16 September 2021

Critique: Soil ontologies

Today’s poster comes from Nicolas Le Guillarme. This was presented at the S4Biodiv workshop. As always, you can click to enlarge!

Soil ontologies poster.

My first reaction was, "Ooh, this is really nice.” The bold use of colours and moving the dividers a little off the horizontal give the poster a lot of energy. 

In fact, there is so much life here that I didn’t notice there is still quite a bit of text. I would like to see that edited back a little if possible.

My second reaction was to look at the title and headings. The typeface is open, so the colours of the background and the foreground of the text are the same. This can make it a little hard to read some of the letters, and I particularly worry about readability from a distance.

Here’s a quick and dirty attempt to fill some of the letters.

Soil ontologies poster with headings filled with colours instead of matching background.

The white fill in the “Introduction” heading works very well, but I didn’t find the right colours for the other headings. I do think that this revision shows that filling the letters increases the visibility, though, even though I didn’t take the time to optimize the colours.

Similarly, I would like to see a little more contrast in Figure 1. 

Figure 1 from soil ontologies poster.

The labels overlap parts of the figure, and makes some of the labels hard to see. In particular, I’m looking at the “Tropic assignment” label over the spiralling arrow. I might try to stick a semi-transparent box under the labels. You can see the technique in the graphic I made for this post:

Picture of Neil Gaiman with quote in the upper left saying, "When someone tells you there's a problem, they are usually right. When they tell you how to fix it, they are usually wrong."

Notice how the books are light and sharp by the elbow but darker and blurry where the quote is? That’s the kind of effect I’m thinking of. Something to make the text a little more distinct from what it sits on top of.

Some of the labels in the network diagram over on the right are also nearly impossible to read. The “Resources” label is almost the same colour as the background. While under most circumstances, having the text and dot be the same colour reinforces the connection, that should not come at the cost of readability.

Figure 1 excerpt from soil ontologies poster, with network labels tunred black.

So in the revision above, I just made all the labels black.

Nicholas wrote:

This is my first attempt to create a poster that is both informative and visually appealing. I am quite satisfied with this first draft, but I am pretty sure that there is plenty of room for improvement.

I think Nicholas is right on both counts. It is very satisfactory – more than satisfactory – but constant improvement is The Way!

09 September 2021

Same research, different presentation: Lessons from Nature

It’s instructive to look at how academics present their results compared to journalists. Compare!

Original article title:

“He who pays the piper calls the tune”: Researcher experiences of funder suppression of health behaviour intervention trial findings

Nineteen words, two part title divided by colon, containing a cultural reference that may not familiar to all.

Original data:

Researcher reports of funder efforts to suppress trial findings.

It’s presented in an 8×8 table in fine print.

Now see how Nature reported on it.

News article title:

Health researchers report funder pressure to suppress results

Eight words. It’s shorter than the article title, even if you took out the quote. It’s clearer than the article title.

Revised data:

Horizontal bar graph titled, "How trial findings were suppressed."

The table has been replaced by an easy to read bar graph. The graph has a clear and bold take-home message. Yes, there is less information. It’s effectively a 2×8 table, but it is easier to read and understand.

Too many conference posters look like the journal article. Posters will be better if they look more like the Nature article.

External links

McCrabbe et al. 2021. PLOS ONE 16(8): e0255704. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0255704

Watson C. 18 August 2021. Nature. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-02242-x

02 September 2021

YouTube data has lessons for poster creators, or: Too legit to click

In the Better Posters book, I wrote about how poster makers could learn lessons from advertising. Advertisers have clear metrics of whether a headline is effective or not: cold hard cash dollars. 💰

This Veritasium video tackles the same question: what makes an effective title? And there are a lot of takeaways for poster makers.

First, the more you are in this game, the more you realize how important titles are. Host Derek Muller says:

I always thought my job was to make great videos. And then a title and thumbnail that adequately represented what the video was about. But now I've realized that making the title and thumbnail is at least half the job.

This is not quite Randy Olson’s admonition that your title is 90% of your communication effort, but it’s pushing there.

YouTubers can now measure their success in ways that old school advertisers who worked in print could only have dreamt of. YouTube creators have an incredible array of real-time metrics at their fingertips. In short, they have data.

And data shows that titles make a huge difference in the attention videos get. “Asteroids: Earth's Biggest Threat,” (Muller estimates it might have gotten 1.5 million views) “Asteroid Impact: What Are Our Chances?”, and “Asteroid Impact: What Could We Do?” all underperformed compared to “These Are the Asteroids to Worry About” (now with 14 million views).

