16 July 2009

Review: Scientist’s Guide to Poster Presentations

In my searches, I have found only one book so far that is specifically devoted to poster presentations. It took me a while to get a copy through interlibrary loans to review.

Scientist’s Guide to Poster Presentations is celebrating its tenth anniversary. Unfortunately, like some of the other books I’ve reviewed on poster presentations, it has not aged well.

A lot of advice on the physical construction of the poster is outdated. It presumes the poster has to be physically assembled on paper. So the text goes on at length about glue and straightedges and tape, which is not used very frequently now. The chapters on transporting and putting the poster up has limited usefulness for the same reason.

Some of the text from the final short chapter, “Future Trends,” feels quaint:

Future trends in visual presentation of scientific information in general are likely to change dramatically from 1999 to 2009. ...

The Internet, however, is a powerful form of communication that is impossible to ignore. ... I am sure it will not be long before abstracts accessible on the Internet take on a more detailed an elaborate format, possibly including a downloadable image of the whole poster. A note of the author’s e-mail address would enable contact to be made.

Even putting aside that the book shows its age, many of the suggestions in the main text were dubious even when the book was new.

I could not believe the caption accompanying the figure, arguing that the 3-D effect “adds interest to the information being presented.” Edward Tufte had rightfully criticized such effects as chartjunk over a decade earlier in 1983 (new edition in 2001). The figure immediately underneath also made me cringe:

Gosling claims, “Placing a chart at an angle can have a very pleasing effect.” Again, I would direct readers to Tufte over Gosling in a heartbeat. Such distortions are unnecessary at best and misleading at worst.

As a final example, here are a set of Gosling’s suggested layouts:

Although a few of these might be okay, most are not. Most confused me as to whether I should read the blocks left to right or top to bottom. Several cannot decide how many columns wide the grid is.

Gosling writes, “...your flow of information should follow the basic principles of Western languages by reading from left to right first, then from top to bottom, and clockwise if wrapped around a graphic element or the circumference of the poster.”

Clockwise? A design that circles around the edge is probably not a good idea. You never see such things in newspaper, magazines, or books, so you probably should not do it on a poster.

One of the better sections contains pictures of actual posters from conferences. Although this suffers a bit because the pictures are in black and white and fairly low resolution, they definitely serve as good examples of what not to to do.

This is worth a loan from a library, but too dated and too limited to be worth tracking down to purchase.


Gosling, PJ. 1999. Scientist’s Guide to Poster Presentations. Kluwer Acedmic / Plenum Publishers: New York. Amazon

Tufte ER. 2001. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (Second Edition). Graphics Press: Chesire, Connecticut. Amazon

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