28 May 2020

Link roundup for May 2020

An old PowerPoint or Keynote slide deck won’t protect you in a pandemic. But an old poster can.


Hat tip to Janet Stemwedel for realizing:
Thing I haven't seen yet this pandemic but which I suspect already exists: cloth face masks made from old cloth conference poster.
Possibly with matching sundresses.
When I tweeted I would pay money for that, Alexandria Hughes replied with the picture above. Outstanding!

• • • • •

And the end of April, Amy Frietag posted some art that cropped up in her neighbourhood, saying “Sure is a sign of the times.”

Sculpture of person in field facing large SARS-CoV-2 sculpture.

I’m fascinated by this, because it shows the power of a visual.

The sculpture is obviously showing the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. But SARS-CoV-2 didn’t really exist in the public imagination even a few months ago. If you had put up a white ball with red spikes in February or even March, I doubt people would have thought, “coronavirus.” It’s because of the illustration made by CDC illustrators Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgins that we now have a shared visual “identity” for the virus.

And it is definitely the Eckert and Higgins illustration that is the source material here. Because a virus doesn’t have colours. There is no particular reason to make a sculpture of the virus white with red spikes, except because the CDC illustration is white and red. Eckert and Higgen chose those colours to signal that the virus was a serious threat, not because there was any scientific reason to pick them.

• • • • •

So research conferences are cancelled. Now what?

Hat tip to Melissa Vaught.

• • • • •

How to use bold type effectively.

Some typeface families have relatively subtle gradations in change from one weight to another. In these designs, a jump of two weights may be advisable to create an obvious contrast.

That’s only one example; the article has more!

• • • • •

Make your own Penguin Classic book cover.


This was only done as a demonstration! I have been loving working with Pelagic Publishing!

21 May 2020

Lessons from make-up

In theater, the viewers are often far from the action, and lighting is not always perfect. To make sure everyone can see what’s going on – even the people in the last row who might not be paying that close attention – theaters around the world have developed distinct styles of make-up to communicate performances clearly to people in the back.

Beijing opera in China.


Kabuki theatre in Japan.


Commedia dell’arte from Europe.


Broadway in the US.


And burlesque.


The task faced by posters is much the same. You have to communicate to people in the “back row.”

This is a graph with no make-up. Click to enlarge!


This graph might be just fine in a printed journal. Everything is there. It’s high resolution, and would probably look just fine if professionally printed. But put that on a poster, and it will vanish, just like a stage performer without make-up seen from the back row.

This is a version of the graph that reaches out to the person in the back row.

The biggest change is filling the box with a colour, so now the box reads from a greater distance. The symbols are bigger. The lines are thicker both around the box and in the very wide whisker caps.

But the graph above might be a case of “everything louder than everything else” (to borrow a phrase from Jim Steinmann). It is definitely visible from a distance, but might be too much. There is no visual hierarchy that emphasizes the point.

The point of make-up isn’t to make everything bigger. It focuses and emphasizes. Usually that means drawing attention to the eyes and mouth. Make-up isn’t supposed to emphasize your lines, your pimples, your age spots, or pores. Indeed, de-emphasizing some features is one of the major attractions of make-up for many people.

Make-up and graphic design bring emphasis using some of the same tricks: colour, contrast, and size. Whatever you want to highlight, might it colourful, high contrast, and a little bigger.

Let’s say that you wanted people to be able to quickly see the averages in your box plot. You might make a graph a little more like this.
The saturated red symbol for the average pops out from the background. You can see those symbols from the back row.

Reordering the bars helps to show a pattern in data.

The boxes are still filled and still visible from a distance, but the making them more pale means that they are more visible in a close read: someone who comes right up to the poster and wants to see details.

The whisker caps are thin for the same reason.

But what if you wanted to emphasize the range of data instead of the central tendency? You would emphasize different parts of the box plot.
The whiskers end in high contrast symbols that bracket the range of data. Now your attention is drawn to the maximum and minimum.

The boxes are still filled, but are thinner to emphasize continuity with the whiskers.

I did not tinker with the axes at all in any of these. I wanted to focus on the presentation of the data. There is surely more that could be done to make-over the axes and labels so they would be more appropriate for a poster.

So when you are doing “make-up” on your graph, ask yourself:

  • What do you want to emphasize? (“Everything” is not a valid answer!)
  • Does it reach the person in the back row?

Beijing opera picture from here. Commedia dell’Arte photo from here. Kabuki photo from here. Nala makeup from here. Burlesque make-up by Frankie Fictitious.

