22 June 2017

Handouts and other papers

The ESA Student Section tweeted:

Conference tip: Presenting a poster? Consider giving some sort of handout: a print out of the poster, or additional info. #ESA2017

It’s a common tip, but I got thinking about it. What’s the purpose of duplicating your poster in miniature?

I’ve always thought the point of having a poster handout was to remind people about your academic work. But I was cleaning off my desk recently, and found quite a few handouts of posters I’d collected from conferences. I’d hauled them back from the meeting, but I hadn’t looked at them for their scientific content or contact information since. The handout had failed in their purpose.

I’m particularly wondering about the trouble of making, carrying, and tacking up poster handouts in the days where these are ubiquitous:


If anyone wants to look at a poster later, why not just take a picture of it? If someone wants my email, why not take a picture of my contact info on my poster?

Granted, there are a few meetings where the conference organizers try to prohibit photographs of posters. It’s dumb and ineffectual, in my estimation, but a handout makes sense at such meetings.

There is value of creating handouts, but not to give them out when people are standing in front of your poster.

First, by making handouts, you force yourself to do the “arm’s length” test. If you can’t read the poster when it’s shrunk down to letter sized paper, your audience will struggle to read the full sized version on the poster board.

Second, you should have handouts so that you can give them to people who are not at your poster session. Most poster sessions are shorter than meetings, but you will be meeting people all through the conference. If you have small handouts of your poster, you can show someone your work at a coffee break, even if your poster session is already over and done with.

Making a poster handout is usually simple. I export my poster as a PDF, and PDFs can be readily printed to fit the size of your printer paper. As I noted above, if you have a good poster that passes the “arm’s length” test, you won’t have to redo or adjust anything.

There are maybe two other kinds of paper that are worth having ready to give.

  • Business cards are compact, socially expected, and can be very beautiful. Even better if they act as invitations.
  • Reprints can be useful if you have already published material that your poster builds upon. People might read those on the plane home.

Related posts

Don’t get mad, get playful
Invitation cards
Link roundup for December 2012

15 June 2017

How many people will show up at your poster?

This Twitter thread by Laura Williams about poster presentations began:

83% expect 10 or fewer poster visitors at large meeting.

This reminded me of an unfinished project: a formula to estimate how many people you could expect at your poster.

This is how far I got:


My efforts were inspired by the Drake equation. The attendance at the meeting (Nr for number ) is the maximum possible number of people who can see your poster (V for viewers). Most of the rest of the terms in the equation are fractions that reduce attendance at your poster.

Looking back on this was, my favourite factor in this equation (mid right) was, “fc = fraction (of attendees) more interested in coffee (than your poster).” And the postscript to that still makes me smile: “GEOLOGY fb = beer.”

Geologists do love their beer, I’ve heard.

09 June 2017

Critique: Demonic

Today’s poster is from Christian Casey, and it won first prize in the student poster competition at the 2017 ARCE Annual Meeting. Click to enlarge!


My first reaction when I opened this file was, “Oh, that is cool.

My major concern was the reading order. Do I go across, or down? I wanted to make sure I understood Christian’s intent before shooting my mouth off, so I emailed him, and got this generous reply:

That was probably the biggest problem I wrestled with while creating the poster, and I don’t think that my solution is perfect. I understand the story as a branching tree of related concepts, which doesn’t lend itself easily to projection into the one and two dimensions of papers and posters, so I struggled to come up with a way of presenting things that conveyed the way I see them.

The idea is that you can read through in more than one direction, depending on what interests you and the amount of prior knowledge you bring, and still experience a coherent story. If you know what problem I’m trying to solve, you can start under the title at “Proposed Solution,” then go to the demo in the center, and then read the extra stuff on the right. If you don’t come with that knowledge, I hoped that you would go to “The Problem” first, read left to right through the top row, and then return to the left for “Proposed Solution.” It is also possible to get a slightly different view of things by going clockwise first, getting the main problem and the sub problems (fonts, input methods), then going to the solution.

When I started working on the poster, I put all of the sections on index cards and then moved them around on a big table until I found a layout that worked. I don’t have any record of the alternative arrangements, but you can get a sense of what I envisioned from the flyer I made to go with the poster.


