21 July 2016

Critique and makeover: Landfill bacteria

Today’s contribution comes from Patric Chua, who gave me permission to post this. Click to enlarge!


Patric had this to say:

Better Posters has been my guide for poster designs (Aw, thanks! - ZF), and I've followed the many ideas for this poster. I understand that PowerPoint is not the best tool, but I hope it will suffice.

The design of the poster is inspired by infographics - I did not want it to conform to the IMRAD template. Each section can be read independently and has its own method and results. However, I’m afraid that I’ve falling into the trap where I’ve placed too many information in. I also think that the poster lacks a strong entry point.

The piece de resistance is probably the bottom right corner where I followed the advice on Inviting interactions post. I plan to attach cardboard boxes and place comment cards in the first box to make it easier for the audience.

The amount of work that went into this is impressive. I’ve opened the file and seen just how many individual elements are incorporated into this poster. To work with that many parts in PowerPoint is a nigh Herculean effort.

The poster has a strong sense of organization. Although Patric says it isn’t doesn’t have to be read in a linear way, the poster leaves no confusion if you choose to go that route.

I agree with Patric’s own assessment: this poster has a lot going on.

The use of icons is a double edged sword here. Although they certainly add visual interest, I’m not sure they always make it easier to understand what’s going on. Icons should represent simple nouns, and here they seem to be used in several ways, sometimes seeming to represent steps in a process.

Even without changing any of the words, a few subtle design changes can help calm the visual noise and make it a little less intimidating.

Here’s the makeover. Spot the differences!


If this were a classic newspaper “Spot the difference” puzzle, I’d have the two side by side, and the answers printed upside down:


Here’s the side by side:



And thanks to this site, I can (almost) duplicate the fun of reading a print newspaper!

  1. ˙ɹɐq sʇᴉ uᴉ ɹǝʇʇǝq sᴉ ɹǝʇuǝɔ oʇ ǝlʇᴉʇ ǝɥʇ ɟo ƃuᴉuoᴉʇᴉsodǝɹ ʇɥƃᴉls ɐ s’ǝɹǝɥ┴
  2. ˙(ǝnlq puɐ ploƃ) oʍʇ oʇ (ǝnlq puɐ 'uǝǝɹƃ 'pǝɹ ʞɔᴉɹq 'ploƃ) ɹnoɟ ɯoɹɟ uʍop ʇnɔ uǝǝq sɐɥ suɯnloɔ ǝɥʇ uᴉ sɹnoloɔ pǝɹnʇɐǝɟ ɟo ɹǝqɯnu ǝɥ┴
  3. ˙ʇuoɟ ᴉɯǝp ɐ ɹo 'lɐɯɹou ɹǝɥʇᴉǝ oʇ ploq ɐ ɯoɹɟ uʍop pǝddǝʇs uǝǝq sɐɥ sƃuᴉpɐǝɥ puɐ sǝɯɐu s’sɹoɥʇnɐ ǝɥʇ uᴉ ǝɔɐɟǝdʎʇ ǝɥ┴
  4. ˙ɹǝuuᴉɥʇ ʎllɐᴉʇuɐʇsqns ǝpɐɯ ǝɹǝʍ suoɔᴉ ǝɥʇ punoɹɐ sǝuᴉl ǝɥ┴
  5. ˙pǝuoᴉʇᴉsodǝɹ ʎlʇɥƃᴉls puɐ ʞunɹɥs ǝɹǝʍ suoɔᴉ ǝɥ┴

Okay, okay, here’s an easier to read set of answers:

  1. There’s a slight repositioning of the title to vertically center it in its bar.
  2. The number of featured colours in the columns has been cut down from four (gold, brick red, green, and blue) to two (gold, for the start and end, and blue, for the main text).
  3. The typeface in the authors’ names and headings has been stepped down from bold. The type is now either normal, or a demi font instead of a bold font.
  4. The lines around the icons were made substantially thinner (from 6 point to 1 point, which might be too fine).
  5. The icons were shrunk and slightly repositioned.