This post inspired by Justin Stewart.

14 May 2020

Lessons from Pac-Man

Shiz Aoki of BioRender sometimes gives this tip when discussing posters:

Imagine Pac-Man being able to travel between the sections of your poster without getting stuck.

Classic Ms. Pac-Man screen

This is good advice, but I want to run with it a little more. I think some people will read this and think that “blocking” is the problem. Poor Ms. Pac-Man has nowhere to go here.

Ms, Pac-Man screen altered so Ms. Pac-Man cannot run.

But there is more to this it than ensuring there is enough space.

Here is an example where Ms. Pac-Man has all the space she needs to get anywhere on the screen... but it is still a frustrating screen to view and would be impossible to play.


The problem here is not the amount of space, but the alignment of it. There is always “enough” space in the sense that Ms. Pac-Man and the ghosts can get around the screen, but the width of the maze is always changing and none of the edges of the walls line up any more.

If you look at mazes, the corridor width is often kept absolutely consistent.

Rectangular maze

This can be true regardless of the overall shape of the maze.

Circular maze
Or what the maze is made of.

Garden maze

Mazes like these (including Pac-Man) are fundamentally grid systems. It is not enough to just have “at least” a certain amount of space between elements. It should be the same amount of space whenever possible.

Garden maze from here.

07 May 2020

You’d miss serendipty if poster sessions went away

I miss the art of record flipping. When music was released on vinyl, flipping through albums in bins was part meditative in its rhythm combined with occasional rushes of pure joy when you found something you were looking for, or, better yet, didn’t even know existed. That new album by a favourite artist.

(Even shopping for CDs wasn’t as good as albums. The CDs were clunkier and noisier than albums.)

I was reminded of this almost lost art when I recently stumbled across an album released seven years ago that I would have bought seven years ago – if only I knew it existed.

I love the portability of digital media, but digital media is often kind of terrible at those lucky discoveries. The things you see and instantly want in your life.

We are in the middle of a year of most academic conferences being postponed or cancelled. This preprint argues that it’s probably a good thing: they advocate moving most conferences online because of the carbon costs of traveling. (See also here.).

A couple of weeks ago, I pondered whether the poster format was right for online meetings. This prompted the question of whether posters are right for regular meetings. After all, lots of people don’t like the poster format, so it’s a fair question of what we’d miss if you took the poster session away.

What poster sessions do better than multiple tracks of slide talks or other formats is create serendipitous opportunities to learn and meet new people.

In my experience, abstract books or online collections (like the one #TAGC20 has on Figshare) do not facilitate browsing. You tend to perform very targeted searches instead for specific people you know or topics that are relevant to you.

I wondered if this was just me, so I asked this question on Twitter.

Do you discover new people and projects at poster sessions in conferences that you probably wouldn’t have encountered otherwise (searching abstracts, etc.)?

Well over 80% of respondents (71 votes) said this happened to them.


ResponsePercent
Often53.50%
Sometimes35.20%
Rarely8.50%
Never2.80%

So before we rush to get rid of poster sessions for live conferences, or as we develop alternatives for poster sessions in online settings, it’s worth asking: how can we facilitate the lucky accidents that happen in convention center hallways and hotel event rooms all the time?

Related posts

Are posters right for online meetings? Thoughts from The Allied Genetic Conference virtual poster session #TAGC20

External links

Evaluating features of scientific conferences: A call for improvements

Comment on “Evaluating features of scientific conferences: A call for improvements”

30 April 2020

Link roundup for April 2020

We have a poster webinar from Shiz Aoki at BioRender:


There were over 1,000 people attending this, I think I heard her say. The five topics covered within:

  1. Consistent margins / padding
  2. Arrange “sections” in a grid (Chicago, not Paris)
  3. Pick one section to highlight
  4. Colour, background, gradients,
  5. Poster-specific figure formatting

• • • • •

With the COVID-19 crisis, almost no conferences this summer are planning on going forward. A few organizations are exploring some sort of scaled back online conference, which is one of seven recommendations in this article about softening the blow from conference cancellations.

The article points to a couple of examples of academic societies doing interesting things in the online poster space.

The Cognitive Neuroscience Society will have a virtual poster session.

More than a thousand posters (and growing) will be presented in individual, customizable virtual booths that include optional video presentations by the authors. New poster submissions will be accepted through April 14, 2020.

The Society of Toxicology has browsable archive of conference posters that normally would have been presented at their cancelled March meeting.