The timeline is made much more prominent to highlight the importance of the Demotic script in our broader effort to understand Egyptian languages, which is one of the main takeaways that I intended for people to discover. That’s not as clear in the poster, but that was a compromise I had to make during the design process.

The flyer also had a selected bibliography on the back, mainly so that I could avoid using valuable poster real estate for references while still conveying the fact that I had done my research. IIRC I got the idea to do that from your blog, but I don’t remember where or how. You said something about needing to have references, and I didn’t want to do that, so I tried to invent a way to have my cake and eat it too. (Maybe this? - ZF) I ordered prints of the flyers from Moo.com ($50 for 50), and put them in a holder thing under the poster for visitors to take. All 50 had been taken by the end of the second day, so I think people liked that.

I still have concerns some concerns about the reading order. Having a section labelled “The problem” indicates I am supposed to read across, in rows. But it breaks down at “Encoding.”

Having one big central figure helps this poster enormously. The decision to put most of the ancient script in red brings is a smart one. But there is, like many things, a tradeoff. You gain visual interest, but some of the highlighted characters don’t stand out as much as they might have against a more neutral colour. Here’s an attempt to draw attention to the highlighted characters; click to enlarge!


I can see the individual characters more clearly, but the poster as a whole loses its visual punch. Putting the script in gray turns the central space into a drab block that nobody would look at.

The colour choices for the central script from the Rosetta stone are continued throughout the poster, bringing continuity. The minor colours blend well, too. They are distinct enough to be different, but not so distinct as to be distracting.

I also like the addition of the timeline at the bottom. Christian did an excellent job of fitting the timeline to an irregularly shaped space created by his columns.

Finally, while I applaud the placement of the institutional logo down at the bottom, I can’t help but wonder if Christian is a little too modest in the placement of his name. People do care about whose work they are looking at. At a glance, it’s not clear that he is the author. I might have moved his name up next to the title.


It doesn’t do any great damage to the flow of the poster.

The judges who gave out that award made an excellent choice. The combination of both big bold choices and attention to small details make this a very strong poster visually.

03 June 2017

Use black on black for fashion, not posters



Wearing black make you cool. Everybody knows that. But while black on black makes an awesome fashion statement, it is a terrible communication statement.

I saw a poster earlier this year that had its title – the thing that is the only thing most people at a conference will see about your poster – in this colour scheme: dark green text on black.


Rather than posting a picture of the poster itself, I used the eyedropper tool to copy the colours from a picture I took of it on the board. Keep in mind that the colours you see might vary, depending on how the image is positioned on your screen. But I doubt anyone will look at that and think that colour combination makes for easy scanning.

Let’s put the same dark green text over the black, as it was on the poster, and white for comparison:


You have to enlarge and squint to read that text over the black background. The white background makes the text almost infinitely easier to read.

The authors of this particular poster weren’t done, though. They ran with their colour scheme, and used black and green again for section headings. Plus ten points for commitment, minus several hundred points for practicality.


This colour combination is a tiny bit better than the title, but again, it would be easier to read over straight white:


If you liked the black background, you could go the other direction with the text, and lighten the words up:



Forget that black on black looks cool. Your title needs to be high contrast. People have to be able to read your title, at a glance, from a distance.

Journalists call it “burying the lede” when a story sticks the key point of information way down near the end. This poster didn’t just bury the lede with its dark on black colour choices, it buried the lede in an unmarked grave in the woods at night.

Top picture from here.

25 May 2017

Link roundup for May 2017

R users may be interested in this poster... not sure what to call it. Template? Package? It’s here, in any case. I am not an R user, so I am not in a position to evaluate it.


Hat tip to Karthik Ram and Milton Tan.

Rolf Hut proclaims this the best poster from EGU 2017 meeting.


Nevertheless, controversy erupted.



Hat tip to Nasty Lab Manager.

Dani Rabaiotti has a long post on conference etiquette. It is mostly concerned with asking questions and avoiding the “all out war” scenario. Hat tip to Stephen Heard.

Catherine Cavallo forwarded this advice from Graham Phillips of the Australian television show Catalyst. While I think it is geared to journalists, it applies to posters, too.


Hat tip to Melissa Márquez.

A free little ebook on using Inkscape for biological illustration. Hat tip to Chris Borkent and Morgan Jackson.

