09 July 2020

Canva review

Canva logo
TL;DR: Canva is great for simple things like an Instagram post, but I would hesitate to use it for a conference poster.

In January (before we knew that 2020 would be a dystopian hellscape, remember?), one of my contributors mentioned making a poster in Canva. I’ve been playing around with it on and off since then, and am here to report what I've learned.

Note: All my comments are based on the free version of Canva. There is a Canva Pro that you pay a subscription fee to use.

One big advantage of Canva is that this is a cross platform app. I suspect many people will run it in a desktop web browser (which seems to be its native form). But there’s a desktop version. There are tablet and smartphone versions for iOS and Android. With an account, your work is stored online and accessible from all your different devices.

This is nice, because it means you can sketch out designs away from your desk. You can tinker with a project standing in a socially distanced line to deal with the cable company.

The big selling point, I think, is the templates. I’ve been using Canva mainly for creating Instagram posts. Here’s one I made to promote a post from a couple of weeks ago:

This was derived from a haphazardly picked Canva template, removing the text, and replacing it. For quick, small, simple things like this, I like Canva a lot.

For more complex tasks like a poster, I like it less. When you look for a poster template, the size is 18 by 24 inches. Too small for a conference poster. You can create a custom size, as long as it’s smaller than 64.5 by 38.7 inches. That is smaller than I would like, but given that many conferences seem to be trying to squash posters into smaller and smaller space, it may be all you need.

Typography is a critical point for any poster. Navigating the font selection is challenging. First, fonts you use on your desktop are not on the Canva list. No Times Roman, Arial, Gill Sans, Helvetica.

Second, the list of fonts you have is kind of huge. Forget trying to scroll through them all to find one you like.Your best bet is to search with a term like “serif,” “slab,” or “semibold.”  How these are tagged is not clear to me. I’m not sure what makes these “decorative.”

Decorative fonts in Canva

Even with a search, you are often still presented with a damn long list to scroll through.

You can upload pictures from your computer (such as graphs, etc.). But there is no serious integration with standard desktop products like Microsoft Office. You can’t upload an Excel spreadsheet and get a graph from it. You will need to make a PNG, JPG, or SVG file to import into Canva.

You cannot create guidelines. Instead, there is a lot of automatic “snap to” features that help align elements. You can also space elements evenly by selecting multiple objects.

You can create a grid, but only sort of. You click “Elements” in the left sidebar, and search for “Grid.” You don’t get a grid in the usual sense of a series of lines diving the page. Instead, you get another template that divides up the page and lets you “drop” elements into those spaces.

Here is an image with a three column “grid” with pictures dropped in.

Three side by side images in a square. The images reach top to bottom.

You can resize the grid, and it resizes everything within it giving different crops.

Three side by side images in a square. The images do not reach top to bottom.

Notice that hairline space between elements has stayed the same. I can’t see anything that allows you to set margins between elements.

As far as I can tell, you cannot set anything in Canva to a certain size. You cannot easily take an image and force it to be six inches wide, say. For an Instagram post with maybe two to four elements, that’s not a problem. For a conference poster with maybe dozens of elements, that’s a problem. You may want to make sure all your text boxes and graphs are five inches wide, for example. That’s very difficult in Canva.

Related posts

Critique: Dangerous LDL

External links


08 July 2020

Better Posters book cover reveal!

Look at this!

Better Posters book cover

The Better Posters book has moved another step being closer to reality, a blogger’s dream you can hold in your hands!

Current publication target: 25 January 2021!

Read more on the Pelagic Publishing website!

02 July 2020

Vectr review

I often use Pixlr as a quick online photo editor, and recently noticed a new product, Vectr. I was intrigued because it made vector based graphics. (If you don’t know what those are and why you should use them, here’s a post that explains.)

I tested out Vectr by trying to make a version of my new blog heading.

I soon noticed was that picking typefaces from the dropdown menu was a nightmare. Because this is an online app, you can’t add new fonts. You take what you’re give. Fortunately, there’s a huge variety of typefaces, but unfortunately, few familiar ones. You can’t filter for “serifs” or start typing a name. You have to scroll down laboriously. You want a substitute for Times New Roman? Happy hunting.

In Firefox, the name of the typeface was duplicated, once in a plain sans serif and a second time in the typeface itself. It was near impossible to read and know what you’re getting.

