visit before the conference. As a presenter, you have the responsibility to respect people’s time and be able to tell them what’s going on in a few minutes.

Morrison wants someone to walk through a poster session and quickly get something meaningful from every poster. But there are meetings where the sheer number is still going to make that impossible (like the massive geology and neuroscience meetings). Preparing in advance is almost the only way you can get something meaningful from the meeting.

Fourth, Morrison puts a lot of stock in QR codes. I have written about them often on this blog. I have seen far more people put QR codes on posters than I have ever seen people taking pictures of them. Whatever their value in theory, they seem to be little used in practice.

In his PowerPoint template file, Morrison says of the “ammo bar” on the right hand side, “Keep it messy! This section is just for you.” If you truly want something that is “just for you,” keep it off the poster. Put it in a notebook or leave it on your tablet. Otherwise, people can see it, they will look at it, and they will be judgey about what is there.

It’s like an artist who shows work they are not happy with in an exhibit or display. If you show bad work, people will think it’s because you can’t tell the difference between the good and the bad. It’s not a good strategy.

Morrison, like many academics, is very focused on written content. Yes, there is a lot of paring down that written content to the essentials, but it’s still reading, and reading is hard. And when you see his walkthrough of a poster session, the overwhelming impression is sentences on blocks of colour. And all the type is the same basic sans serif. It is visually dull.

Morrison’s approach underestimates the appeal of visuals. I suggest pairing the big take message with a big inviting picture.

In this revision, I have moved the title up, so it’s always visible above people’s heads. The space saved is used for a big, bold picture that relates to the topic, so people can tell visually what the poster is about. The colour of the title bar is picked up from the picture with the eyedropper tool. The QR code is moved over to the “fine print” are in the lower left.

And while we’re at it, let’s move the typography out of the 1980s and into the 21st century by replacing tired old Arial with Source Sans Pro.

Both fonts are straightforward sans serifs. Source Sans Pro has the advantage of making the differences between some letter forms more distinct, notably lowercase “L” and capital “I”. You could certainly make bolder type choices that might give the poster more personality.

Also note that in revising the poster’s take home message, I was able to shorten it from twelve to eight words, a 33% savings, with no loss of meaning. Being concise is hard, even when you are deeply focused on it.

I suspect that some will argue that a poster should be all about the data.

So why do I suggest a photo and not the all important data? Because data alone usually render a poster anonymous.

Both this poster and the one before it might be about lobster size, but you can’t tell that at a glance from a scatter plot.

Reading words is hard. Interpreting graphs is harder. A scatter plot can represent ten thousand things. Data doesn’t signal at a glance what the topic of the poster is. See the discussion of Scott McLeod’s “big triangle” for more.

A wall of data points is not better than a wall of text.

See also threads by Amy Burgain, Aresny Khakhalin, and Juliane Fenandes.

Mike has provided templates here, and is working on a study validating this design. He is looking for grad students to participate. You can email him at Mike.A.Morrison@gmail.com.

04 April 2019

Better Posters Twitter account is back

After a few days suspension, the automated Twitter feed for this blog is now back up and running! Please follow @Better_Posters if you want updates of new posts.

Thanks to Twitter customer service for not taking too long in reviewing the appeal.

Sigh. All because I was just trying to add a new header graphic to the Twitter account. Hat tip to Cecil Adams’s Straight Dope for the tagline.

Critique: Stars with a bang

Mia de los Reyes is today’s contributor, with a pair of posters for perusal. Since both have similar styles, I’m going to mostly talk about both in one go at the end. Click to enlarge the first one!

Mia says of this poster:

This was presented at a conference for a very specific subfield (“Stellar Archaeology as a Time Machine to the First Stars”), so I felt a bit more free to use jargon that I otherwise wouldn’t put on a poster. I was inspired by the format of Meredith Rawls’s poster, which you featured a while ago.
She also notes there are some line artifacts caused by one of the images.

Mia’s second poster is one of the things we love – an award winner! This won a grad student award at the American Astronomical Society’s 233rd meeting.

Mia writes:

This had a more general audience, hence the “take-away points” box. I know that boxes are sometimes overdone, but I personally like the way they help me organize the flow of the poster.

