24 September 2020

Link round-up for September, 2020

SciMobi is a new service for delivering poster-like content online. (I say poster like, because if it’s not on paper, is really it a poster?) Phil Greenhalgh has a pair of posts relevant to our interests here at LinkedIn. 

 The first is on QR codes. It arrives at the same conlusion of some earlier posts on this blog (always say what they lead to!).

The second is partly about the billboard poster format that has been the subject of much discussion. It uses a nice metaphor of catching. Throw one ball and someone can probably catch it. Throw a lot, and they will drop them. Excerpt:

Alas, when working in some of the most highly regulated industries in the world, the luxury of brevity isn't always one we can afford. The amount of balls is sometimes beyond our control, we are compelled to become jugglers. If the content just positively has to be there, it becomes our job to not throw the balls all at once at our audience, but to hand them safely one-by-one so they are not dropped.

Scimobi will soon have a 15% discount for Better Posters readers! I will announce it on the Better Posters Twitter when it’s ready. Thanks to SciMobi!

Update: The SciMobi discount code is:


It is good for three months (i.e., until mid December 2020).

• • • • •

Echo Rivera scored a coup with this awesome guest post from Heather Hinam. Heather makes posters for a living - only she knows them as “interpretive signs” for public displays like parks and museums and the like.

Bees and pollinators interpretive sign

Heather provides a breakdown of her process of making these rich, complex signs. I like this tip: write your text last!

Now that everything is where I want it to be, I finally start writing the text. I know some of you reading this will find it counter-intuitive, but by doing it this way, I never end up with too much copy. I can only fill the space that I have created.

While the target audience is general rather than academic, many academics would do well to look more at these sorts of signs as inspiration!

• • • • •

Florence Nightengale, she of nursing fame, was also a dataviz nerd.

Diagram of the causes of mortality in the armies in the east

Hat tip to Emily Anthes.

• • • • •

What art can do for science. Hint: way more than public engagement. How about:

  1. Change your perspective.
  2. Use data to create art and vice versa.
  3. Create new visual metaphors.
  4. Broaden frames of reference.
  5. Get inspired!

At Lifeology.

• • • • •

Kris Faraldo describes how to use PowerPoint make graphics fast with minimal graphics skills. (PowerPoint really is good for quick and dirty images.)

• • • • •

I am a big fan of actor Natalie Morales. Near the end of August, she dished some personal experienced with typography on Instagram.

The fact that people on here have the option to use Comic Sans is very upsetting to me

I'm dyslexic and I've heard Comic Sans is good for dyslexics but all it produces in me is pure rage. There are much better ones.

 As far as I am concerned, her word is law.

• • • • •

The first graphic novel created in India, The River of Stories, was recently reprinted. It’s a story of indigenous people, economic development, journalism, and more.

"The River of Stories" cover

The River of Stories is (mostly) English, and you can view it here (part 1) and here (part 2).

• • • • •

All for now!

18 September 2020

BioRender announces PosterRender

“Darn it, I don’t have a blog post lined up this week. What am I going to write about...?”

[Checks Twitter]

psst @DoctorZen have you seen!?


“Well, that’s this week’s blog post sorted.” 

BioRender just announced a new project, PosterRender. This cloud-based software features automatic alignment and global colour schemes.

It’s rare that I get to say, “Big news in the conference poster world!” But this is big news in the conference poster world.

I knew the company was thinking about a project like this, because a BioRender staffer consulted me at one point about the poster making process. I probably didn’t help much! 

This announcement is getting thousands of likes and retweets. I am not going to lie when I say I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, that a successful company like BioRender is throwing its weight behind poster making is fantastic. This will be a great boon for many people. 

On the other hand, the first glance suggests that this fundamentally a souped up template, and I have consistently struggled with templates. Templates prevent people from falling in deep dark holes, but they also generate a certain sameness that can be bland. BioRender figure have a recognizable style.

I also have a bit of a frown because the announcement says this is for people “who spent way too long making poster.” This was also an explicit selling point of the “billboard” style poster, as I mentioned last week.

I don’t like the implication that posters aren’t worth spending time on. 

It reinforces the idea that posters are third-rate ways of presenting scientific information. I never see people say, “You’re spending too much time on writing.” Nobody begrudges a few hours spent on creating a journal article, because people recognize that good writing takes time. Posters are a critical first draft of the scientific record. Take them seriously, damnit.