The Federation of European Neuroscience is also meeting virtually, and they say their format will include posters.

The Genetics Society of America says it is doing their virual poster session by uploading PDFs to Figshare, allowing an option video walkthrough, and an option Q&A session on Zoom.

If anyone has examples of online poster sessions in the next months, please email the link to BetterPosters@gmail.com!

• • • • •

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how challenging it is to convey uncertainty. We humans crave it. We want to know, “When it this going to end? How many people might die? Is my community likely to be hard hit?”

This great image compiles ways that we can try to show uncertainty visually:


This is taken from a book chapter that is just about ready to be published. The link contains an almost complete version of the chapter.

Ironically, the first way to show uncertainty in the illustration – error bars – is often bungled. When I view scientific scientitic documents, I look for error bars and very frequently find that they are uninterpretable. The authors don’t say what they represent.

Similarly, the predicted path of hurricanes are often shown with ensemble plots. People tended to not understand those, either. They saw the path for the central path of the eye of the storm, and didn’t realize that most of the damage is far from the eye.

It’s indicative of how badly we show uncertainty in scientific graphics.

• • • • • 

An interview with Elissa Schloesser of My Visual Voice, who is a graphic designer specializing in information design.

• • • • •

Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgings are interviewed in the New York Times about creating the CDC illustration of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.

But for the coronavirus illustration, they went with what professional medical artists call a “beauty shot”: a detailed, solo close-up.

“We just call attention to the one virus,” she said.

This one gets into a little more nitty-gritty detail about the software (Autodesk 3ds Max) and choices made in the process than the article that was in last month’s roundup.


• • • • •

Many people retweeted (may be started in this Reddit thread?) this amazingly bad graph from a television station. The source seems to be Fox31 KDVR in Colorado, according to Manny Equerra.

Look closely at the Y axis.


Reddit user ke1v3y helpfully created a correct graph.

Intuitively, the two graphs show the same trend, so it’s not at all clear why the original is so completely bizarre.

• • • • •

Another great document from MyFonts on using colour with typography. I particularly like point #5 (my emphasis):

Regardless of its brightness, color is paler than black and contrasts less with a light background. As a result, type printed in color will not have the power of simple black. You can compensate for this paleness by increasing the amount of color used. Increase the impact of type up by bumping it up by one weight (book to regular, regular to semi-bold, semi-bold to bold etc.) – or set it a size larger.

• • • • •


This is a nice little post using cupcakes and wedding cakes as an example of a creative process.

You get to a complex project by making a lot of small but complete projects, not by completing parts. Hat tip to Justin Kiggins.

• • • • •

Well, these tweets were sitting in my notes for months. Ioana Marinescu asked:

We’d all love to learn & connect but approaching new people can be awkward. What is the best question to start a conversation with at a conference? Other conversation starters?
What are you working on? 39.1%
What’s your research area 22.4%
What’s exciting in econ? 10.8%
Best papers you saw? 27.8%
832 votes

And Kording Lab asked the same question for neuroscience:

We all love to learn & connect but approaching new people can be awkward. What is the best question to start a conversation with at a conference? Other conversation starters?

What are you working on? 55.6%
What's your research area 20.8%
What's exciting in neuro 8.2%
Best papers you saw? 15.5%
466 votes

• • • • •

This plot looks like a tornado but was made like a duck.


The plot was from this article in The Conversation UK. The Twitter account for the website called it “useful,” (now deleted) prompting a lot of people to say, “This is not useful.” My own thoughts are in this Twitter thread.

Non-standard data displays are tricky. A big problem with this graph is that it breaks a very common expectation. “Time” on graphs is almost always shown the X axis. Here, it's at arbitrary points along each coloured line.

The other question is: What does this graph show that a bar or line graph does not? Nothing that I can see. In a standard bar graph, "deaths per day" is shown by height of bar. "Increase or decreases in death" is seen by comparing two bars.

This tornado graph is an example of what Edward Tufte calls a “duck.” Sure, it's different. But what is the point?

• • • • •

Daniel Gonzalez has a late entry to the “social distancing graphic” collection.


Sorry, but it’s not as good as others, since the quantity of animals described in numbers and the quantity shown do not match.

• • • • •

Since comics inspiration is a recurring theme in this blog, let this great blog post introduce you to graphics design legend Ira Schnapp. He carved the entire motto of the postal service in stone in a New York post office when he was 16.


This post is the first in a series on Schnapp. Part 2 gets to the comics work he is known for, including one of the most famous logos of all time, Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman. Which Schnapp probably created in a day. Part 3 talks about another famous Schnapp creation, the Superman logo.

