02 November 2017

Critique: Life in the cold

Max Showalter had the worst possible poster experience. The thing we all dread. Max wrote:

I recently presented this poster at a large conference and of the thousands of people walking by literally no one stopped to look at my poster. Ignoring that could just be me (I thought I was charming!), could you provide some feedback on what aspects of the poster might be telling people “keep walking”?

Ouch. I feel for you, Max.

What happened? Let’s have a look at Max’s poster, which he gave at the 2017 Association for the Science of Limnology and Oceanography “Aquatic Sciences” meeting. Click to enlarge!

Max’s poster is far from the worst I’ve seen. The layout is clean and the colours are attractive. Why didn’t it find an audience? As journalists say, this poster “buries the lede.” I think the issue is there is no clear entry point.

For starters, the title is maybe a little small, and what it says is not helpful to me. I know what “low temperature” and “taxis” are. But I do not know what a “psychorphile” is.

I don’t recognize the species name. I don’t know if it’s a fish or a flea. It’s a good idea to try to put sort of plain English common name in titles for that reason. In this case, the title might have said, “the marine bacterium Colwellia psychrerythraea.” To make matters worse, the poster switches from the full species name to Cp34h with no warning. If you are glancing at the poster, that is another little obstacle.

The title says what the poster is about, but not what it found. The result numbered “1” give what may have made for a more compelling title: “a new low temperature record for chemotaxis.”

A record? People love records and extremes! I might have just made that phrase alone the title of the poster. Extremes are scientifically interesting, because they tell us about what the limits of possibility are.

The question right below the title helps bring some clarity that the title itself didn’t. But it’s too small, and not high contrast enough. The answer to that question is a block of text that is in a small point size, and stretches all the way across the width of the poster, making it hard to read.

The layout of the three sections of the results is good. But bar graphs are so generic that they don’t help me know what this poster is about.

The iceberg graphic in bottom third is promising. The idea of an infographic is awesome; it just needs refinement to clarify what you are looking at. It is a little unclear that I am supposed to be looking at an iceberg, rather than just a shape.

Finally, the future work section is trying too cram too much stuff in not enough space. Pictures are too close, the type is not laid out consistently (sometimes centered, sometimes not), and boxes overlap boxes.

There may be other ways to clarify and improve this poster, but I think the lack of turnout is due to a failure in the top third of the poster.

Fortunately, Max did have a happier story to tell:

I recently made another conference poster using some tips from your website and won the first place poster prize! Thanks for all the help!

No, Max, thank you. Contributors like you keep this blog alive!

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