15 August 2019

Critique: Nucleus versus cytoplasm

Today’s contributions (we have two!) come to us courtesy of Colin Cheng. Click to enlarge!


I always like to see how people refine their presentation from one version of a poster to the next. Colin says of the first poster, above:

This was for a cross-faculty PhD student seminar within my school, and is meant to propose my long-term project for the next few years. I wanted to give a more general introduction for the non-virologists, so my intro was both ‘verbal’ and ‘pictorial’.

Because my project is about nuclear versus cytoplasmic NS5, I thought the yin and yang analogy was cool.

I like the use of the yin / yang symbol. I might have maybe tried to push it even further. If you're going to run with that, run all the way. I might have placed the inside "dots" closer to their traditional position in the curve -- they look too close to the edge. And I might have considered centering the text exactly on the curve dividing line.


Yes, the readability drops a little because of the letters changing colour. But I think with the right text size and weight, this would not be a huge drop. It makes the graphic element more conspicuous and deliberate. You never want your design choices to look accidental or timid.

Here’s round two of this topic:


After looking at his first poster, Colin made changes:

I realised it didn’t make sense to detach the words from the diagram (keep related things together…); indeed, it was redundant to even have most of the words. So I was happy dispensing the verbal intro for the second poster.

I think that was a good choice, and poster 2 is stronger for it.

The yin and yang symbol, while cool, was reincarnated in another form:

I realised after presenting to a few people that it was more helpful to have a cartoon to remind people where the various NS5s are localised. Having placed it in the top right corner, I’m still not sure that people are aware of it enough to refer to it as they go through the data below.

My solution would be to flip the positions of the diagram and logo. Put the diagram on the left, where it gets more attention. Upper left is where we look first.

Colin asked me about using the photo of contributors in the second poster. My question is: is there value in that photo for the viewer? People do like to look at faces, and it’s easier to look at a picture than read words. So that helps, though the difference is not huge.

Colin is a reader of the blog and read some of my posts on boxes. Colin wrote that boxes helped him to organise ideas, which is great. But the question I asked before remains: even if the boxes help you, do they help the reader? Colin wasn’t convinced boxes hurt the reader’s experience, and here, I agree.

The boxes here are done fairly well. I like “signposting” the reading order with the numbers in orange circle. (And it’s not escaped notice that the poster is making nice use of blue and orange as complementary colours.)

In box 2, I would remove the blue lines around the orange boxes entirely. The contrast between the orange and white is so great the box will still clearly read as a box.

For the major numbered boxes, I would keep the blue lines, but make them thinner – perhaps shrinking them almost to hairline width. The contrast between white and the background is not as big as the orange and white, so having a line help make box be visible, but it doesn't need much help.

I like the orange line under the title bar, but wish there was a little more room between it and the top of boxes 1 and 2. I wish the vertical space between the boxes was about the width of the horizontal space between them.

While the main boxes are well aligned, I would like to see more alignment and organization within those boxes. For example, the fine print word “Unpublished” in box 4 seems to align with bullets above it. It would be better aligned with the words above it. In box 3, “Unpublished” doesn’t align with anything else in the box.

Colin wrote:

I wish I could encapsulate my project in a single photo the way lobsters or anther flowers do.

These posters come closer than many! The cell illustrations here are very good. That’s the kind of visual that you want to include when possible.

08 August 2019

Poster vandalism

In part of a discussion about authorship and ownership of projects, Keira Lucas mentioned this anecdote:

I had a previous disgruntled employee crumble up one of my biologist’s poster at a conference because he felt entitled to the data.

Coincidentally enough, this was one day after I heard a story about a presenter who had a poster that was stolen during the conference.

I was gobsmacked. Stealing a poster? Why? I mean, a conference poster isn’t exactly a Monet.

And the morals of the story are:

Conference organizers should have some sort of security plan in case people behave badly.

Conference organizers should have some plan to help people recover from disasters. This can be as simple as asking if there is a large format printer at the conference site or nearby.

