08 November 2018

Blackout: Poster protests travel ban

You are not supposed to take pictures on the poster session floor of the Neuroscience 2018 meeting.

Photography, video, filming, tape recording, and all other forms of recording are prohibited during the poster sessions, lectures, symposia, minisymposia, nanosymposia, courses, workshops, and on the exhibit floor.

But people broke the rules to take pictures of this poster.


Here’s a closer look at the one visible section of text:


It reads:

Unfortunately, due to the travel ban imposed on citizens of Iran and other countries I am unable to be here to present my poster. My supervisor and I therefore decided not to present the poster at all. Science should be about breaking down barriers not creating new ones. I hope to be able to make the next SFN conference in 2019.

This situation has been brewing since August, according to co-author Chris Dayas’s Twitter timeline. Starting 20 August:

My PhD student who was so excited to attend her first SFN has been denied a visa to enter US based on her nationality... very helpful to progress science in all countries and break down barriers

On 8 September:

Disappointed that @Neurosci2018 @SfNtweets won’t refund my students membership to use at another conference in a country that won’t deny her entry based on her citizenship.... I asked nicely twice ....

On 20 September:

I just spoke with the Executive Director of SFN. He explained SFN's position re membership to SFN V meeting registration i.e. Thus, although she joined solely for attending the meeting only the latter would have been refunded based on her VISA denial @SfNtweets @Neurosci2018

(I’m a little disturbed that the student is almost erased in this discussion. Her name doesn’t appear on by her picture or her words, and Daya never refers to her by name in his tweets. I am guessing she is the first author, L. Akbari.)

This was not unique. Moataz Assem wrote:

It's not just Iran, my turkish wife also didn't get the visa to present her poster. it sucks.

The Lim Lab tweeted:

So far we’ve seen many withdrawan posters due to the travel ban, at #sfn2018. Add many more who even didn’t bother to submit since they knew they won’t be able to attend. This needs to be addressed by @SfNtweets. Stand by #ScienceForAll #NoBanInScience #NoDiscriminationInScience

Matthew Leavitt has a spreadsheet to collect the names of neuroscientists affected by the ban. I’d also point out that this blog recently featured another story of a denied visa.

But back to the poster, and why it is so effective. Click to enlarge!


I’ve seen notices of withdrawn posters before. Usually, someone sticks a page of letter-sized paper with a hand-written note explaining that the poster has been withdrawn. It gets no attention. Making a full-sized poster of the fact that there is no poster has gotten attention.

And it’s not just the “no poster” aspect that gets attention. This is a smart design.

First, you have a bunch of question marks in the left hand side, where people will look first. Any viewer would be wondering why there is not a typical poster with boxes and graphs and data to see here. The image acknowledges, “Look, I know you’re confused. Let me explain.”

Second, the image fades pretty quickly to black around the sides. Black is often used to represent censorship, whether by black redacted lines in text or the word “blackout” itself.

Third, the message from the author is placed on the right, the “bottom line” area. It’s placed at eye level, against the darkest part of the poster so it pops out.

Fourth, when you look closer, you can see the outline of a poster underneath. A scientific ghost of what could have been, which drives home the frustration that there was something ready to go, that could have been presented.

If the author had been slated to give a talk, what could have been the equivalent statement? The session chair would have just said, “The speaker cannot come because of the travel ban. We’ll resume in fifteen minutes.” Even if a co-author would have put up a slide like this poster for those fifteen minutes, nobody would have paid attention. People would have carried on with their business, going to another talk or checking their email while they waited for the next one.

This poster makes a point better than any talk.

Posters have been used for political purposes far longer than they have been used for academic communication.This poster harkens back to that earlier and more common use.

Photos by Lionel Rodriguez, Chris Dayas (poster co-author) and Fergil Mills.

Related posts

Critique: Virtual conferencing

01 November 2018

Critique and makeover: Middle Earth sea temperatures

No, I haven’t gone full Tolkien this week. Mediterranean means “Middle of the Earth,” right? This week’s poster about the Mediterranean Sea comes from kindly contributor Francisco Pastor. Click to enlarge!


Francisco is a repeat customer of this blog. One of his earlier poster was reviewed here last year, but this iteration is in Spanish. One of the things I like about graphic design is that you don’t always need to be able to understand the exact language to be able to offer advice! (Though I’m not sure what I would make of a poster in Korean or Hindi.)

Francisco’s aims were to “increase importance for graphical info and reduce text. I also tried to highlight conclusion sections and added a screenshot to publish our sea surface temperature website.” Compared to the previous poster, I think this version is more successful at meeting those goals. The images are bigger and the take home message is more obvious and cleaner.

But some problems that were in the previous poster are still creeping in on this poster. They’re small, mind you. But again, alignment is driving me crazy. Some elements are almost aligned. But not quite.

I’ve added a few black guidelines on this version of the poster so you can see more easily if you click to enlarge.


These sorts of little details are the monsters you see out of the corner of your eye: they almost escape your notice, but once you catch a glimpse of them, suddenly you see them everywhere. I first thought, “Oh, the conclusions don’t like up with the web portal.” Then I spotted another. And another.

In the revision below, I just moved a few pieces around to square things up.


