16 January 2020

The view from SICB 2020: Fabrics!

I recently attended the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology conference in Austin (#SICB2020 on Twitter). I saw hundreds of posters spread across three days of poster sessions, and am here to tell you what sights my eyes have seen.

There seemed to be an uptick in the number of posters printed on fabric, “synthetic cloth,” and other foldable materials rather than traditional paper. I went through the first three poster sessions and tried to count every poster that was not on paper. About 10 percent of posters (82 or 774) were fabric or similar.

But what was interesting, though, was that different fabric posters looked different. Often quite different. This is something I’d noticed before, but this was the first time I thought to ask people where they got them printed.

I talked to dozens of people, and a few trends emerged.

Logos of Spponflower, MakeSignes, Genigraphics, PosterPresentations

Spoonflower was the most popular source for fabric posters by a long ways. They printed 25% of the posters that I was about confirmed the printer by talking to the presenter. I saw more posters that I suspected were by Spoonflower, but couldn’t find the presenter to ask.

Pie chart showing source of fabric posters at SICB 2020

Spoonflower was the most distinctive looking product. I was able to predict with high accuracy which posters had been printed by Spoonflower by the second poster session. Unfortunately, the distinctive look of Spoonflower posters was not necessarily a positive look. They almost all sagged, and badly.

Poster printed by Spoonflower, showing sagging and distortion from fabric stretching

Many people said they loved Spoonflower because it was cheap. The cost I heard most people quote was about US$20. I think this may be a good case of, “You get what you pay for.” You buy cheap, you get cheap, and it looks cheap.

Spoonflower also has many fabrics, and it was not always clear which people had used (maybe their satin?). Different fabrics will probably give different results.

In fact, one of the best looking fabric posters was a Spoonflower poster.It had almost no sagging on the board. The secret? Corinthia Black hemmed the poster to creating a more rigid seam that held its shape. Her poster was cotton, so she ironed it, and the cotton held up to the ironing well.

PosterSmith was the second most popular single vendor, but had half the number of punters (12.5%) as Spoonflower. Their posters tended to crease or wrinkle rather than sag. At least one person said their poster’s colours didn’t quite look the way they expected.

PosterPresentations, MakeSigns, Genigraphics, and possibly PosterPrint * each had one customer.

The biggest surprise from talking to presenters was how many fabric posters had been printed by their institutions. Over a quarter (29%) were done entirely on campus. This large fraction was not because one large institution sent a lot of people to this conference. The fraction was almost all single posters printed on site by their institutions.

I had not expected that many universities to invest in this sort of non-standard custom printing. But the variety of product was large, and each institution has its own printing quirks. One person said their campus-printed poster smelled a little like fish. (At a biology meeting, some might consider that a feature rather than a bug.)

Ten percent of posters were done by various local printers from where ever the presenter was from. People may use local printers more for SICB than many other conferences, because the meeting is held so soon in January. Many people cannot opt to print their posters on their campus, because all their facilities close for the December holidays.

About 15% of people I talked to did not know where there posters were printed! These were usually students, who designed the poster, but had handed the file over to their professor for printing.

While I felt a little embarrassed for asking about the poster printing rather than the science, many people were happy to talk about how they made their posters. One person said he was more excited to talk about how he made the poster than the project. The project was challenging and the error bars in his graphs were big. I told him, We’ve all had projects like that.”

• • • • •

This was the first SICB conference since the “billboard” style poster was introduced on YouTube last year. It was not a popular format in Texas, with less than half a percent (~0.3%) of posters using the style (3 of 774 posters over three sessions).

• • • • •

* I say “Possibly” here, because I have “PosterPrint” in my notes, but the linked page appears only to offer canvas on frames, not fabric.

09 January 2020

Critique: Bee DNA

Today’s poster comes from Mark Davis. This was, as far as I can tell, presented at a US Department of Defense (DoD) environmental restoration workshop last December. Click to enlarge!


This poster was designed by Danielle Ruffatto.

I spotted Mark’s poster on Twitter, and invited him to submit to the blog. It stood out from a lot of posters because of how it used the zone of the poster sitting at eye level. No text. Just a solid banner of visual delights from one side to the other. The pictures are not laid out in a grid – they are different heights and widths – but it doesn't matter because all the outer edges align.

The right half of the photo banner has a pointer leading down to “Phase II.” It’s not entirely clear what the relationship between those pictures and the “Phase II” section is.