I thought that couldn’t be right. On a hunch, I opened up and tried Chrome. The typeface list was displayed correctly.

(Aside: I am deeply annoyed that we’ve had web browsers for over twenty years and I still run into pages that render differently on different browsers.)

You can pick colours for everything, but you either need to be happy with eyeballing the colour or work out a hex value. You cannot input RGB or CMYK values directly. And I didn’t see the “Recently used” button did anything.

You can import images in several formats, both pixel based (*.jpg and *.png) and vector based, including *.svg, Adobe Illustrator (*.ai) and *.eps. By the way, the import of an *.svg file I tried was more accurate than CorelDraw 2020.

You get a much more limited range of export options, though. Just three: *.svg, *.jpg, and *.png. It is a bit weird that this bills itself as a vector based illustration program and two of the three export options are pixel-based.

Some features, like alignment, are buried in “right click” menus rather than being visible on the main page. In fairness, I did not run through the tutorials.

The end result of my tinkering:

Not horrible, but I could not duplicate some elements I had created in CorelDraw, notably the shape I used for “Soon to be” and the strike throughs.

Related posts

Will it scale?

29 June 2020

#PlantBio20: “Get your message across” workshop

I’ll be speaking at the Plant Biology 2020 meeting next month as part of the workshop, “Get your message across: a guide to artwork and illustrations for better impact and clarity.

I will be joined by Magdalena Julkowska and Patrice Salome. They will be hard acts to follow!

If you are attending that meeting, please join me! If there is anything you would like me to address, @ me on Twitter or shoot me an email.

29 July 2020. Don’t miss it!

External links

25 June 2020

Link round-up for June 2020

Hey! Everything is still awful. If you are taking the time to read this, thank you.

• • • • •

A typeface for the times: COVID Sans.

Hat tip to creator Felix Bernoully.

• • • • •

Many poster creators would benefit from working with people whose specialty is art and / or design. But part of the challenge is making it typical, not exceptional. It is possible. Steve Cook wrote:

We have “normalized” including money for art and design within the grants we apply for. This past year our lab spent $15K+ on graphic design, fine arts, video production, photography, story boards, and animated shorts. A powerful way to increase the impact of the work we do.

• • • • •

Which nicely segues into this month’s gem. This is a deep dive blog post on how to work with a science artist. Fifteen artists answer common questions! Questions include:

  • How can I meet a science artist?
  • Where do I start – how do I reach out to an artist?
  • What questions should I ask?
  • What can I expect from working with an artist?


• • • • •

Magda Julkowska gives a nice seminar on data visualization, courtesy the folks who bring you Plantae.

• • • • •
I’ve said a lot that the title of your poster is the most important thing on it. Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein does a close analysis of a great headline and why it matters.
(I)n today's news landscape, headlines circulate MUCH more widely than the associated stories.

The headline was, “Police Erupt in Violence Nationwide.”

• • • • •

MyFonts has a guide to using ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. Their main message? “If you choose to set display copy in all caps, do so sparingly.” (My emphasis.)

That is to say, you probably do not need to set the long-ass title of your poster in all capitals to get attention.

• • • • •

Research posters as done by 4 year olds.

Paper with kid's drawing, saying "Bird week has started!" with labeled pictures of owl, puffin, eagle, peafowl, and ostrich.

Just one example here, there are more in the link!

• • • • •

Krista Byers-Heinlein has a nice thread on electronic posters. Excerpt:

Landscape format pdfs require scrolling both vertically and horizontally - not great. We wanted something with vertical-only scroll, that would adapt to different devices (phone/tablet/computer)(.)
This example later in the thread shows the “scroll down” format well. It was created in Visme.

I’d like to think efforts like these validate my suggestion that that a single scrolling column probably works well for on online poster.

These posters remind me of Scott McCloud’s “infinite canvas”: experimental web comics where he took advantage of the fact that he could have a “page” on the web that was bigger than any printed page could ever be. A computer screen was conceptualized as a window, rather than a page, As we see more and more online conferences, it would probably be wise to revisit comics’ forays into graphic communication on the web.

