31 March 2011

Smart posters

If you want to create something special on your poster for smart phone users, you want to learn about QR codes. The good news is that they are dead simple and very versatile.

I created a QR code to one of my websites using one of several free QR code generators online. I ended up with something like the graphic at left.

I printed it out, and walked down the hall to one of my colleagues, Chris Vitek, and asked him to take a picture of it with his iPhone. He had never seen one of these before. I repeat: he had no idea of what it was. But he took a picture, used a bar code reader app, and had the phone asking if he wanted to open the link to the website in mere seconds. It was probably faster than if he had tried to type in the website URL.

And the genius thing is the sheer number of different things you can embed in a QR code. A website link. An email address. A YouTube clip. A location in Google Maps. And so on... and so on.

  • If your poster is for a paper in press, you can put a link to the journal or the PDF.
  • If you have something that is well documented by video (fairly common in biology!), create and upload the video to YouTube in advance. Much easier than mounting a television on your poster.
  • You could record a video “tour” of your poster that people could run through if they came by when you weren’t next to your poster.
  • If you are a grad student or post-doc on the job market, you can put up your email address and contact information so that people can get in touch with you more easily. Presumably, this gets stored into people’s smart phones on the spot, as opposed to business cards that can get lost.

And that is just the beginning. There are many more things you can potentially do with QR codes, including playing around with texting people, using Twitter, Facebook, and much more.

I see two dangers with this.

One is that there are so many things that you could do with a QR code that the temptation would be strong to do all of them. Your poster should not look like some mysterious stamp collection. Pick one, maybe two, things you want to do with a QR code and do them well.

The second danger is to include some critical information that is only available using the QR code. This would violate the general principle that a poster should be self-sufficient as possible. the poster should be like the feature presentation on a DVA. The material made through QR code should be like the DVD bonus materials: pleasant for those who are interested, but not essential to understanding the main show.

The mind boggles at the possibilities. Even I, who do not have a smart phone, can see the potential for using this to make something memorable for those who do.

Credit where it’s due: I was thinking about ways posters, and poster sessions, could take advantage of the ever increasing ubiquity of smart phones when I found that the Poster Session blog beat me to the punch! Curses! I thank them and give them all due credit for giving me the key information that allowed me to write this post.

Additional: Bone Girl had similar ideas!

Related posts

More power! The poster with a plug

P.S.—If you end up using ideas in this blog, I certainly wouldn’t object if you added the QR code pictured here somewhere in the corner of your poster.

24 March 2011


Posters are social objects. Their job is to start conversations. But it’s not just the poster itself that can start conversations.

A while ago, Jennifer Rohn wrote:

When you carry a poster tube at the airport, you find yourself bonding with other tubers, exchanging the acronyms of meeting you’re attending

And this is yet another advantage of giving a poster at a conference rather than a talk. Many people agree that the actual presentations at conferences, scientific or otherwise, are not the most valuable parts of the conference.

When you’re on your way to a bigger conference, carrying that poster tube in the airport increases the chances of striking up one of those conversations that you wouldn’t have otherwise.

But if you’re looking at PowerPoint slides on a laptop in an airport waiting lounge, you send almost no signals to any other conference goers that you, like them, are on your way to do science.

When you see someone with a poster tube in the airport, use that opportunity. Ask them, “Are you going to this conference, too?”

Related post

Conversation piece
From printer to posterboard

Photo by IITA Image Library on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

17 March 2011

Stay or go?

The Gripping Cell blog raises a recurring question for poster presenters: Should you stick by your poster as much as possible, or should you see other posters?

When I presented my poster this time, I made the stupid mistake of being present by the poster for only the required duration of 1.5 hrs (every odd numbered poster presenter is required to be present for 1.5 hrs, followed by the even numbered ones for another 1.5 hrs). The reason I bailed out for the other 1.5 hrs was to go see some other posters I was interested in.

What is your strategy for posters sessions?

(Update, 13 April 2011: This post originally had a poll , which has now closed and replaced with the poll results; click to enlarge!)

And, of course, feel free to elaborate in the comments!

Personally, I want the full poster experience. I try to get the poster mounted early, and I try to stand near it almost the entire poster session, and am often one of the last ones out of the hall.

Not everyone shares my enthusiasm, however. Planning is important to get the optimum mix of presentation to viewing time.