The lack of an underlying grid makes me a little more uneasy in the bottom section where the main text resides. The varying widths of the text sections bothers me a little. For example, the “Methods” section is not quite twice the width of the “Objectives.”

When varying column widths, I like when they are clear multiples. The “Objectives” section is the narrowest, and could be used as the basis for other sections. If the “Methods” section was exactly twice the width of the “Objectives,” it might make for a slightly cleaner layout. That there is a decent amount of what space under each section indicates there is a little room to play.

The typography is sharp throughout. I like the combination of the plain type for the main text with the condensed font for the title and headings. Bolding is used judiciously for emphasis. The use of drop caps for numbered lists in the “Objectives” section is very slick and well done. It would have been nice is the “Methods” list had the same format.

The graphs in the results are nice, but would benefit from a little more colour or heavier line weight or something to make them “pop” against the background. From a distance, they fade away to near invisibility. And again, the graphs don’t align with the bars of pictures above them. In the reduced thumbnail above, the graphs look like empty space at a glance.

I like the marginal dividing lines between the sections, but they don’t align with the lines between the photos above them.

While the logos are in the appropriate “fine print” section, I would have liked it if they were the same height.

The “Acknowledgments” are likewise in a good position, but the line length is around three or four times longer than ideal.

This is a strong poster in concept that is well executed, particularly in the typography.

02 January 2020

Critique: Dangerous LDL

New year? New decade? Whatever. We have business to attend to!

This week’s contribution comes from Jessica Schubert. She gave this work at the 2019 European Society for Cardiology conference. This is one of the bigger conferences, with over 30,000 participants (or, as Jessica put it, “kind of a big deal”). Click to enlarge!

Poster titled "Is low LDL dangerous?"

Jessica writes:

The most useful input from my peers was seeing what kind of poster I didn’t want to make. I found a really great website called Canva, which I used to make the poster. I don’t think I’ve seen you mention it.

I have not mentioned Canva before, so am happy for the pointer. You can use a limited version online for free, or pay a subscription fee for a “Pro” version with more features.

Canva screenshot showing infographic templates

Canva seemed geared towards beginners. There are a lot of templates for calendars, cards, brochures, handouts, and so on. It feels a little bit like Microsoft Publisher with the type and variety of templates. I haven’t had time to dig into all the features, but may do so in a later post.

Getting back to Jessica’s poster, the title bar is one of the strongest things about it. The title pops out, thanks to both its size and the highlighting of the word “dangerous.” It’s big and red and you can’t miss it. It might be even stronger, though.

One of the basic exercises of graphic design is, “Use a type that represents what the word shows.” For instance, I think most people would agree that the type on the left doesn’t represent the feel of the word as well as the words on the right.


The colour and heavy weight for “dangerous” are right, but the letter forms are not. They are round and soft, which most reader as “safe” or “non-threatening.” I would have liked to see “dangerous” set in type that was even more angular and aggressive.

The deft use of red continues in the highlighting for the headings. Again, the jagged stripes fit with the “danger” from the title. It makes it very easy to identify the sections. I would have liked the headings to be a bit bigger to more clearly differentiate them from the text.

I also like that the sections are descriptive (“LDL in the real world”), rather than generic (“Introduction”).

There’s a few places there might be some improvements.


The positioning of the logos, particularly the right “UCR” on, seems far to close to the author lines. It’s puzzling given how much white space is available and how the poster generally provides enough white space.

The alignment could be more consistent and tighter. The margins between the text columns isn’t even, although it’s so close I had to check! The intrusion of the graphs at the bottom into the column margins is another place where making edges line up could significantly improve the look of the poster.

I like the idea of using colour in the table to group columns, but using light colours makes it a bit hard to read.

Finally, there isn’t anything visual on the poster than tells me what it is about. That graphic elements, that is that table and line graphs, are generic.

Posters are a visual medium, and it is helpful to have an image that can set it apart. That might be hard to do in a very focused meeting where most of the topics are the same. But in a large one with tens of thousands of participants, a specific image is incredibly helpful.

I admit that I don’t know what image I would use. A cholesterol molecule is one possibility, although the differences between HDL and LDL might be too subtle. Jessica’s solution was to make the title so short and punchy that it can serve as that entry point, and that might be the best option in this case.