There are a few other things worth pulling out from Muller’s video.

First, there can be a big difference between what people say they want and what they actually do.

Now, there seems to be a paradox when it comes to clickbait. People almost universally claim to hate it, but you also see it everywhere. ... - So, why is clickbait everywhere? Well, because it works.

In conference posters, this crops up with people who insist they want to see all the data as though they were going to sit down and read it like a journal article. But people also say they want to be able to spend about 5 minutes at a poster.

Another complaint some academics make about posters is that some posters or other is “mere” advertising. Muller tackles this in his discussion of what people mean when they refer to video titles as “clickbait.” There are at least two mainings to the word.

(W)e don't all agree on the definition of clickbait.

When I google it, the top definition is, on the internet, content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular webpage. We could call this type I clickbait, and there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with it. I mean, if you didn't try to attract attention and get people to click on your links, then you wouldn't really be doing your job (Emphasis added. - ZF).

But there is a second definition. One that I think more people ascribe to, which is something such as a headline designed to make readers want to click on a hyperlink, especially when the link leads to content of dubious value or interest.

Muller later calls these two styles “legitbait” and “clicktraps.” Muller goes on to say that are good reasons to strive to create legitbait titles.

First, it opens up the work to more people. Second, Muller has found that his “legitbait” titles end up being more accurate descriptions of the video.

But then we come to the challenge. With all of these real time metrics at their disposal, YouTuber can treat the matter of “What title should I use?” as an empirical problem. Muller compares it to natural selection: you throw out a bunch of variations and see which perform the best.

Poster creators don’t have that luxury. You can’t release three versions of a poster at a conference on day one, see who visits, then leave up the best performinng poster for the rest of the week. It’s another factor that makes conference posters such a challenging format.

But the moral of the story remains: Put a lot of thought into your titles. Try them out on other people. And if someone calls your title “clickbait,” you might be on the right track – if you think it’s legitbait and not a clicktrap.

31 August 2021

What is the carbon footprint of a conference poster?

Single use.
The COVID-19 crisis delivered a shock to the academic conference scene from which it may never recover. We have seen conferences completely retooled and reformatted in a very short span of time, with varying degrees of success.

But we are also in a climate crisis. If the COVID-19 pandemic hadn’t arrived, the climate emergency would probably have forced a similar re-examination of how we hold academic conferences – although it probably would have happened over decades instead of years.

A forthcoming paper by Leochico and colleagues looks at how we should change conferences in light of the climate crisis. They have multiple recommendations, but this is the one that includes posters.

Avoid single-use items: Require electronic instead of physical posters; re-evaluate use of booklets, lanyards, plastic water bottles, coffee cups, and other conference items.

As a basis for this recommendation, they cite another very recent article by Milford and colleagues (2021). They make the same general statement about reducing single-use items at conferences.

These are good recommendations, but it’s worth digging deeper.

First, most of the time posters have at least one additional use. They can go on display at their institution, where they can have a role in showing work to students and colleagues.

Second, posters are not in the same category as coffee cups or lanyards. Posters are one of the reasons you hold a conference. Lanyards are not. So if you do not want to use paper posters, you must have some sort of substitute.

The substitute both articles recommend is to move from paper posters to electronic posters. But neither of them provide any attempt to show that the carbon footprint of an electronic poster is lower than that of a paper poster. They simply assert it.

Trying to come up with an estimate of carbon costs for these kinds of alternatives is mind-numbingly hard. I have noticed, however, is that people often tend to underestimate the carbon costs of electronics. 

For example, in a class I taught once on global change, students suggested that all students get tablets so that the university wouldn’t have to use so much paper. On the surface, it sounds great: less waste! 

But I started asking them if they considered factors like what it took to create a tablet. Consumer electronics like smart phones use almost every chemical element in the periodic table, and many are rare and hard to extract. But paper is from trees, so by definition, if you want paper, you are drawing down atmospheric carbon to grow trees.

There’s also an end-of-life question. Recycling components of electronics is a challenging engineering problem that people are actively trying to solve. One the other hand, recycling paper is so simple that kids in grade school can do it. (Though it gets more complicated if you have glossy photo paper.)

Then there is the power use involved in storing and displaying an electronic poster. Unless the power is sourced from renewable energy, there is going to be an ongoing carbon cost of storing an electronic poster so it can be viewed on demand during the conference and afterwards. Yes, paper costs energy, but the energy cost ends after it’s printed and transported.