Mia’s use of boxes works, I think, for a few reasons. One is that the lines making up the boxes aren’t black. When I see boxes on posters, the lines making them up are often black, and it creates a very strong visual impression because the lines are so high contrast. On both posters, the lines are in the same colour palette as the rest of the poster. That makes the box draw less attention to itself, and makes the division between spaces less abrupt.

Mia also takes care to ensure the edges of the boxes align, and the spaces between the boxes are even.

Mia’s use of the limited colour palette is intentional.

(I also like the “paint chip” look of using a spectrum of colors from a single color palette. I got the color palettes in these posters here.)

As with the first poster, Mia finds places to improve. In this second poster, an equation didn’t print as well as it might have.

On both, she wrote:

I wish I’d been a bit more creative with fonts! I used Avenir for everything but now wish I’d attempted a nice serif font for the headers.

I like both these posters, but there is an effect that I can’t quite put my finger on. They look better to me at far away than up close. They closer I get, the more cluttered they feel. They may purely be a matter of adjusting the point size down a hair, and maybe widening the margins between graphs and text ever so slightly.

Another thing that might help open up the space a little is to remove the top and left axes on the graphs, particularly on the second poster. They create a box where there is no need for a box, particularly since the graphs are all enclosed in boxes.

External links

8 Beautiful Flat Color Palettes For Your Next Design Project

01 April 2019

Better Posters Twitter account temporarily down

The automated Twitter feed for this blog (@Better_Posters) is currently down.

I had logged in to make a few cosmetic changes to the feed. When I did, I was prompted to add a birthday, so I picked the day the blog went live. Little did I know that since this was ten years ago, it didn’t meet Twitter’s minimum age requirement of 13. This instantly got the account locked.

I have put in a service ticket, and will post here when the feed is back.

28 March 2019

Link round-up for March, 2019

Mike Morrison has a 20 minute video describing what a poster session is and how to make a poster.

Unlike Mike, however, I do not believe poster sessions are “holding the human race back in a non insignificant way.” The video, particularly the first half, is pessimistic about poster sessions. Around 13:25, good stuff starts to happen as Mike outlines a good poster design. I think he overestimates people’s willingness to snap pictures of QR codes, though.

Mike has provided templates here, and is working on a study validating the design he has. He is looking for grad students to participate. You can email him at Mike.A.Morrison@gmail.com.

Amy Burgain saw this video and offers this alternative:

Amy writes:

It achieves the clear simple message BUT emphasizes how that message is supported by the DATA. It keeps the goal of understanding how the conclusion is related to the data while also making it easier to glean main messages.

I plan to have my own longer post about this in a couple of weeks.

Hat tip to Chris McTeague.

• • • • •

Dan Raboksy talks about the difficulty of working in poster sessions with hearing issues.

I have profound hearing loss and struggle in many conf situations. Plenary talks in ballrooms: usually bad to impossible. Poster sessions: terrible.

Dan notes that someplace with background noise, like a poster session, makes it almost impossible to understand speech. Off the top of my head, I think there are a few things that organizer can do to help:

  1. Have posters go up and stay up when no poster presentations are scheduled, so people can view posters in a more quiet surroundings.
  2. Ensure there are “quiet rooms” where someone can go to. Some people just like to have “chill out” rooms, but these could double for quiet conversations. (Science Online used to have these.)
  3. Make posters available online before the poster session. (This idea from Goring et al., 2018.)

• • • • •

BBC journalists have written an explainer on how they generate their graphs in support of news. They are using R’s ggplot2 package and putting out some nice stuff.

ggplot2 gives you far more control and creativity than a chart tool and allows you to go beyond a limited number of graphics. Working with scripts saves a huge amount of time and effort, in particular when working with data that needs updating regularly, with reproducibility a key requirement of our workflow.

The team has generously shared what they have learned by putting out a reference “cookbook” for making graphs and a package to generate the BBC’s house style.

Personal opinion: I’m glad it works for them, but I am never going back to command line.

• • • • •

Morgan Carter suggests a way to integrate posters and preprints:

(I)f you are making a conference poster about work from a recent preprint, throw the QR code at the beginning or end to invite folks to “read the full story”. I did it at a major conference last year, and I got questions about #biorXiv and preprint posting.

BiorXiv has a built in QR code generator. Hat tip to Tim Stearns.

• • • • •

Stacy Keith has a useful infographic to budgeting time for making anything, including posters.