• • • • •

Nature looks at how scientific conferences are managing the pandemic and whether they can survive in the future. Posters appear briefly (emphasis added):

Researchers who have attended virtual meetings say that the meetings have several important downsides. Poster presentations can fall flat in an online space, and it’s difficult to have serendipitous encounters between sessions, which is where a lot of collaboration normally happens.
I think the pandemic will definitely force a lot of societies to push harder on setting up online experiences. But meeting in person has so many advantages that it's hard to imagine it vanishing entirely.

18 June 2020

Review: Academic & Scientific Poster Presentation: A Modern Comprehensive Guide

Full disclosure: This book was published after I had started the process of writing my own book on posters. I wanted to write my book my way, and didn’t want to imitate Rowe’s work. I bought Rowe’s book, but put it aside until my manuscript was handed over to my editor and my book was well along its own path to publication. That’s why there has been no review until now.

That I have my own book coming out means I am not exactly a dispassionate observer here. You may gauge my comments about this book accordingly.

Nicholas Rowe’s Academic & Scientific Poster Presentation is only the second book I have found specifically devoted to academic conference posters. The first, from 1999 (reviewed here), hasn’t aged well, so it was past time for a new book on the topic.

Near the end, in Chapter 12, Rowe admits the book is the end result of his own frustration:

(T)he author (tired and mildly disappointed after a mediocre poster session) began to wonder about the actual benefits of poster presentation and what could be done to improve the current situation. ... This book is one output of the research(.)
It’s telling that Rowe describes the book as a research product. The style of the book is conceptual, theoretical, and analytical. (There is even an equation.) Here’s a taste of the style:

Figure 3.3 shows the way that poster presentation facilitates transactional
exchange around a given topic (for a more detailed discussion on this subject, see
Rowe 2012). No robust empirical studies have been conducted into the level of
knowledge transfer that is achieved by the poster medium...

This is more a book of scholarship about posters more than it is advice on how to create posters. For example, Rowe reproduces one of the earliest examples of something that might have been at a “poster session” from 1946!

Rowe repeatedly mentions how little research has been done into conferences in general and posters in particular. The lack of research is strange, he notes, given that the cost of making posters probably reaches into the billions of US dollars per year, and is the second most common form of academic communication.

There is some “how to” advice. If you pick up this book looking for advice on how to make a poster, chapters 6 to 9 on design, and chapter 12 on presentation, are the most relevant. Like most of the book, the advice tends to be on the theoretical side. The advice sometimes delivers very specific details on how to do things in PowerPoint, which is can be a somewhat jarring shift in gear.

The book has 26 figures. Most appear to have been made in PowerPoint. This would not be surprising, since many of Rowe’s specific recommendations concern how to do things in PowerPoint.

Figure 5.1 The needs of parties involved in poster sessions

As you can see here, most of the figures are low resolution mock-ups of posters, not final, polished versions. Chapter 6 has examples of completed posters, but they almost thumbnails (4 and 7 examples to a page) where the detail is hard too see.

One of the ways I check for “currency” is whether links still work. Some diagrams have QR codes, so I scanned a couple of those. They still work!

There is only detail which I disagreed with.

(T)he annual convention of the Modern Language Association of America, the MLA, is said to be the largest academic conference in the world, and in 2014, it had more than 10,000 attendees and 810 sessions and lectures

This is in no way near the largest. The 2014 American Geophysical Union fall meeting had 25,920 registered. The 2014 Neuroscience meeting had 31,250 in attendance. This claim was, unfortunately, on page 2! Fortunately, this did not auger ill for the rest of the book.

Rowe’s book is alone in its scholarship of poster presentations, and ends with several potential research topics for the future. I absolutely agree with his point that posters and poster sessions have been an overlooked topic for research. Rowe’s book is an excellent starting point for any scholar who wants to start examining an untapped vein of research about research.


Rowe N. 2017. Academic & Scientific Poster Presentation: A Modern Comprehensive Guide. 170 pp, 26 figures. Springer: Cham, Switzerland. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-61280-5

11 June 2020

Four bad habits of academics that cause ugly posters

There are many reasons that academic conference posters are often bad. Some of it is lack of experience. But even with some experience, many academics have some habits – often deeply ingrained habits – that work against good posters.

1. Academics are verbal.

Think of a generic, stereotypical “smart person” or “academic,” and you probably think of books.