In general, if you are working with rectangular elements – which is the most common thing on posters by a long way – align objects by their edges. And be super obsessive about it.


This can become tricky when you have maps and graphs that have small axis labels or other annotations, because you might think the edge is defined by the text. In some cases, it will look better if the edges of the blocks are aligned that exclude the text. I tried this down in the lower right corner. The maps for such strong visual impressions that you want to see the edges of the maps aligned, latitude and longitude markings be damned.


Related posts

Critique and makeover: Hot Mediterranean

25 October 2018

Link roundup for October 2018

Bergstrom and West think tilting graphs will make people less likely to make mistakes about them. An article in Nature provided this example:


Hat tip to Nature News and Comment.

• • • • •

19 October 2018

Visual density

Your blogger is extra busy this week, and only has time to steal this cartoon from Red Pen / Black Pen on Twitter. Click to enlarge!

11 October 2018

Critique: Virtual conferencing

Today’s contribution comes from Parisa Mehran, PhD student at Osaka University. This poster was presented at EUROCALL2018, but talks a lot about what went down at EUROCALL2017. You can read that story here, but as for the poster itself? Click to enlarge!


The upper left side is blank on purpose to hold some documents that Parisa clipped to the poster. You can see this in her picture below, from her Facebook post about this:


The poster’s biggest successes are the organization and the colours.

The poster is clearly meant to be read in rows. Using gray bars to separate elements within rows means that the break between them is less conspicuous than the black bars between rows, so your eyes group the rows together.

Yellow has the advantage of being a bright colour that is naturally light enough that you can readily read black text on top of it. The boldness of colour fits with the boldness of the thick sans serif type.

I like the type choice here so much that I wish it was used throughout more consistently. “Live streaming” and “No ban no wall” are in the same compressed sans serif style, but they aren’t the same font. Those sorts of “almost but not quite the same” elements are risky, because people wonder if it’s deliberate or a mistake.

The words “Develop” and “Design” in the bottom work well, because those are so obviously different. The geometric type used to spell out “Design” evokes the concept the word expresses.

The flowcharts in the bottom left section would benefit from some elements having higher contrast. The “Development” box is almost vanishing from view because it it is a light, warm orange that is close to the background.

The poster’s QR codes might benefit from a little more indication of what scanning them would get you. The top one is not bad, because it ties into the “Denied yet present” title next to it, suggesting you’re going to the “memoir.” The bottom one’s description, “Behind the scenes: All about OUGEO” is more cryptic.

In fact, I wouldn’t have minded getting a little more explanation of the material across the board. I bet this is a great aid when Parisa is there to tell her story, but as a stand alone document, it is a little difficult to work out what the narrative is.

This is the latest award-winning poster to be featured here! Best PhD student poster award, to be exact.



Picture from Shannon Sauro, showing Parisa getting her award. Congratulations, Parisa!

04 October 2018

Critique: Marked frogs

Today’s contributor is A.Z. Andis, who is sharing an award-winning poster presented at Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists. Click to enlarge!


This won the Victor Hutchinson Outstanding Poster award in the most popular category!

What leaps (no frog pun intended) out at you with this poster is the discipline in the colour palette. We are using black, and we are using green, the text is white, and you will like it! This brings so much cohesion to the poster.

The first section of the poster (“Introduction”) is placed further right than the second section (“Experiment”), which violates our normal reading expectation. But at least readers get warned of this, because the sections are numbered.

The varying widths of the text and images takes away a little of the cleanliness of the layout. Visually, it is unclear if the box with the white background belongs to the “Experiment” section or the “Results” section.

The rotation of words is an interesting way of emphasizing key words in the title.

The creator wrote (lightly edited):

This is the first real conference poster I’ve made. I worked as a communications director for a non-profit and taught myself the Adobe suite and basic design principles. Even with some design background, crafting this poster made it exceedingly clear that design is really a minor part of the final product. For me, succinctly communicating science that I’ve worked on for months without rewriting my paper in poster-form was the biggest struggle.

Editing is hard.

It might be that when you know something about design, the design part seems easy.

27 September 2018

Link roundup for September 2018

Always fascinated by what happens to posters after the conference, particularly posters in the hands of crafty people. Beth Stuart says of her poster quilt:

I’m not sure this version is any worse at communicating science than the original.


Hat tip to Katy Kennedy.

• • • • •

As part of a larger argument about public engagement, Bex writes:

Imagine if our poster sessions were held in public transport stations and you had to explain your research to commuters - and have an eye-catching poster!

If anyone does this experiment, let me know!

• • • • •

Nice thread from Tracey Weissgerber on graph design. It’s based on this article from 2015, so I’ve probably mentioned it before in this blog.

• • • • •

Speaking of complex graphs, Predromics has purrfected the box-and-whisker plot:

Hat tip to Ai Lyn Tan.

• • • • •

I’m had to ask Alisha Oshlack what a “rapid fire poster” is. But the Genome International 2018 meeting had them! It was a super short talk – one, single slide – that a person could give to advertise and pump up interest in their poster.

I’m not sure about this. It seems to be more work for minimal benefit. Bit if any Genome International presenters like them, let me know! Hat tip to Melissa Wilson Sayres.