I am not saying that paper posters are obviously more climate friendly than electronic ones. I don’t know, but I don’t think anyone else does, either. I would like to know.

Update, 1 September 2021: To be explicit, I am assuming a situation where people are traveling to the conference, regardless of poster format. Given the high carbon cost of flying, an entirely online conference probably has a lower carbon footprint than any in person conference, regardless of poster format.


Leochico CFD, Di Giusto ML, Mitre R. 2021. Impact of scientific conferences on climate change and how to make them eco-friendly and inclusive: A scoping review. The Journal of Climate Change and Health: in press. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.joclim.2021.100042

Milford K, Rickard M, Chua M, Tomczyk K, Gatley-Dewing A, Lorenzo AJ. 2021. Medical conferences in the era of environmental conscientiousness and a global health crisis: The carbon footprint of presenter flights to pre-COVID pediatric urology conferences and a consideration of future options. Practice Management/Training 56(8): P1312-1316. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpedsurg.2020.07.013

26 August 2021

Link roundup for August 2021

Congrats to all the winners of the Royal Astronomical Society poster competitions!

Poster titled, 'A sub-mm SDSS with the Atacama Large Aperture Submillimetre Telescope'

You can find the work in the linked thread above. But I’m featuring Jo Ramasawmy’s poster because she was super nice enough to give shout out to this blog! (Yes, I can be flattered. Sometimes.)

• • • • •

My Fonts has their latest primer on bullets and dingbats (PDF). Did you know there are em bullets and en bullets? I, for one, did not.

• • • • •

Helvetica Now sample showing weight, width, and optical size variation.

That type workhorse, Helvetica, now comes in a variable font. See my introduction to variable fonts here.

• • • • •

Pharmacy students think posters assignments help them learn, but they increasingly prefer digital posters over printed ones

• • • • • 

This article about virtual meetings suggests people prefer poster sessions online, but only supports it with a single quote from a single person.

With no cavernous exhibit hall to accommodate hundreds of posters, MSVirtual2020 replaced posters with brief presentations – 10 slides and, at the author’s option, a brief explanation of the findings – that meeting participants accessed at their convenience. Dr. Cohen, director of experimental therapeutics in the Cleveland Clinic’s Mellen Center for Multiple Sclerosis Treatment and Research, considered that approach to be a big improvement.

“I don’t personally enjoy trying to see 500 posters in a giant exhibit hall, walking up and down the aisles. I barely see the content because I end up just talking to my friends,” he said. “In essence, this was like a three-minute talk that presented the poster, and the audience could stop the presentation and look at something in more detail if they wanted.”

Presumably conferences have been surveying attendees about their experience, but I have yet to see any of that data shared.

• • • • •

Marie Seggar walks through an excellent graph makeover from The Economist. The starting point is this interpretable mess of lines:

Line graph with 50 lines, each a different colour, with large amounts of noise.

Because one of the major problems I see on many posters is “too much stuff,” this is a great example of how take a complex data set and make something that is more readable. Ultimately, you have to be selective and you have to emphasize some data over others.

The final version is much easier to read. Go check it out!

• • • • •

And that’s what I found on the internet this month!

19 August 2021

Critique: Bioremediation in the Philippines

Today’s poster comes from Vladamir William. It was presented at 2021 De La Salle University Research Congress in the Philippines back in July. Click to enlarge!

Poster titled, "Bioremidiation of nickel using microorganisms from an active mining site in Zambales, Philippines".

There is also a video presenting the poster here.

I appreciate that this summary is less that 3 minutes long!

Vladamir wrote: 

I wanted to highlight as much as possible the readability of the text when read on a screen, and put emphasis on the figures; opting to exclude any redundant design elements, and choosing a color scheme similar to my University's colors. I used Keynote for this poster, using the standard A0 size set by the guidelines.

 (Note to North Americans: A0 is a standard paper size in many nations It’s about 33 by 46 inches.)

The fundamentals of this poster are sound. It’s aiming for visuals and the layout is clear.

Vladamir described the colour scheme as following the institution’s colours. This makes for consistency, but the green is very saturated and intense. The bars for the headings carry a lot of visual weight. I worry that they are drawing too much attention to themselves.

Below, I try removing the boxes and making the heading text bold and green.

Background section as it originally appeared on left and revision on right. Original heading was white text in green box; revision has bolded green text for heading.
I took the liberty of revising the introductory paragraphs slightly. In particular, I added “But” to the second paragraph to make it clear what the problem to be solved it.