Some people scrupulously review poster abstracts in advance, hunting for certain keywords and names. I used to do this a lot, and still do it a bit for big conferences, like Neuroscience.

In general, though, I have developed a much more relaxed planning method for deciding what posters I want to see. For small to medium sized conferences, I walk through the halls outside the scheduled session times, checking out the posters and trying to figure out which ones look interesting, and making mental notes about which ones I should try to get back to later so I ask the presenter questions.

This is something I hope conference organizers are aware of. I hope that they might split topics into two sessions at different times, so that you could see at least half of the posters in your field. It’s a problem for small conferences.

Related posts

Dear conference organizer

Picture by James Cridland on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

10 March 2011

Critique: Texas crayfish

This is a poster I made for the 114th annual meeting of the Texas Academy of Science, which was held last week in Austin, Texas. Though I say it myself, I think it’s one of my best. (As usual, you may click to enlarge.)

I tried yet again to push myself and apply some more of the ideas I’ve talked about here in the blog (oddly, I often write about things before I have a chance to put them into practice).

A compact title; not quite as short as a comic book title, but closer than many.

A big, recognizable picture in the top left as an entry point. This poster also benefited a lot because the whole point of the study was to generate maps. The maps almost act as another entry point, and certainly don’t need a lot of explanation.

The tones in the picture, particularly the clay pots the crayfish is on, helped determine the colour palette for the rest of the poster. It’s carried through the text and the maps. I’m partial to brick red, anyway.

I limited myself to two typefaces; Bernhard Mod for the title and drop caps (which I’d been using as the logo for the Marmorkrebs.org website for some time now), and Gill Sans for the body text. Gill Sans has rapidly become one of my favourite typefaces for posters: it always reads clearly, even some distance away.

One of the more daring ideas I had was to completely get rid of the usual section headings (Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion). I did this almost by accident when I started playing around with the “Drop cap” tool in Publisher, and decided that I liked the result. Upon reflection, I reasoned that the drop caps could signal the different sections as well as using actual headings.

I also took a risk in using uneven columns. I tried to use my preferred format, three equally wide columns, and failed. I created a more complex grid of six columns, and ended up with sections of varying width, but I think it worked well. The strong underlying grid gave structure and regularity to something that could have looked chaotic and unplanned.

I also continued experimenting with putting a light texture in the background. It is still very tricky to find one that does not interfere with the legibility of the text, but this one seemed light enough to be fine.

The only two things that are problems are the thumbnail choropleth maps to the upper right of the large map of Texas. Although the high end of the scale works, the yellow on the low end, which takes up much of the map, is too far from the rest of the colours on the poster. And the legends are too small to read. I was hoping they’d be okay on the full size version (48 inches wide by 42 inches high), but they should be bigger.

This poster is about 85% of the way to what I think an excellent conference poster might look like. And all it took was two years of non-stop blogging to warm up to it. I’m very happy with how this one turned out.


Feria TP, Faulkes Z. Forecasting the distribution of Marmorkrebs, a parthenogenetic crayfish with high invasive potential, in Madagascar, Europe, and North America. Aquatic Invasions 6(1): In press. http://www.aquaticinvasions.net/2011/AI_2011_6_1_Feria_Faulkes_correctedproof.pdf (Preprint)

03 March 2011

Big type, small type

John McWade of Before and After magazine discusses fine-tuning text for large sizes. He even specifically mentions posters!

I haven’t yet found the need to tweak letter spacing as described here. For titles and section headings, it might be worth it. Titles can be very large. Most conferences recommend making your title an inch high (72 points), and I’ve often set them larger (90 or even 120 points).

For the body of the poster, it might not be worth it spending the time fine tuning all the spaces between letters unless you can do it automatically.

Thanks for the tip, John, and allowing me to be a lazy blogger this week.

Speaking of text, I’ll take a second to throw in this link to a post on whether to justify text or not.

01 March 2011

Second anniversary

The second year of this blog has been even better than the first, in many ways. In this last year, the number of visits has about doubled compared to the first. Plus, the second year has seen my most popular post so far (Poster Venn).

Thank you to all who visit, read, comment, and say the occasional nice thing about the blog on Twitter. It helps!

Photo by Daniel-Nelson on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.