Third, conference presenters should have a digital version of their poster that is accessible to them. This might be on a flash drive, on a tablet, laptop, emailing a copy to themselves, a cloud storage service like OneDrive or Dropbox, and many other ideas.

Update, 19 August 2019: A poster was defaced at the 2019 Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists. A PDF of the report provides some details. I’ve removed the name of the faculty member from this post because it’s irrelevant to the point.

There were rumors... that [a faculty member] had bullied a postdoc (originally reported as a student) into changing his poster. After reviewing the discussion with the poster presenter and a witness, this was determined to not be the case. In fact, the presenter was upset to find out that these false rumors had begun and has sought to bring the facts to the Ombud. The postdoc’s poster was indeed later defaced by others, but [the faculty member] had nothing to do with this incident, and was not even present when it happened.

While this statement is intended to “clear the air”, it could be improved. There is no way to know from the PDF which meeting this is about (by which I mean the year), or when the PDF was created. So someone who stumbles across it would have no way of knowing if this was last week or years ago.

Hat tip to David Shiffman.

Related posts

01 August 2019

Critique: Beach plastics

I promised this as the end of May, and I finally delivered! Today’s poster comes to us via Fabian Roger on Twitter. Fabian called this poster by Therese Karlsson “absolutely brilliant.” Click to enlarge!


This was presented at the 2019 European meeting of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC). Therese said, “Never had as much fun making a poster as this one!”

Comic-inspired posters get good responses from viewers. I think this is because they are:

  • Different. It is difficult to break out of the mold with posters. They usually have the same kind of text structure (following the IMRAD format of journals) and standard presentations of data. Comics break that monotony.
  • Visual. Many posters are, in their heart of hearts, text-based documents. They may be cut back to a minimum, but I think most posters are verbal instead of pictoral. Comics put images first, and text second.
  • Short. Because more of the poster is used for pictures, you have to cut back on the words, and it becomes a more attractive thing to stand and scan for a few moments.

25 July 2019

Link roundup for July 2019

Sarah Knowles wins our completely informal “Best poster of the month” award.


From here and here. Hat tip to Colin Purrington and Elaine Williams.

• • • • •

Speaking of awards, Hannah Isotalus (whose work was featured here) was screwed out of her poster award by the British Association for Cognitive Neuroscience.

Ages ago I tweeted about how I got rewarded a poster prize last September at a conference and how they said at the time the prize and a certificate would be sent over later on. Following multiple emails they stopped replying to me and never sent me a thing. ...

It’s also somewhat important to note that two years in a row I have loud and proud outed them on twitter for never in their history having given mid or early career prizes to women. I don’t want to wear a foil hat here... but you know...

For shame. If you are a member of this society, you might want to ask those in charge what is going on. The person behind their Twitter account has promised to look into this. BUt as far as I know, this hasn’t been resolved.

• • • • •

From 2017 but new to this blog is a post by Veronika Ch on recycling her poster into a skirt.


What makes her skirt an epic win? Simple. It. Has. Pockets.

• • • • •

“Oh, you have a skirt made from an old conference poster?” asks Rajika Kuruwita. “Hold my beer.”


More about Rajika’s dress is a longer poster later!

Hat tip to Needhi Bhalla on these last two entries.

• • • • •

Conference service provider Morressier has an article about how to create a great digital posters. (Warning: Contains me.) Digital posters have a few tricks that paper posters don’t.

While many of the design tips that are useful for traditional posters also hold for digital posters, there are several features that an ePoster provider can offer that deserve to be looked at in depth. One of these is the ability to zoom in and out of the poster’s content. ...

One of the features that is most revolutionary when it comes to digital posters is the ability to embed audio and video files directly into the body of your poster.

Video is probably the “killer app” of digital posters.

• • • • •

Edgar Bering has a request.

Dear colleagues,

Please stop wearing backpacks to poster sessions. Your innate kinesthetic sense has not adapted to your appendage, which means you bash into people… a lot.

Hat tip to Rachel French.

• • • • •

The University of Cambridge shows how not to run a poster session:


Zig-zagging poster boards mean viewers and presenters of one poster have to look across the other. One end of the poster boards appears to be next to a wall, which causes congestion at the entrance to a lane.