Any individual one of these is not that a big of an improvement. But I think the sum total results in a poster that is a calmer on the eyes overall.

Here’s how the poster looked on the day of presentation:


And here’s a close up of the “Comments section”:

14 July 2016

Critique: Rhizosphere round-up

Today's contribution comes from Larry York, and is used with his permission. Click to enlarge!


Larry’s own review of this poster:

There is too much text on the bottom of my poster, but the overall idea of the poster was a review of my recently published and ongoing work.

One thing this poster does well is direct the reader through the the tricky portrait format. It’s clear that this poster is meant to be read across, in rows.

Another thing it does well is the choice of colours. The blues and greens are clearly related to the colours happening in the figures. The background colours are subtle, although the greens might even be just a little lighter.

I agree with Larry’s own assessment that this poster has got too much going on, particularly in the bottom. But it’s not just the text. The overall feel of this is “jam packed,” but not in a good way. Less stuff and more space between everything would surely improve the appearance of this poster.

There are many complex graphs. The layout within each row is sometimes slightly confusing. In the first box, I have three graphs on top of text on top of a picture. The graphs don’t have any caption below them, so I am left to try to make sense of them by reading the text. Maybe the text should come first.

Similarly, on the left side of the top box, I’m forced to zigzag back and forth around the (nice but complex) pictures.

Short of a ruthless edit, there are things that might help out. I tried a couple of quick and dirty revisions. First, I put the title in a more prominent location. The title is 90% of your communication effort, and people will start reading in the the top left. Let’s put the title there instead of logos. I shrunk the logos a little to create a bit more space.

On the first box, I removed the thick blue lines to see if just colours would allow you to follow the flow of the poster. I didn’t do this for the boxes below, because... well... then this would no longer be a “quick” makeover.


The combination of the green box plus shadows would allow you to follow the reading order, but removing the heavy blue lines helps open up the poster and make it feel less cramped.

07 July 2016

Critique: Anther colours

I won’t say this is the best poster from the recent Evolution 2016 meeting, but it is my personal favourite. Click to enlarge!


This poster is by Emily Austen, who was kind enough to send me the PDF and give me permission to share it. I asked Emily if she had comments about the design. She wrote.

First, when I visit posters, I have way more fun if the presenter explains the poster to me than if I try to read it. I tried to make a poster that would encourage conversation.

Second, while designing, I was very inspired by this awesome poster by James O’Hanlon, which I am pretty sure was featured on your blog before. (It was! - ZF) That poster is brilliant.

This poster is also pretty brilliant. Of all the posters I saw at the meeting (and I saw all of them), this was the only one that stopped me in my tracks.

I love this poster. I love the full bleed flower picture. I love that the colours in that picture are carried throughout the poster. I love that each graph has a simple, short sentence describing the point it makes.

The only things I might change are truly minor.

The red used for Emily’s name under the title makes her name harder to read, not easier. I know it’s trying to carry through with the red and yellow used elsewhere in the poster, but it is too dark.

When I first looked at the poster, I thought the bottom “answer” might need just a tiny bit more breathing room, or be placed in a more prominent location. I might have tried the Columbo method for the title (make a statement instead of asking a question).

The acknowledgements in the left corner are are handled well, but the very first line comes close to the edge of the petal in the picture. Similarly, a petal and the word “trout” in the title come close to touching. Either separate edges or overlap them. For example, the middle petals look fine with graphs are on top of them because the graphs are clearly deliberately placed. The overlap shows that the graphs are meant to be on top of the picture. Objects that nearly touch create an uneasy tension.

But these are quibbles. This poster is gorgeous. Not every poster is going to have this built-in visual component (it is about colour, after all), but it understands that a poster is a visual medium and pushes it to a high level of design and even artistry. I think my next creation is going to borrow a few ideas from this one.

Related posts

Link roundup for March 2015
Detective stories: “Whodunnit?” versus “How’s he gonna prove it?”