23 April 2020

Are posters right for online meetings? Thoughts from The Allied Genetic Conference virtual poster session #TAGC20

I have been watching many academic conferences move to online presentations this year with great interest. I want to see how they are going to do it and how well each format works.

In my Twitter feed today are discussions from The Allied Genetic Conference (#TAGC20). They have made their content free for anyone to view. Their poster session guidelines are here.

TAGC is handling their poster sessions by having people upload PDFs of their posters to Figshare, which has created a special collection for posters from this meeting. All the posters are available to view now, and no more can be uploaded. You can search through categories, or by keyword. (Zero hits for “crustacean” – d’oh!)

Here is an example of a poster where the presenter, Katja Kasimatis, recorded a ten minute walkthough to go with the PDF. Abigail Feresten did both a two minute and a ten minute version of her walkthrough (I think the short version was part of a “Poster preview” that is mentioned on the session guidelines but not completely explained.)

Finally, there will be Q&A sessions next week. I’m going to try reaching out to presenters to see how it goes. The FAQ notes there these Q&A sessions are not going to be archived.

Poster Q&A sessions will not be made available beyond the live discussion, so presenters may choose to discuss data in those sessions that they are not comfortable publishing on their poster.

The TAGC FAQ contains some interesting advice about format.

Although any dimensions can be used, remember that attendees will be viewing posters on their computer screens. ...

We recommend arranging information blocks like

1 > 2 > 3
4 > 5 > 6
7 > 8 > 9

instead of the print poster tradition of

1 4 7
2 5 8
3 6 9.

In other words, layout your poster in rows instead of columns. This makes sense, as the idea is that you are going to scroll down, and you don’t want people to have to scroll back to the top of the page all the time.

But if you’re going to do that... why not just a single, continuous column?

The TAGC20 advice on layout, probably without them realizing it, strikes at the heart of something I have been thinking about a lot with online poster sessions.

What, specifically, makes an online poster presentation a “poster”?

In this format, you are first uploading a document to Figshare. Why make that document mimic a single large piece of paper? Why not just upload a manuscript?

In this format, you have the option of uploading a video walkthrough. Why show section after section of a single large page? Why not just upload a slide talk?

The conference poster has always been a strange hybrid format that was born out of necessity more than anything else. If conferences go ever more online (an existing trend that the COVID-19  pandemic is only accelerating), we should not continue to have posters just because, “We’ve done it that way for decades.” Maybe there is no need for posters to continue in virtual conferences.

External links

TAGC Virtual poster session guidelines
TAGC Figshare collection

16 April 2020

Critique: Anorexic mice

This poster was done as practice by a group of students, not for a presentation at a conference. Click to enlarge!


You could put this up in a conference and it would probably be one of the nicer looking posters there.

The layout is quite clean. There is lots of white space, and the text is readable.

The mouse graphic is nice, but would be better placed if the head was facing into the center of the poster. We look where faces look, and this makes you want to look off the page. Possible solution: flip mouse, left justify title, move logo to right side instead of bookending title.

There's no standard way of presenting a boxplot, so you need to specify somewhere what the components mean. (Is the center line mean or median? Are the whiskers quartiles or confidence intervals or something else?)

The boxplots are a little hard to read from a distance. Maybe thicken the lines a little or fill the box with a light colour?

In the middle column, the first line of first paragraph seems much closer to graph than anything else. If you have guidelines to make the margins between columns even, the particular layout with ragged right is defeating the purpose. Putting a soft return before "was" might solve it.

The callout box with the summary is good, but I had to dig down to the middle of sentence before I understand why the authors made all the measurements. Maybe start with, "Anorexia is a human eating disorder that we studied in mice by measuring mitochondrial activity, neuropeptide levels and hypothalamic glucose uptake" and continue from there.

“But the title says anorexia! Why are you complaining that you don't know what the summary is about until you're halfway through?” Because the callout has about as much, if not more, visual weight than the title. The callout is in the upper left where people look first, and it’s highlighted it with attention getting red. The title is downplayed by the choice of such a thin font.

The right edge of the callout box doesn’t align with the edges of the flowchart or text below it.

The position of the mouse brain drawing is not at the point of need. The hypothalamus is mentioned in the first normal paragraph. When I read that first sentence, that's when I probably want to know, “Where is the hypothalamus?”

Probably a lot of the paragraph text “Differences in hormonal activity” could be changed into a statistic summary, inserted into the corner of the box plots.