26 December 2019

Link roundup for December, 2019

Ford and colleagues analyzed presentations by under-represented minorities (URMs) at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall meeting (one of the biggest conferences, along side Neuroscience).

The AGU presentations fall into three categories. People can be invited to give a talk (“Invited” in the graph below). Researchers can submit abstracts, and session organizers decide whether it is a talk or poster (“Assigned” in the graph below). Or people can just decide to give a poster.

They found a strong and consistent pattern: under-represented groups were consistently giving more posters than other groups.


(S)cientists from under-represented racial and ethnic minority groups had the smallest chances of being selected and invited to speak, and opted for poster presentations more often than did their peers. ...

We did not investigate why URM geoscientists applied to give only a poster more often than did others overall, and at every career stage. There could be several reasons. People might be held back by psychological factors such as lower self-confidence. ... Or, some URM scientists might value poster presentations — this format could align with different goals, interests or lived experiences, for example by enabling researchers to communicate findings in one-on-one conversations.

I greatly appreciate that the authors mentioned that people might want to give posters! (See below.) But even I, a big advocate of poster sessions, know that most people consider talks more prestigious than posters. I personally think this should not be the case, but there it is.

The imbalance in the other categories can’t be easily explained by presenters’ personal choices, however. They are strong indicators of biases in conference organization that should be addressed.

Hat tip to Cailin Gallinger.

• • • • •

I missed this blog post from May about why poster sessions are the best part of conferences.

During the lecture session, attendees learn from the speakers, but since question time is almost limited, it is unclear what to do with unanswered questions. This is where the poster sessions come into play as a solution to this problem. Usually the lecturer is the lab head and lab members present posters. We can ask them in detail without time limit as long as the post presenter is happy and patient enough with us.

• • • • •

The notion of what to wear in an academic setting (including poster sessions) is a fraught one for many women, as by the reaction to Dr. Emma Beckett’s dress.


The Sydney Morning Herald has an excellent summary of the discussion raised by the “vegetable dress” here.

• • • • •

This journal article by Sousa and Clarke reinforces many points on this blog. Their six main points:

  1. Don’t copy most other posters
  2. Nail your key messages
  3. Hone your messages and context for the audience
  4. Conceptualize your poster design
  5. Create your poster, then get feedback
  6. Learn from every other poster

• • • • •

Andreas Müller won the award for “Best teaching project” poster at the MAXQDA International Conference. Click to enlarge!


Andreas helpfully has a substantial blog post describing some of the considerations that went into making his poster. For example:

No one will read your poster from beginning to end. No one. If we have accepted this fact, our posters will become much better. 

Some headings from the post:

  • “Don’t put too much text on your poster!”
  • Create several points of entrance
  • Use questions as headlines
  • Posters are a chance to connect
  • Give your poster a digital afterlife

• • • • •

The Atlantic magazine recently underwent a redesign.

Cover of The Atlantic magazine

The Atlantic’s design team turned to the magazine’s history for inspiration. The result is what feels like a deliberate step back from the norm of web-conscious print design, into an old-school aesthetic whose gravitas is buttressed by a print legacy of over 160 years.

It’s interesting to compare this redesign to the one Nature did recently, which I mentioned back in October. Both include completely custom typefaces, for example.

• • • • •

I love Amy Tabb’s notion that a conference is “scientific camping.” How to pack for a conference.

• • • • •

One of the items on James Heathers’ list of things that help make a conference great:

- local poster printing

This is a good point. Some conferences are in places with “business centers,” but large format printing is a little bit specialized and not available everywhere. Conference organizers would do well to try to find if emergency poster printing is available nearby.

• • • • •

I always love sharing fabric poster arts and crafts.

Couch with four cushions made from fabric conference poster

This fine example from Steve Royle.

• • • • •

Johannes Wirges argues that board games teach you how to visualize data.

Picture of War Chest board game by AEG

Board games tend to use easily readable encodings of data. Categorical data is usually encoded via color hue and shape. This goes, for example, for the different kinds of meeples controlled by each player. Numerical data is usually encoded via location among common axis, number of elements, and size of elements. Board games seldom include more difficult to discern encodings like shades of a color hue (light to dark) or orientation.

• • • • •

I will end with this from Spider Robinson:

The whole world turns upside down in ten years, but you turn upside down with it, so to you it’s right side up.
- The Time-Traveler, Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon


The world turned upside down for me, and it’s only with effort that I can realize it did.