De-emphasizing the heading slightly would make the callouts, currently in boxes with dotted red lines, stand out a little more. 

The two callouts look a little different. The “Objectives” callout has rounded corners, while the one in the Results section has squared off corners. It would be nice to have both the same.

The results showcase one number: 587 ppm of nickel. Immediately below that, the callout provides context for that number, which is good. But putting the comparison in a callout disconnects the two numbers, which is less good. It makes it not obvious that the two are connected.

One possible revision might be to put something like, “Microorganisms tolerated over 7× more nickel than typical soil concentrations” as the graphic representation. Then, fine print could give the detailed numbers. For example, “Nickel in soil: 4-80 ppm. Nickel tolerated: 587 ppm.”

Finally, the “Future directions” list strikes me as a little busier than it needs to be. Big green checks, and highlighted text, and a shadow box behind each list item.

Excerpt from poster that reads "Future directions." Text has checks, is highlighted, and has shadow box.

Let’s see what happens if we pull back on one of those three.

Excerpt from poster that reads "Future directions." Text has checks and is highlighted.

Or even two.

Excerpt from poster that reads "Future directions." Text has checks.

I like the checks and think those alone might do the job. But something that removing the other colours does make much more obvious is that the text is not aligned.

Here’s how those changes play out when you put that section back in context. Here’s no shadow boxes...

Poster titled, "Bioremidiation of nickel using microorganisms from an active mining site in Zambales, Philippines". Future directions box has checks and highlights.

And no highlights.

Future directions box has checks.

The checks alone do the job, but that might be a little sparse and uninteresting. Particularly because the tan highlights are used above, in other parts of the poster. The highlights in the “Future directions” helps bring some balance in colour, so that the tan isn’t all stuck up at the top.

Sometimes the posters that show preliminary data are the best posters because they are not burdened down by too much stuff.

12 August 2021

How is a conference poster like a joke?

It’s probably hard for people who grew up with pervasive Internet to understand that newspaper comics were important cultural touchstones for decades. In the 1980s and 1990s, one of the most successful was The Far Side, created by Gary Larson.

Academics got Gary Larson.

I lost count of how many Far Side cartoons I saw taped up on university doors and included in presentations. I once heard a presenter jokingly call him, “the official cartoonist of the Animal Behavior Society” (at the annual conference of the society, naturally).

But I suspect even academics went “Huh?” when newspapers ran, “Cow tools.”

A single panel cartoon that depicts a cow standing on its hind legs at a table, on which four oddly-shaped objects are placed. One object resembles a crude hand saw, while the others are more abstract. The caption simply reads "Cow tools."

People did not get it. 

They did not get it so much that this single cartoon now has its own Wikipedia page. Larson is lucky that this was published pre-Internet. He only had to deal with phone calls and not angry emails and Twitter notifications. If it was published today, it would have gone viral, been ratioed on Twitter, and been denounced by pundits on political panel shows.

Larson wrote in The History of the Far Side that he was trying to riff off how culture limits our ability to interpret artifacts:

(O)ne day I started thinking about an anthropology course I had in college and how we learned that man used to be defined as “the only animal that made and shaped tools.” Unfortunately, researchers discovered that certain primates and even some bird species did the same thing – so the definition had to be expanded somewhat to avoid awkward situations such as someone hiring a crew of chimpanzees to remodel their kitchen.

Inevitably, I began thinking about cows, and what if they, too, were discovered as toolmakers. What would they make? ... The “cow tools”were supposed to be just meaningless artifacts – only the cow or a cowthropologist is is supposed to know what they’re used for.

Larson was so far down the rabbit hole of his thought process that he lost the ability to judge his own work. 

This is a state that I know very well. Something about a project that I have been living with in my head for months or years that I might think is obvious is far from obvious to other people. It might not even be sensible to other people.

So to return to the question posed in the title of this post.

How is a conference poster like a joke?

If you have to explain it, you’ve failed.

As “Cow tools” shows, it’s easy for you to get in your own head and create something that makes perfect sense to you, but not to others.

If you have to explain something on a poster, you’ve failed.

Sticking with comics, here’s another example of the principle, this time more visual than conceptual:

SIngle page from Batman #30, using arrows to show reading order.

The reading order of the page is confusing, and the artist knows it. The artist has to explain the reading order using arrows.

If you have to explain it, you’ve failed.

External links

The Far Side

How to read Nancy review (features Batman page)