Hat tip to Ewan St. John-Smith.

• • • • •

You like infographics, but don’t have time to create every image from scratch? And you need things to scale? You will love Dimensions Guide. It has scale drawings of all kinds of things. Want to make a point about accessibility? They can help.


Need to compare a bunch of breeds of dog? How about a basset hound for a start?


The site is chock-a-block with useful diagrams. Plus a few figures that are a little less practical.


• • • • •

What if you like pie charts but hate circles? This website has you covered. (Oh god, I’m an enabler...)


But in the immortal words of Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park:


Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.

Weird pie chart shapes might prompt you to stop to think if you should.

Hat tip to Alberto Cairo and Justin Kiggins.

• • • • •

Perhaps the people behind the “all the shapes” pie charts should look at Helena Jambor’s blog post about making figures.

• • • • •

I would love to read more on getting more out of academic conferences in Times Higher Ed. But it’s paywalled.

But maybe you have a subscription, even if I don’t.

• • • • •

Over on Instagram, a poster meme that starts, “Trying to present a poster at a conference like:

• • • • •

Scientist Suzanne Eaton died horribly while attending at a conference. I am sorry for everyone who knew her, and hope they are getting all the support they need during this tragedy.

Three threads emerged from this about conferences generally.

  • Leslie Vosshall has a thread reflecting on how this event (plus others) are making her reconsider conferences entirely.
  • Needhi Bhalla shares these concerns, but argues the cohort opportunities still make conferences a potentially good thing.
  • ItatiVCS’s thread discusses the conference experience for minorities, again focusing on the cohort experience.

18 July 2019

Critique and makeover: Biodiversity in a time of change

Today’s contribution comes from Tamara White. Click to enlarge!


This is a work in progress; it does not have references.

This feels busy. At first glance, it’s tempting to blame this on the colourful backdrop, which has four different main colours: blue, green, orange, and brown. Here is is alone:


This is a strong illustration of climate change, but so much of it is covered that I am not sure the message comes through. I think this is why Tamara has several of the main boxes partially transparent.

But I don’t think the background is the main culprit contributing to the visual clutter. In theory, this poster has four main elements: a title bar, and three columns.

There are black lines around the main columns to try to to unify them, but this doesn’t work. Each individual element is very recognizable as a separate element, only loosely connected to those around them. The text is laid out in white boxes, and each one creates an edge against the coloured background.

To show this, I removed the text. Everything that has a recognizable edge (either by a line or a difference in colour) has been given a red line around it.


Instead of four to six elements, the poster reads as 36 to 40 separate elements.If this was against a white background, the number would drop a bit, but not much.

The other issues that I see are pictures that are distorted, and lots of elements that are misaligned.

Those are the three things I tried to address in the makeover below.

First, I used the eyedropper tool to lift a light shade from the background. I made all the text boxes in each column the same colour.

I went into the image properties for each image, and made sure the amount of stretch was the same in both dimensions. No more compressed penguins, stretchy fish, and circles forced to become ovals!

I turned the paragraphs with bullets as their first character into lists with hanging indents.

I made almost all the photos and text within a column the same width.

Here’s the result:


The revision retains some of the colourfulness of the original while removing some of the visual clutter. The variation in column width is still noticeable, as is the variation in the width of the content from one column to the next. Ideally, this layout would probably be well served by dividing the columns into halves, and laying out the pictures in the left half and the text in the right (i.e., a six column grid).

I mentioned the idea of a “six column grid” to Tamara, who took it a little differently than I meant it, but the result was great.


This lets you see more of the background. In addition to having columns, you also end up with even rows that fall along the horizon line of the background. The headings pop out more.

Always be ready to love your accidents.

11 July 2019

Critique: Artseed

Today’s poster is from contributor Chetan Keshav. Click to enlarge!


Chetan wrote, “ It’s not as scientific as most of the posters featured on your blog though.” That is a good thing! One of my biggest wishes for this blog is that I would get a lot more posters from the humanities and other disciplines. I will take all conference posters from any discipline! Love all, serve all.