Women in glasses reading a book

Any kid who likes reading is sort of pegged as “the smart kid.” Books, reading, and writing are almost inextricably linked with our ideas of intelligence and academia.

What does this mean for posters?

Academics are largely a selected group of people who love words. Maybe too much. So they write and write and write and write.

Because academics love words and have a lot of experience writing, they forget that reading is hard. Kids start reading maybe around 6. Even after ten years of practice, teenagers would still struggle with most academic articles.

But posters are a visual medium.

Academics, inexperienced in communicating visually, struggle to shift to communicating in a visual medium. For instance, they will write out a prediction rather than drawing a graph of what they expect the data to look like.

2. Academics are cheap.

Academics are weird about money.

I get it. Education in many places is not cheap, and undergraduate degrees can leave a student deep in debt. Grad school doesn’t pay well. You learn to be careful with money. And that mindset sticks with you.

I remember hearing one professor describing how he was in the grocery store, debating what to buy. It was something like, “Butter or margarine?” Something nice versus something cheap. And then he said he realized, “I’m a tenured full professor. I could probably buy out most of this aisle.”

Academics are often reluctant to shell out cash for anything that would help poster design.

Over and over and over again, I see academics say, “I’m looking for free tools,” “Where can I get free software?”, “It has to be free.” I think this contributes to why so many people use PowerPoint to make posters: because they already have it on their computers and they don’t want to buy anything else.

They won’t shell out money for graphics software like Adobe Illustrator or CorelDraw. They won’t pay for fonts. They won’t hire an artist or designer.

3. Academics are busy.

Academics have time management issues. We have multiple, constant demands on our time. We have teaching to do, we have meetings that we are expected to go to, we have to squeeze in our research and writing somewhere.

Weekly schedule for a professor, with workdays almost fully booked

In fairness, this is only part “habit.” Part of it is the reality of being in an academic setting. But “busy-ness culture” that works its way into your mindset. There’s an old joke about academics going to grab a cup of coffee somewhere so they can complain to each other about how busy they are. Being busy is seen as a virtue.

Good graphic design takes time. But “busy” academics are often unwilling to put in the time to design and refine the work, because there is always more work to do.

And on top of that, some kinds of “busy” are expected more than others. “I’m busy collecting data” will earn you more nods and approval than, “I’m busy picking just the right typeface for this presentation.”

4. Academics are detail oriented

For many academics, every data point is sacred.

Young woman looking at blades of grass through magnifying glass

When I asked others about what habits got in the way of communicating visually, this was was the most common answer by far.

There are many factors that contribute to this bad habit.

First, data is hard to get. People have egos, and by showing lots of data, they are showing off how hard that have worked. (See bad habit #3 above.)

Second, academics operate in an environment were everyone is trained to be skeptical and critical. If you put up a bar graph of averages, someone will ask if the data are normally distributed. If you put up a regression line, someone will remind you of Anscombe’s quartet or the Datasaurus dozen. So people want to show all their data as insurance against people who see summary statistics as a place where flaws can hide.

Those two factors mean that even experienced academics have this bad habit. But many people making posters are often early in their careers, and they are faced with a third factor that contributes to “demoncratizing” data

It takes experience to develop that “view from 30,000 feet” perspective. They may be doing one small slice of research that fits into a senior professor’s long term research master plan, and they don’t know the big picture. When you’re not sure what is important or not, it is extremely difficult to edit.

Habits are hard to change. But identifying bad habits is at least a starting point to cultivating good habits to replace them.

Problem #1: Academics are verbal.
Possible solutions: Draw and sketch. Get a whiteboard in your office. Collaborate and work with graphic designers and artists.

Problem #2: Academics are cheap.
Possible solutions: Normalize spending money on visualization and design. Put money for “visualization” in grants - graphics created for a poster can be used in many other places!

Problem #3: Academics are busy.
Possible solutions: Block out poster making and put it in your schedule instead of working it into cracks made out of cancelled meetings. Hire someone to work on your poster (also helps with solution in #2.)

Problem #4: Academics are detail oriented.
Possible solution: Put summaries on poster, but bring detailed graphs on paper or mobile device to show to skeptics. Edit other people’s work for practice. Always be asking, “What is the main point here?”

Thanks to the Lifeology slack group for discussion!