This is the last post of... the decade. When the decade started, this blog had been in play for less than a year. Now, going into 2020, a book based on the knowledge I’ve gained in 10 years of blogging is completed and will be out at the start of next year.

Having a book coming out next year is both wonderful and nerve-wracking. I am looking forward to you having the chance to read it sometime in the next decade.

19 December 2019

”Why did I lose?” Making poster competitions better


Many conferences have poster competitions. Lots of people like to compete, and it often brings out people’s best efforts. I have been pleased to show lots of competition winners here on the blog.

But often, neither winners or losers know why they are winners or losers.

Some conferences have the judges’ scoring rubrics available for the competitors before the conference. This is good practice, because it helps people know what targets they have to hit. Different people have different ideas about what makes a good poster, and that’s fine, but competitors  should be rewarded for reading instructions! (Including rubrics.)

But typically, the award winners are announced at the very end of the conference, after posters have come down. Nobody gets to go back and see the winning posters. And there is no feedback at all for any of the entrants. The scores and comments compiled by the judges usually just stay with the organizer of the contest. The contest winner is a fact in a vacuum, with no context and no opportunities for people to learn.

Here’s what could be better.

Announce the winner before the end of the conference. Put the winning posters somewhere prominent so people can easily find them and see them. Put a little note card explaining the judges’ summary assessment of the poster.

Give all presenters their score sheets (if they want them), so they can see their scores and comments. Let the presenters know who the judges are so they can follow up with questions if they so choose.

In the society newsletter and website — hell, the society’s journals if it had one — feature the first place poster, second place poster, and any runners up. Again, include commentary from the judges. Perhaps include commentary from the poster designer, too, explaining how they did what they did.

Over time, the society’s website should develop a gallery, easy to find, with each year’s “best of” conference posters and competition winners.

As I said last week, posters will stay horrible if we don’t develop a body of work that people can look at, learn from, and improve upon. Providing this sort of detailed commentary to people, showcasing the winning posters, and explaining why it won starts to develop that body of work in a field.

Hat tip to May Gun on Twitter (https://twitter.com/may_gun/status/1207006302074916871) for the prompt for this post.

12 December 2019

Posters will stay bad unless we start building continuity of work

In six pages, Richard McGuire changed comics.

In 1989, McGuire created a six page experimental comic called “Here.” The gimmick was that each panel showed a single place, but sub-panels showed that place at different times.


(McGuire later expanded on the idea with a longer graphic novel.)

McGuire did something that nobody else had done before. The avant garde effect expanded the vocabulary of comics. Cartoonist Chris Ware said it blew his mind.

(McGuire) took the X-Y vectors of comics and added a Z axis to it. And he was the first cartoonist to suggest that you could overlap panels of time over the same point in space. And that strip, for lack of a more effective vernacular expression, truly blew my mind and really changed the way I thought both about comics and the world itself.

I bring this up because I’ve been thinking about why poster design continues to be so bad after fifty years.

Other visual media, like comics or movies, become more sophisticated over time. Compare comics and movies from the 1930s to their 1980s descendants, fifty years on. The 1930s works look stilted and turgid. The 1980s efforts are more dynamic and interesting.

This can happen partly because there is continuity of work and practitioners. When one person innovated, others imitated. McGuire influenced Ware and who knows how many others.

Posters haven’t had the benefit of that continuity. They will always stay bad unless there starts to be a recognized body of work that people can see and build on. More posters need to be archived in simple, convenient format. And we need to start curating the “best of the best” posters so people can see what is possible in the format.

Related posts


External links

Chris Ware and Chip Kidd interview
Here 1989
Here 2014
Here ebook
Richard McGuire: Here

05 December 2019

Disposable design

One of the arguments I sometimes see is that nobody should care about conference poster design, because posters are “disposable.”

Counterpoint.

My friends, have you ever used cheap toilet paper?

Did the fact that it was “disposable” mean you didn’t care about the experience of using it?

Probably not. You probably cared about how easy it was to start the roll, and probably cared a lot about how it felt when you used it.

I would image that people have similar feelings about using poorly designed tampons or condoms.

Now, I know that the experience of a conference poster is not like using a product that is meant for close contact with body parts in the “swimsuit zone.”

But just because something is used once is no excuse for poor design. Nor is it a reason to mock people for caring about their experience with something.