But I’m probably like the music nerd arguing that vinyl records “sound better” when the rest of the world has moved to listening to streaming music. 

This is going to be a very big success for BioRender and help many people make more readable and more attractive posters than they could have on their own.

Early access to PosterRender is available here. And you better believe I have signed up! I am excite!

Hat tip to Catherine Scott.

External links

BioRender PosterRender early access sign-up

10 September 2020

blog post with conference poster advice

A recent episode of the podcast 99 Percent Invisible looked at the rise of grocery store brands, and spent a lot of time examining generic brands.

No name baking soda

The example pictured is from No Name line of products from the Canadian supermarket Loblaws. In the late 1970s and 1980s, Loblaws started these generics as a cheaper alternative to national name brands. 

Of course, this “anti-brand” is in fact an instantly recognizable brand. The moment something becomes the subject of jokes, which No Name has often been, that’s a culturally significant brand.

Marketer Terry O’Reilly says of the No Name design:

You don’t have to pay for the mass advertising and all the design work and all the marketing that goes on behind that jar of jam. All you should be paying for is the jam. And Nichol called that “brand tax.”

This No Name attitude is shared with a certain section of the scientific community who declare that scientific papers are mere “ads for data.” These are the ones who thumb their nose at reviewed, editing, proofreading, and typesetting. None of that should matter, only the jam / data matters.

And No Name’s ultra minimalist design also reminded me of... the billboard style poster

Poster template saying, "Teach people something cool you learned in 5 seconds as they walk by (or scroll by)."

On his original YouTube video, part of Mike Morrison’s argument for the billboard style poster was that people making posters (usually students and other early career researchers) shouldn’t be spending the time for the design work on a poster. Call it the “design tax” instead of a brand tax.

I couldn’t resist doing this:

Conference poster in No Name style with bright yellow background and black Helvetica text

But the 99 Percent Invisible podcast goes on to describe how the generics, like No Name, started to lose appeal. Loblaw’s kept No Name, but started a new, upscale line called President’s Choice. It was led by a chocolate chip cookie, The Decadent.

President's Choice Decadent chocolate chip cookie

President’s Choice was a 180° pivot from No Name. As much as No Name reveled in DGAF minimalism, President’s Choice reveled in slick design. 

Both were created for the same stores, but as of now, President’s Choice became the more successful model. If you live in the United States, you might see the Walmart equivalent, Sam’s Choice.

And the moral of the story for posters is:

There is no optimal design. No Name and President co-exist in the same stores. One does not drive the other to oblivion.

Many people like nice packaging. As much as some researchers are say they only care about content – the only thing that matters in the jam in the jar or the data in the graph – when people vote with their dollars, they quite often choose the thing that has put more effort into the packaging. 

To some degree, the billboard style poster demonstrates that same trendline. If you haven’t looked at the material on the Open Science Framework lately, the current template is up to version 43. The number of styles is more varied and the designs are more sophisticated. For something that originally billed itself as something fast and time saving, a lot of effort has gone into refining the design for more uses for more people.

Update: No Name has an A+ Twitter game.

Graph in No Name style showing scatter plot of pie related products. Titled, "Pie chart. May contain data."

External links

podcast episode on 99 Percent Invisible

03 September 2020

Critique: The great cleave

I love seeing how people’s approaches to posters change over time. I am tickled we have a trio of posters from Nadav Ben-Assa. Click any of them to enlarge!

"You are what you cleave" poster 1

This first iteration is a clean, straightforward design that shows lots of good design decisions. There a clean columnar layout. The text and images are integrated. The margins are generous and have lots of white space.

The “In a nutshell” section has a few decisions that I might question. “In a nutshell” is clearly a summary box. The logical places to put a summary are the top left or bottom right. The sidebar in the bottom middle is okay. But I wonder if the sidebar is in that position “because it fit there,” rather then, “This is where it should go, so I’ll make it fit.”

There are some parts of the poster I would like to see more edges aligned.

Perhaps the main issue with this first iteration is that it doesn’t have a lot of personality. The title bar is a sort of unassuming brown. The sort of colour you might expect a 1970s kitchen to be.

Version 2 of this project does not have that issue.

"You are what you cleave" poster 2

Right away, you can see so much more personality! The colour choices are more bold and frankly, more fun. The title has gone from a generic sans serif to a condensed typeface that is bigger and easier to read. The text and images are integrated in a more sophisticated way.