• • • • •

Bryan Gaensler has a useful Twitter thread on how to deal with the stress of conferences. For example:

Look through the attendee list in advance. If there’s someone coming who you know and trust, ask them beforehand to check in with you during the meeting to see if you’re OK, or to introduce you to the people they’re talking to

Many more tips in the thread.

• • • • •

Speaking of tricks, here is a list of ten tips for making text more readable by Igor Ovsyannykov. A couple of years old, but new to me.

• • • • •

LeeAnn Tan has a wonderful gallery of her poster work at PosterFolk.com. I hope to have more from LeeAnn in the weeks to come!

What seems obvious to you may not seem obvious to a new conference goer. Jesiqua Rapley wrote:

My first conference was an international conference in another country in the first year of my MA. I was alone, incredibly introverted, and terrified. I had NO idea what I was supposed to do. I didnt even know how to properly hang my poster.

Supervisors, don’t do this to students. Don’t leave them hanging. Either go with them or do extensive briefing beforehand.

21 March 2019

Critique: Dem bones dem bones, dem jaw bones...

Today’s contribution comes from Ram Vaidhyanath! Click to enlarge:

Radiology’s whol deal is taking pictures, which makes it a very visual field. This poster takes advantage of that, and uses lots of high quality images. Those are excellent.

The title is big and extremely visible from a distance. Same with the headings. The bars under the title and heading is a nice visual touch, too. It helps break up the space a little. One possible issue is that the bar under the title is about the same length as the word “Pictorial,” making it look like a botched attempt at underlining the word. The bar might be a little better if it was either lengthened or shortened so that it didn’t “attach” itself to the word above it.

The layout is clear in the order of expected reading, but there are a couple of things that are a little frustrating.

That the three right columns align the pictures in them precisely makes the single picture in the left hand column stand out, and not in a good way. In a rather jarring way. The text of the top paragraphs in each column are the same length, six lines. The diagram of jaw anatomy could be lined up with the others by removing the “Anatomy” heading, which isn’t doing a lot of heavy lifting here anyway.

The discussion section is the most problematic. The “top” of the heading sort of pokes up above the “bottom” of the three right columns.

More bothersome is that the lines of text in the discussion are long. Very long. About 35 to 40 words long, which is about three times longer than we’re used to reading. And the slightly small point size, which is an issue throughout the poster, is even more noticeable in the section that is the hardest to read.

14 March 2019

Critique: Float like a butterfly, think like a bee

This week’s poster comes from Jeremy Hemberger. I believe that this was presented at last year’s Entomological Society of America meeting. Click to enlarge!

Jeremy writes that the graphic design parts were done in Illustrator. All the pieces were then assembled using inDesign.

I love the relaxed feel of this poster. One of the things that helps tremendously is that it very consciously and deliberately shows how it is not trying to fill all the available space. The bottom quarter or so of the poster contains a couple of logos (appropriately tucked down in the corner) and some simple, inviting artwork. And even between the two of those, there is a big space in light blue that is comfortable just holding space and doing nothing else.

It’s kind of a glorious signal of confidence. More stuff would look desperate.

I like how the title is broken down in a a simple, highlighted phrase on the left, and a smaller subtitle over on the right.

I haven’t seen author information handled this way before. Author photos are a tricky thing, but these are good pictures. Having them in a circle both minimizes their footprint and adds a little visual interest. There’s no affiliations here, just contact information, which is arguably the most important thing to a viewer. This approach might not work well with large numbers of authors, but this shows it works well with one or two.

The poster’s headings also show confidence in not using the typical “IMRAD” format. Instead, the headings clearly divide the space into “Problem,” “Solution,” and “Visualization and outreach.” The heading parallel the title, using the same left / right divide to separate a short, simple heading and a smaller, slightly more complex subheading.

The flow chart / infographic is concise, visually appealing, and well thought out.

The one place that I might suggest some very mild revision is in the text. Some of the text suffers from classic academic wordiness. The first sentence and filler words like “Indeed”, “are known to be”, and ”As such” might be edited out.

The type used for the paragraph text is condensed and a slightly heavy weight. It is a little small and difficult to read from a distance. But then, I say this as someone who has an optometrist appointment today. The older I get, the more I appreciate the need for things on posters to be big.

Fine work all around.

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