26 March 2015

Link roundup for March 2015

It’s hard to ignore an article that claims to have found the “best poster ever made.” It’s below, and you can read more about the approach of author James O’Hanlon here and here. Hat tip to Catherine Scott.

I’ve talked about placeholder text before. Here’s an article about the history of the most common placeholder, lorem ipsum.

19 March 2015

Posters at the front of Science

It’s a little unusual to see posters mentioned in one of the magazines that likes to position itself as a “journal of record,” namely Science. Here’s what editor in chief Marcia McNutt had to say on posters, which should be familiar advice to all readers of this blog.

I encourage students to request a poster presentation at a large meeting. This format can be less stressful than speaking in front of a large audience. Furthermore, the student personally converses with members of the scientific community who share an interest in his or her research. The back-and-forth is good training and a reminder to students that discussing their research with experts or nonexperts should be a two-way conversation. Another advantage of presenting a poster is that the student can tailor the narrative to the interests of whoever stops by, in a Q&A exchange. I recall years ago when a graduate student was disappointed that her research would be described “only” in this format, until one of the giants in her field spent considerable time at her poster to discuss the work. As he left, he said, “I wish I had thought of that.” She was later hired into his department.

To be effective, posters need to be eye-catching as well as informative. In a convention hall lined with poster boards, scientists will bypass those with large blocks of texts and tables of impenetrable numbers. A cartoon that summarizes the model or findings, attractive displays of data, and photos that illustrate the experiment are good ways to grab attention. Creative ways to display pertinent information are a definite plus. I personally like posters that begin with the motivation for the work and end with the findings, areas for follow up, and broader implications of the results.

McNutt goes on to say:

Training the next generation of scientists to communicate well should be a priority.

This statement causes me a little exasperation, because I hear, “We need to train young scientists to...” more often than the chorus of a top 40 pop song.

“We need to train young scientists two write better.”

“We need to train young scientists to talk to the media.”

“We need to train young scientists to do better statistics.”

“We need to train young scientists in ethics.”

“We need to train young scientists in grantsmanship.”

“We need to train young scientists about social media.”

And everyone is convinced that this training is an urgent priority. To borrow a phrase:

I do completely agree with McNutt that the more established faculty have an important role to play here: go the the darn poster sessions. And don’t just chat with your conference buddies!

And researchers attending meetings should take some time to judge a few student papers, visit student posters, or attend student talks.


McNutt M. 2015. It starts with a poster. Science 347(6226): 1047. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aab0014

13 March 2015

Critique: Inexhaustible sediment

Today’s poster comes from Sokratis Papaspyrou. As always, click to get a closer look!

Sokratis notes:

It was designed and made in two days... could be better (always). I used a colour wheel  to select the colours and made use of the “circle draws attention” trick I read in a book and also read in one of your posts.

Sokartis’s deliberate consideration of the use of colours and circles both pay off. Both features work very well. I would have tried making the position of the “callout” circles more consistent. The two left circles just don’t agree on a pattern.

There could be two ways to achieve this. Either you could place them all in the upper right corner:

Or, you could place them all by the margins:

I slightly favour the third of these, but the difference is minor.

The other thing that you might see in my mock-ups above is that I tried to make the blue boxes the same width as the others in the column.

While I’ve stated before that a reader should be able to follow the reading order of a poster without arrows, I don’t mind their use here. I think it’s because apart from the very first transition from the “Premise,” you’re simply moving down the page. The brush strokes used for the arrow bring an nice organic touch.

The only other small thing that comes to mind is to remove the underlining from the headings and author list.

Finally, this poster benefits from simplicity. It has very little text. It has clear highlights in the circles to help browsers through the poster quickly.

Related posts

The eye loves the circle
Don’t hold my hand
Undo the underline

05 March 2015

The Capra principle

At the most recent Oscars, Ben Affleck quoted this man, legendary director Frank Capra:

Capra said:

There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness.

Despite being a bit of a movie nerd (I paid my way through university working mostly as a movie theatre projectionist), I’d never heard this quote before, and love it. And it applies so well to conference posters as well as films.

About the only rule about poster making is that your poster has to fit within the allotted space. Beyond that... you have free reign.

Yes, conference organizers may tell you that you need to have an abstract. An institution may grumble about whether you have the institution’s logo on the paper. But I have yet to hear anyone say that they were stopped from presenting a poster because of such thing. I often joke, “There are no poster police!” or “Let anarchy reign!”

But... as Capra knew, “no rules” does not mean everything is equally good. Some ideas are better than others, or work better in some contexts than others. And like movies, a dull conference poster is – in either the content or the design – is a sin. The good news is that dullness is only a venial sin. You can do your penance by making your next poster better.

Are posters a visual aid, or a stand alone document?

Jason McDermott has an excellent question:

SciTweeps - which camp are you in? The A) “poster as a visual aid to a presentation w/minimal text” or B) “poster as a complete manuscript”?

There are some definition issues here. When I hear “manuscript,” I think that implies a journal article. That, to my mind, is way too detailed and too much stuff. A poster is not be a journal article and should not necessarily follow its conventions.

The other part of option B, though, is “complete.” As I’ve said before, a poster should be self-contained. It should present a complete narrative that does not need a speaker to guide you through it or explain it. A poster should be more than just a billboard or decoration; a poster should have substance.

I am intrigued by the responses. Most responses favoured minimalism.

I prefer (A), but there should be enough text for the reader to understand the results without you being there - Kelsey Wood

A, always A - Auriel Fournier ‏

A. Always! That's the difference between a poster and a journal article. Posters are for work in progress. Publish once done - Matthias Lein

The contrary point of view is interesting, though:

I don’t want your song-and-dance routine, I want your data; plus, what if you're not there when I am? - Bill Hooker

90% A, 10% B. (Some things really need text.) - Chemjobber

Depends on venue. If you never leave poster, A. Otherwise, needs enough B for people to critically evaluate. - Peter Thompson

Noah wanted to dig deeper:

Can’t we split the difference? C) "poster as cues to provoke interesting questions, answer boring ones."

And from there the conversation went all Game of Thrones:

We already suffer about as much carnage as G.R.R. Martin’s characters - and about as much job security. - Jason McDermott

“The red conference” - noah ‏

Book 1: “A trial of tenure.” Book 2: “A lack of funding” - Francois Gould

Related posts


Picture by char booth on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.