The is still one thing that immediately makes me twitchy. The use of numbers to signpost the reading order is excellent. However, it does draw attention to “5. References” down in the lower right corner. You travel from section “1” to section “4” easily, then... you have to throw the car in reverse and back up all the way to the other side of the poster. Because the poster is in portrait mode, the distance from corner to corner isn’t great, but it’s jarring to glance at the poster and see, “1, 2, 5, 3, 4.”

Just remove the number “5” and the problem goes away. You don’t need to give directions to optional fine print.

Version 3 clearly has some of the same DNA as version 2.

"Same strain - different phenotype?" poster

The signposting issue is gone, and the numbers fall in their expected order! 

The more confident colour choices are starting to extend into the figures used. Compare this to the first poster, and you can see how many more little spots of colour are popping out.

There also seems to be less text in this version than the previous two.

The title, you note, has changed. Nadav liked the title, but it wasn’t connecting with the audience. I think this is a good lesson: you only improve certain things by testing it out on other people.

There is a very clear improvement in graphic design with each version. We can all only hope to improve as much as Nadav!

27 August 2020

Link round-up for August 2020

Modesta Abugu and Caroline Dowling have a nice article describing their experiences with online poster sessions at the Plant Biology 2020 conference.
PlantBio20 online poster session
 Their messages:

  1. Take it seriously. It’s easier than ever for people to spot errors.
  2. Promote it!
  3. Align your poster with other content you upload.
  4. Be ready for questions.
  5. Don’t be discouraged!

I keep asking for other people to talk about their experiences with virtual poster sessions, and this is the most I’ve seen so far. Please, if you have done an online poster session, email or tweet me about it!

• • • • •

Speaking of the Plant Biology meeting, there is now an archive of the workshop on illustrations. (Warning: Contains me.) 

All the speakers went through the chat transcript and added many more comments to the questions, many of which we could not answer live during the session. So even if you were in the workshop (and thank you if you were!), this may be worth visiting!

• • • • •

Animate Your Science have turned their blog post on poster design into a free PDF (17 pages), which is a little more portable and polished than the original blog post.

Cover to "How to Design an Award-Winning Conference Poster"

You do have to give up your email address to get it.

Animate Your Science also wrote a guest post over on Echo Rivera’s blog.

• • • • •

Academic conferences have changed this year. This article by Rafit Ali argues that even if COVID-19 fears goes away, the dominoes have started to topple, and the event industry will never be the same. 
"Then" over Napster logo. "Now" over Zoom logo.
Zoom is the Napster of the event industry, the ease with which you can put on good-enough virtual events with a global audience, almost for free, much to the undercutting of the underlying economics of the physical events world. All types of business event — conferences, trade shows, conventions — are in danger of their revenues streams of tickets, sponsorships, memberships, and other types of fees being eroded as the world gets used to digital formats and alternatives emerge to physical networking, matchmaking and other tasks we get out of these events.

Perhaps the most worrisome prediction is that by moving conferences online, “analog dollars become digital pennies.” Many scientific societies make much of their income through their conferences. The financial stresses on existing societies could be huge.

(I was a little surprised to see RELX, the parent company for the academic publisher Elsevier, listed as one of the biggest players in the event industry.)
• • • • • 
Jessie Baldwin tweeted:

I have been told that my study (currently under review as a Registered Report) isn’t eligible to be submitted for a conference presentation because the results are not known. Apparently the results are essential for the paper to be evaluated. This isn’t how science should work!

That’s... new. Incredibly unexpected and definitely counterproductive. But new. Rank and file conference presentations should not be vetted to this level of detail. People should be able to show incomplete or preliminary projects.

• • • • •

Calibri is a fine typeface that people are sick of because it is overused because it is the default in Microsoft Office. It used to be Times New Roman. A Microsoft team member explains why the default was changed.

Mobile phones were a big part of the switch.
• • • • •
Typography against fascism. The largely unknown politics of the Futura typeface.

• • • • •

The new logo for Iceland’s soccer team is quite something.

Iceland soccer logo, composed of four part: eagle, giant, bull, and dragon.

The abstract logo is kind of like those giant Japanes robots that combine to form one big robot. It has four parts that work individually: eagle, giant, bull, and dragon. But they are also combined into a single image.

• • • • •

Typography nerdery meets SF nerdry. The typography of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (with notes and comparisons to classic series, and newer movies, too!).