Melissa Márquez has a post on conference networking.

At its core, networking isn’t about how other people can help you… it is how you can help other people.

This is an example of blackletter:


You don’t see it used much any more. The historical reasons why are fascinating:

The government of one of the world’s great powers banned a typeface. That is the power of a symbol.
.
It is just one example out of a longer piece on typography and politics by Ben Hersh.

Speaking of typography, YouTube has a typeface all its own. The designers used the power of pastiche to good effect while creating it.


Hat tip to Nancy Duarte.

18 May 2017

Lessons from “Stone Cold” Steve Austin: There’s just one bottom line – and it should be your title

Margaret Moerchen wrote:
Every poster needs an executive summary like this!


I appreciate the sentiment here. Summaries are good. Highlighting those summaries is also good. But this doesn’t go far enough.

Four bullet points is too much.

Let’s turn the mic over to “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, who famously pronounced:


Would Austin get the same reaction from the crowd if he said, “And those are the bottom four lines”?

Do we say, “Get to the points?” “Cut to the chases”? No. It’s singular in every case.

Here’s what I would suggest. Drill down those four points to one. Looking at the points above, I might suggest: “New techniques to measure carbon contents in vapor bubble,” or “Carbon content in the Hawaiian plume may be higher than in the MORB mantle.” Which I’d use would depend on whether I wanted to emphasize the techniques or the preliminary results.

Then, instead of sticking that one point away as a bottom line, make that one point the title of your poster. Don’t make people with 30 seconds hunt for your most important thing. Make it literally the first thing they read.


11 May 2017

Critique: Motor math

Not one but two posters are up today! This is fun, because I don’t often get to show people trying different things. Today’s posters are both from Chris Miles, a graduate student in mathematics. Chris writes:

I’m in a weird misfit field: mathematical biology, which seems to take certain aspects of each culture, like posters from biology. However, this leads to some culture clashes, like having a math-heavy poster. I guess my question is: how math-heavy is too math-heavy if math is the focus of the poster?

This is an excellent question, and reminiscent of a similar question I got about posters in the humanities. Let’s see.

Here’s Chris’s current poster (which you can click to enlarge):


I like this. Clean, straightforward. Colouring a lot of the text bring some visual interest.

There are a couple of elements that distract me.

The right side of the title bar. The logo on top of the names on top of the department affiliation are not harmonizing. I expect to see more space around the logo, and the right side of “diffusion” in the title over Christopher’s name also throws me.

I like the light dashed lines between the columns, which add a nice graphic touch in a text heavy poster. I’m not crazy about the horizontal lines between the sections, though.

For comparison, here is a poster Chris did from last year, about which he says, “It had a very different vibe (but I won an award for despite being not super thrilled with).”



This one suffers from the clutter, which is such an easy hole for new poster makers to fall into. The title is too small, text is too close to the margins, and there is just a sense of “too much stuff.”

On the plus side, this one does a bit better job of giving a viewer an “entry point” and conveying the topic at a glance. Since I am a biologist, I recognized the images of motor proteins and microtubules under the title and on the right column immediately.

I wonder if a line of microtubules might be used in the current poster to replace the dashed lines dividing the columns.

Overall, I think the new one up top is better that the one below. It’s simpler and cleaner. I’d be more likely to stop at it if I was browsing, because I would be turned off by the clutter of the old one. But, if motor proteins were my thing, I might be more likely to stop at the old one because I can more easily see what the topic is.

To get back to Chris’s question, “How much math-heavy is too math-heavy?” Not all math is created equal for poster purposes. For instance, I could write this on my poster:

y = ½x + 2

Or, I could put something like this:


Because I am not a mathematician, I don’t have a good sense of when you can show something visually versus when you need an equation. But equations alone are tough. The standing joke is that each equation loses half the audience.

Perhaps the key with a math heavy poster is to provide something on the poster that is not math, to give people a way in. I recall one math poster that had a lot of equations, but it also had a picture of one of the historical mathematicians whose work was the basis for the poster. It made the poster much more approachable. 

It’s hard to underestimate the value of having even just one thing on a poster that is instantly recognizable and does not need to be deciphered or explained. A photograph does that. Artwork or a single word might do that. A sentence, graph, or equation won’t do that.