05 November 2011

Neuroscience 2011: advice in advance

This week, I shall be at the annual Neuroscience meeting, which is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, scientific conferences, in the world.

A huge number of posters will be put together and printed this week. For those who do not want to have to dig through the last two and a half years of posts, here is a super quick guide to making your poster better.

The big tips

Shut up.

People want to read as little as possible. And at Neuroscience, who can blame them? There is more than any person can see, and big blocks of text scream, “This is going to take a long time!”

Show images whenever possible, especially pictures. Pictures of actual physical objects that people can recognize are always more inviting than graphs, which are generic and abstract.

Do your audience a favour: respect their time. Leave the fiddly bits for your dissertation or published paper.

Line up.

For the love of humanity, make a grid. Divide your poster up into evenly spaced pieces. Draw lines. Make every piece of text, every chart, every thing line up along those lines. Don’t just stick things here and there, or make them “almost” align. It looks sloppy.

Size up.

Make everything bigger. The text. The space between each line of text. The graphs. The labels on the graphs. Large size is a key factor in how long people will look at something. How do you know if it’s big enough? Does your poster pass the arm’s length test?

Free up.

Drawing boxes around everything is like putting your poster in prison. Solitary confinement is cruel. When your poster is well organized, all you need is white space to separate the sections.

Those are my main requests that can help make most posters better. Even I, with a lot of posters under my belt, forget these basics sometimes.

The next tips are things that can be ignored with a little practice and thought, but are good places to start.

You can’t go too far wrong with...

Black text on a white background

Black text on a white background works. You can do cool things with backgrounds if know what you are doing, but it’s easy to turn something looks horrible on a printed page. Most people should put away the gradient fills and the photo blow-ups, and stick with the tried and true colour scheme that you see in 99% of all books.

A three column layout

Photographers learned long ago that dividing things into three is pleasing. For big, wide posters, like Neuroscience, three columns may be too wide. If that’s the case, either create an odd number of columns (five or seven), or subdivide your grid into smaller sections.

Sans serif typeface for the main text

Some suggestions for typefaces that are fairly easily available include Helvetica, Arial, Verdana, Tahoma, Gill Sans, and Calibri. You may think these are boring because everyone uses them, but there is a reason people use them so much: they get the job done.

Personally, I like Gill Sans on posters. Its readability holds up at a distance.

Calibri – while a fine typeface – does convey a subtle message: “I can’t be bothered to change the default settings in Microsoft Office.”

And finally:

No frickin’ Comic Sans

Comic Sans says, “amateur.” You might be going for “humourous” or “approachable,” but you achieve that at the complete loss of the “professional” trait.

I’m not against fonts with a hand-drawn look. I am a big comic book fan. Many people could make their posters better by learning the lessons of comic books. But there are better comic book typefaces out there.

Do you have a poster at Neuroscience that you are proud of? Want to show it off? Get feedback? Or just chat? Email me! I will be at Neuroscience from Saturday, 12 November, to Monday, 14 November (and maybe part of Tuesday morning).

Unabashed plug! If this helped you, please consider supporting my scientific research.


Mike Taylor said...

The one surprise here was the use of a sans-serif typeface for body text. I thought the usual guideline was sans-serif for headings, serif for body. Why have you gone against this?

Zen Faulkes said...

Using serifs for body text is often recommended for long blocks of text (full articles or books). I think of posters as short blocks of text. I suspect that even among professional typesetters, there isn't agreement about what a "long" versus "short" text blocks are. Books are often read under very different conditions than posters are (e.g., shorter reading distance).

Even then, there is lots of variation. Many Cell Press journals are set in sans serif (Helvetica, I think).

My experience is that that sans serifs hold up a little better at a distance, hence my recommendation. But the difference isn't large. Serifs can work well.

Mike Taylor said...

Thanks, that's helpful.

So since the standard recommendation for long-form text is to use two fonts (sans-serif headings, serif body) would you advocate using two different sans fonts in a poster? Or the same font (but bigger and/or bolder) for headings as for the body?

Mike Taylor said...

BTW., does your blog software have a setting that moderation isn't required for commenters who you've previously moderated through? That's how WordPress works by default (which I use for SV-POW! and my other blogs) and that approach works nicely.

Zen Faulkes said...

I’ve done both: a single font at different weights and sizes throughout, and two completely different sans serif typefaces on a poster.

I do like the continuity that you get from using one font at different sizes and weights.

When I use two typefaces, the headings are sometimes more decorative. For instance, on one poster, I paired Orial headings with Arial body text. The two have similar forms, so there was continuity, but the detailing on Orial added a little visual interest.

I don’t think either approach is consistently better than the other.

As for comments, the way I have it set up now is to have unmoderated comments for the first few days, since that’s typically when I get responses to new posts, and moderated after that, so I don’t get spam filling up the old posts I’m not attending to closely. I don’t think Blogger has a feature like WordPress to allow single user approval, but will look into it.