USS Enterprise saucer

My love for sans serif fonts like Microgramma trace straight back to this.

This post is an extract from the book, Typeset in the Future.

• • • • •

Nature reports that most acronyms never make it into wide use. Stop making new ones. And especially don’t make up ones for a poster!

• • • • • 

Speaking of Nature, remember how they redesigned their journal a while ago, including a custom typeface? The Atlantic did it, too. In June, Goldman Sachs became one of the first businesses I know to develop their own custom typeface: Goldman Sans (+1 typographic pun there, people).

Numbers in spreadsheet typeset in Goldman Sans

 There’s a New York Times article about it, too, with some fun jabs at the font from other type designers and good analysis.

This dual life is a lot to ask from a font: distinctive enough to please aesthetes, neutral enough to include in paperwork for an initial public offering.

You can download the font file (six roman weights, three italic weights, and two condensed weights) here. Hat tip to Geetesh Bajaj and Ellen Lupton.

• • • • •

In July, I reviewed a few online graphics editors like Vectr, Canva, and DesignCap. Another service in that space is Piktochart

Piktochart logo

The user interface and features look very much like Canva and DesignCap. Like DesignCap, paper size is a potential dealbreaker. 40 inches wide and 52 inches tall are the maximums.

Hat tip to Sydelle de Souza.

24 August 2020

The Word Lab Session on poster design

This week!

"10 Simple Rules for Designing an Academic Poster" Sydelle de Souza, 26.08.2020, at 1430 (UTC+1)

WordLab presents “10 simples rules for designing an academic poster.” with Sydelle de Souza. It’s free to attend this Zoom meeting, but you do need to sign up here to get an invite and the link to the meeting. Scroll down, and you’ll find it on the left-hand side.

Word Lab Sessions is an online place for casual conversation about linguistics in academia. I stumbled across their upcoming session on Instagram and though it would be of interest for some readers, particularly for any of you who are in Europe or Africa. (The time differences make it an early morning for someone in western North America!)

This is just one of several sessions they have hosted. Another general topic coming up is “The Fundamentals of Writing an Academic Paper” on September 16. (It‘s good to know even linguists have to work at this.) Most of their session focus on linguistics, so if linguistics is your main wheelhouse, definitely check them out!

External links 

The Word Lab Sessions

20 August 2020

Your poster text is too damn small!

One of the most frequent questions I get when I talk about posters is, “What’s a minimum point size?” I got it a few weeks ago when I was speaking at the Plant Biology meeting. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you might guess that it’s hard to answer this question. But in general:

Your poster text is too damn small

Your poster text is too damn small.

One place we can look for guidance for text size is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the act, which was a big win for people with disabilities in the United States. The ADA has a lot of specifications intended to maximize accessibility for people, including people with visual limitations.

Not surprisingly, the ADA does not offer guidance for academic conference posters. But it does offer guidance for signs. Signs are probably a pretty good parallel for conference posters. Both need to be visible from a distance and easily read, even for someone with less than perfect vision.

Rather than using point size, the ADA makes recommendations based on the height of capital letters; the uppercase letter “I” if you want to be specific.

Capital letters should be 16 mm high for signs viewed from 6 feet or less

The ADA requires that the capital “I” on signs be 16 mm tall if you are viewing from six feet or less. That is the usual kind of range people are viewing conference posters. That’s usually in the ballpark of a 66 point font. Point size is not a precise thing in digital fonts, so you have to double check the exact point size.

If you are viewing from further away (as someone might be when reading your poster title, say), the required minimum size goes up. For ten feet, that recommend height of capital letters is 28.8 mm, which is around 120 points.

Those ADA requirements for signage asks for text that is much larger than I usually see when people talk about “minimum point sizes.” I usually see recommendations like, “No smaller than 24 points” (that was AGU’s recommendation last year for body text, for instance) – less than half the ADA standard.

Of course, the ADA is not the only guidelines out there for making visual material accessible to many people. I’m sure other nations have developed their own standard for accessibility.

Nor I am not saying your academic conference poster needs to be ADA compliant. But I think this is a good example of a mismatch between the concern of many academics, which is “Show as much stuff as I can” and the concerns of people thinking about accessibility, which is, “Make is visible to as many people as I can.”

When face-to-face poster sessions return, consider it a challenge to make your poster ADA compliant!