This poster does something that everyone is familiar with: it compares the old and the new, side by side. It’s a classic “Before” and “After.” But it’s a little hard to tell that at a glance.

Normally, when you see a “Before” and “After” comparison, it’s pictures of the same person. Like these people who got new haircuts:


You don’t need to label these as “Before” and “After,” because it’s obviously the same person. The face, and in this case the clothes, are identical.

With a website makeover, there is no such continuity. Everything changed. It would be helpful to indicate that these two different looking images are, in fact, the same site at different times.

To do this, the poster could embrace its four column format more strongly. As it happens, everything on the whole left half is “Before” and everything on the whole right half is “After.” I would try dividing it exactly down the middle, and put big “Before” and “After” headings at top that span half the poster. Then, I would divide the poster into four equal columns, instead of the kinda sorta even-ish four columns it has now.

If the design went that route, the title bar might need a little reworking to give space to the “Before” and “After” headings that would go up at the top.

I would keep almost everything else almost the same. I like the coloured headings, which are a nice way to break up grayness simply and quickly. And the icons and typography in the main text boxes are very good and don’t need changing.

04 July 2019

Critique: ROMS comm

A poster about ROM? I remember ROM!


Oh? It’s ROMS, you say? An acronym for Regional Ocean Modelling System? Okay, that’s almost as good as old Marvel Comics. This acronym is part of this week’s contribution from Stefanie Mack:


Stefanie wrote:

I really like the background. It’s a photo I took myself, while on a research cruise, and I use it or part of it on everything from my twitter background to my CV.  It adds interest, isn’t overwhelming, and gently separates the title from the rest. 

I agree. This is one reason why I am often advocating people try to get more photos for their posters! She continues:

I’m mostly happy with the content.  The section on the bottom left, “Smoothing Criteria,” is one of those sections where I don’t actually talk about it unless someone is asking very specific, detailed questions, and then I have to have it to explain properly.  This was my first presentation on a new project that, unfortunately, had no results to show at this stage.  My objective was to lay out the problem and research direction.  It ended up feeling too negative, so I substituted “So, why ROMS?” section for a typical conclusion. 

Sometimes the presentations that you make early in a project are some of the best ones, because you can focus on the problem and aren’t burdened with all that data.

Finding what “ROMS” stood for took a little more effort than I would have liked. When approaching a poster like this, I almost inevitably scan the headings first, because those are visible from a distance. I could read, “So why ROMS?”, even though that heading was down in the lower left.

My first thought is to look for a definition in the first paragraph. Not there.

I finally noticed the ROMS acronym in “Goals,” just under the affiliations. This should be a good place to put that information. It’s at the top, when you first start reading, right?

But it’s easy to miss. First, you’re going to read the title – which is left aligned. Then you’ll read the authors’ names and affiliations – which are left aligned. Then you normally read the introduction (or “The Problem” in this case) – which is left aligned.

But here, there’s a “Goal” statement  – which is centered. Because the goal statement is not left aligned, there’s empty space between the affiliation and the introduction, making it easy to miss. You have to backtrack up to find it.

Make the goal statement left aligned, like everything else up at the top, and the problem is solved.

I’m also concerned about the backtracking between “The Models” diagram and “The Problem,” as indicated by the arrow. It feels like “The Models” diagram (which also defines ROMS) is supposed to be the entry point for the poster. If that’s the case, there needs to be more signposts to show that.

I would rather the trackback be boxes and right angled arrows instead of ovals and curves. Perhaps more like this:



The poster has some rather long text blocks, which makes for a lot of gray areas. I’m wondering if the diagrams in “Smoothing Criteria” and “Pine Island Glacier Example” could be coloured, or set against a coloured background to break up the grayness a little.

I’m not sure if there is any strong reason for the columns to be different widths, or for those top headings not be be aligned.

External links

Just Swimmingly
Developing a coupled ice sheet-ocean model: challenges and progress with terrain-following ocean coordinates (Preprint arising from this work)