30 June 2016

Link round-up for June 2016

Kaitlyn Werner is the winner of this month’s “Best re-use of a conference poster (beach edition)”:


Alex Barnard took a poster into the third dimension with 3-D printing:


This is not the first time I’ve shown a poster with a third dimension on this blog, but it’s still unusual enough to warrant a mention. Hat tip to Guanyang Zhang and Maslay Lab. Despite the tweet containing the #evol2016 hashtag, this poster was not at the Evolution 2016 meeting (I know, I saw them all), but I guess was similar to work presented at a talk there.

Academic Poster on Twitter is worth a peek. The profile says, “This page is linked to the only academic poster expert blog on the internet.” I believe it’s referring to this page, since the account doesn’t link here. (This blog does appear under “Helpful links.” Thank you – I try to be helpful whenever I can!)

Lenny Teytelman reports on the European Bioinformatics Institute conference’s solution to, “Can I share this on social media?” They made cards you could put on your poster:



Katie Everson, writing at the Molecular Ecologist blog, has 10 tips to improve conference posters. Most of these will be familiar to readers of this blog, but it’s always nice to see how other people phrase them! Hat tip to Katie Everson.


Next up we have a deep dive into the science of human perception, which can tell us a lot about designing graphics. For instance, Lots of cool information in there, like how scale affects our sense of correlation.


And while I have been known to make a dig at pie charts from time to time, research shows that for some purposes, they work very well:

Six decades later, and in three more experiments, pie charts were hailed for their strength in conveying proportional data, in some way or another.

Pretty sure none of the principles in the article above could justify this graphic, though:


Hat tip to Tim van der Zee and Michael Hunsacker.

I’ve emphasized the importance of titles before. This research argues that 70% of people on Facebook only read headlines before commenting.

Filed under, “I’m astonished he got away with it,” have a look at this doctoral thesis (from 2008.) It’s stunning looking. Hat tip to David Schoppik and Raven.

Dynamic Ecology has updated their list of conference preparation tips. Hat tip to Chris Buddle.

A interactive poster.


Not the first to use this technology, however. Hat tip to Paul Cannon and Academic Posters.

A good title is critical to a poster. This article on crafting titles for journal articles contains some ideas that can be applied to posters, too.

24 June 2016

The view from the floor at Evolution 2016


Earlier this week, I was at the 2016 Evolution meeting in Austin, Texas. The poster sessions ran for three nights, two hours a night, and I glanced at every single poster.

The conference organizers underused their poster boards, as shown in the picture above. The instructions said that posters were supposed to be no wider than four feet, but the boards were probably seven or eight feet wide. This is a shame; I would have loved to use the whole space available. I wonder if the organizers were expecting more poster submissions. A few last minute posters were two to a board, and maybe they told people to keep posters small so they could double up on boards if necessary.

But even if the conference organizers had told people they could make wider posters, I don’t think many people would have taken them up on it. I saw many posters in portrait format: very tall, skinny, and dangling off the bottom of the board. They looked awkward. I saw enough of them that I don’t think they resulted from accidental misreadings of the instructions. People reusing posters from other conferences, maybe?

Each poster had ample square footage. There was plenty of space between the aisle, so no presenter or audience member was in danger of getting tramples.

The room the poster sessions in were very well lit.

The small tables underneath the poster boards were very handy places to put food and drink. The conference did a great job of keeping poster presenters feed and hydrated. There was quick good snack food and drinks available in the evening poster session.

Despite having tables to put things on, very few posters had any sort of physical takeaways for readers. Only a couple had letter-sized versions of the poster or business cards.

The overall design quality of the posters was higher than I have seen at other conferences. Shockingly, there were no posters using Comic Sans. Not one. This is the first conference ever where I have not see that eyesore in the poster session. I am so pleased I do not have to name and shame any posters for using that typeface. (The conference was not Comic Sans free, though. I saw one set of slides that used that type.)

Rafael Marcondes had the winning poster in the American Naturalist poster competition, and it’s archived here. (Hat tip to Rafael Maia.) In addition to Rafael’s poster, a few other Evolution conference posters are archived at Figshare. There’s about 30 posters archived out of maybe 400 that were presented.

I was super excited to meet a few blog readers. Thanks for chatting!

Update: Hat tip to Rafael for reminding me of some valid points about the sessions.

External links

Evolution 2016 conference website
Evolution 2016, Day 1
Evolution 2016, Day 2
Evolution 2016, Day 3
Evolution 2016, Day 4
Evolution 2016, Day 5

16 June 2016

Search engines for technical graphics

How important are academic graphics? A new pre-print in arXiv argues, “Pretty damn important.” This news summary of the technical article says:

(T)heir most remarkable discovery is that the most successful papers tend to have more figures. By plotting the number of diagrams in a paper against its impact, the team concludes that high impact ideas tend to be conveyed visually.

Lee and co say there are two possible explanations for this: “That visual information improves the clarity of the paper, leading to more citations, and higher impact, or that high impact papers naturally tend to include new, complex ideas that require visual explanation.”

The team has a search engine for scientific graphics called Viziometrics. My first pass, for “crayfish,” gave a mess on non-intuitive results (click to enlarge):


Things improved markedly when I selected only for diagrams and photos, however.


Speaking of searchable graphics databases, Atlas looks promising for some purposes. I tried searching for something that I thought must get plotted a lot in science, “Impact Factor”:


Nothing looked relevant to scientific publication, so I tried a couple of other topics familiar to me. I had success with “lobster”, because I reckoned there would be fisheries data. There was:


Things get good when you drill down to a single graph:


There’s a reference, so you know where the data came from. You can download the image created by Atlas, or download the data yourself in a plain text (CSV) file. Atlas is a product of the Quartz online news outlet. I’m not sure yet if it only includes data from Quartz stories.

These are not going to replace Google Images or Flickr any time soon, but they might be useful for some purposes.

Hat tip to Ananyo Bhattacharya for Viziometrics and to Knight Science Journalism for Atlas.

09 June 2016

What is the “ePoster” format?


I’ve been predicting that we’re going to see a slow decline in paper posters for a while, so I was interested when John Coupland and Lady Scientist drew my attention to the joint annual meeting of (deep breath)...

  • The American Society of Animal Science (ASAS)
  • The American Dairy Science Association® (ADSA®)
  • The Western Section of the American Society of Animal Science (WSASAS)
  • The Canadian Society of Animal Science (CSAS)

They are having presentations in an “ePoster” format. Their instructions are here. I can’t quite visualize this yet, but as near as I can tell, it is an illegitimate love child of a PowerPoint slide show and a paper poster.

It’s the size of a poster (about 40 inches wide)... but you can have multiple screens of information, with hyperlinks and videos (like slides). The conference FAQ says:

On average, presenters will normally have 3-­5 pages of content on their e-­posters.

How is this different from a slide show? The conference organizers are squelching the “Click to advance” button, and replacing them with timed animations and navigation buttons.

I am skeptical of this hybrid format. The single sheet of a paper poster enforces discipline. You have to make hard decisions about what to include or not include. I worry that allowing multiple slides will mean that people will upload their standard PowerPoint deck and just give their standard talk repeatedly instead of once. As far as I can tell, the “normally 3-5” comment notwithstanding, the only limit to the number of slides is the total size of the PowerPoint file.

On the other hand, presenters do have to upload the poster in advance, so you won’t see PowerPoint decks that were cobbled together on the plane trip on the way to the conference.

The conference provides two templates. Here’s a sample of one (with instructions intact):


And another, which I think is less effective:


I’m not a fan of these templates. For one, the blue background and text are fairly low-contrast. Because these are on a monitor, white text will be more effective than black: it will glow from the light behind it. The columns on the first seem rather wide. Displaying all the sections on the second seems rife for confusion.

And a conference logo. In prime real estate. I know what meeting I’m at, I’ve already paid the fee, there’s no need to advertise it any more.

Based on the conference documents, this is all being run by a company called ePosterboards, who are new to me. One of their services is they will provide design assistance to poster authors, for an unspecified fee. You have to contact them for a quote. This makes me super curious as to how much they are asking for.