14 September 2018

Critique: Keep the home fire burning

Today’s contribution is a prize-winning poster from Alexandra Lai! This was presented at the International Aerosol Conference. Click to enlarge!

Poster: Chamical composition of cookstove emissions

The title bar is particularly well done. It’s an excellent example of a clear visual hierarchy: the title is biggest and in bold. A subtitle is big, but not bold. The authors are smaller, and the affiliations are smaller yet. And the type is fits the space, so there isn’t a lot of empty space on the right corner.

The colour scheme is a little busy, but generally works. The main oranges in the title and callout boxes and blue in the background are contrast colours. The colurs in the graphs might benefit from being a little more harmonized with the two main colours. Some of the greens and pinks don’t seem to fit that well.

Alexnadra has done a good job with the typography here. The font is clean, the emphasis is clear, and the table is not a mess of lines. In the Methods, I might like to see fewer words, but the words are set out in a very readable way.

The main body of the poster has a generally good foundation, but creating a grid and aligning objects would have improved the poster dramatically.

Poster: Commented version of "Chamical composition of cookstove emissions"

The graphs in the upper right need the most reworking. A reader has to do too much zigzagging in that section to read everything. There are two problems.

First, the graphs are not arranged in any sensible way. There are six graphs there. Either laying them out as two rows of three, or three rows of two graphs would have helped.

Second, and possibly worse, is that the figure legends to the graphs are pretty much in every place they could possibly be. Sometimes, there is a big description on top and a legend underneath. Sometimes both are on the left of the graph. Sometimes both are on the right of the graph. Pick one and commit to it!

Of course, another solution would be to cut down the number of graphs. Alexandra wrote:

I realized as I was presenting it that I only had time to discuss about half the plots, but otherwise I’m pretty happy with how it turned out.

As Alexandra should be!

06 September 2018

Posters are like muffins

Posters are like muffins.

The top is so much better than the bottom.

In muffins, the top is better because of the wonders of caramelization, and because that’s where it’s the easiest to put on ingredients like chocolate chips, glaze, fruit peeling, cream cheese, or what have you.

The bottom of muffins are just okay in comparison.

It’s not surprising that there are many products that are designed to give people only the delicious muffin tops and not the less appetizing muffin stumps.

In posters, the top half is better because it’s sitting at or above eye level. The title is above eye level, which is important because it moves the title above most people’s heads so it can be seen from a long way away. The space underneath the title sits right around typical eye levels, and that’s where people look the most.

Put as much of the good stuff on your poster in that top half. Your big, important question, hypothesis, or prediction. Your sexist, biggest result. Your bold interpretation or conclusion.

05 September 2018

#SICB2019 poster class plan

Wordmark for Society for Intengrative and Comparative Biology
Besides writing this blog, I am currently the chair of the Student and Postdoctoral Affairs Committee (SPDAC) for the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB).

Today was the abstract deadline for the next meeting in January 2019 in Tampa, Florida. Did you put in a poster abstract?

If you did, I want to help! I am planning on doing a short online class to have SICB students and post-docs make posters that rock.

If you are interested in taking a short online class to improve your poster for the Tampa meeting, click here to go to a form! I need to judge interest so I can plan on the best way of making the class happen.

Please reply by 1 November 2019!

External links

Information form for SICB poster class planning

30 August 2018

Link roundup for August 2018

Mike Pacchione at Duarte Design talks about how my wife created a powerful professional poster. Mike writes:

Let’s summarize so you can apply this to your work, whether it’s a poster, slides or something else:

  1. Figure out the story you’re trying to tell. You need to be able to do that in a short sentence, two at most. (The ABT template is helpful here. - ZF)
  2. Write down everything you know about the topic, then remove anything that does not directly help tell the story you’re trying to tell. (Writing down everything could take a while. Maybe just continually ask, “Do I need this?” - ZF)
  3. Group your content together.
  4. Use visuals to express those groups.
  5. Make sure there’s enough white space.

And here’s the makeover! Click to enlarge.

Duarte Design doesn’t date their blog posts, so I’m not sure how late I am to the game on this one.

• • • • •

A big guide to tools to help you use colour effectively in data visualization. An update of an older post. Hat tip to Lisa Roust and Janet Stemwedel.

I also liked this link out to this page praising grey for visualization.

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Don’t be a ghost. Craig Maclean reminds everyone that if you’re not going to show up at a conference, inform the organizers.

So for someone to ‘waste’ a presentation slot by simply not turning up, you are being unthinking towards colleagues as well as the meeting organizers.

• • • • •

Are conferences worth is? This paper suggests yes:

he results of our study suggest that the annual symposium encouraged interactions among disparate scientists and increased research productivity, exemplifying the positive effect of scientific meetings on both collaboration and progress.

23 August 2018

Poster sessions are not singles bars

Today in, “Things I should not have to say.”

A poster session is a place for exchange of scientific and technical information between professional adults. It is not a place for you to hit on people for a hook up or booty call.

Beth Ann McLaughlin asked:

Women of STEM,
Quick question
At any given science poster presentation, what percent of the time do you have a man at your poster who just won't go away and makes you uncomfortable?

Results? 16% of women said every conference, 14% said 50-99% of them, 19% said 25-49% of them, and 51% of respondents said less than 25% of them.

Now, sure I could niggle about the poll is structured might inflate perceptions of how common this is (there’s an option for 100%, but not 0%, so the most common situation could be women not getting bothered), but even if every one of that 51% was really never, that still means that half of women poster presenters had a bad experience. And that’s unacceptable.

And reading the replies to that poll is not fun. (Some tweets lightly edited.)

Bryony Hockin describes:

(A) PhD student who comes to my poster at every single local conference for 30+ minutes, putting off everyone else and freaking me out. Some of his highlights include, “I like your dress.” I now get male friends to look out for him and warn me.

Kimberly Harrison says:

My fav was the time the fella didn’t ask any questions about my work, but did let me know he saw me swimming at the hotel pool earlier.

kss wrote:

I have been hit on at my poster, asked on countless dates, and even followed after a session when I went to a bar to meet up with friend.

Sarah MacNamee wrote:

(A) guy spent 10+ min at poster, complimented work, asked if he could call me. My reply: “Uhh, email is the preferred method of contact.” Looked down and was alarmed to see my number going into his phone - he lifted it from my poster tube’s “If found call” info.

Meaghan Creed wrote:

First SfN had a significantly older guy spend half an hour at my poster, no background in my field (i.e., asked what the words in the title meant, and what the differences between flies and rodents are). Kept touching my back/shoulder and would not move on until he took a photo with me. Still... bleh.

Sarah Sheffield wrote:

Yeesh. Happened to me once, long time ago. Called me sweetheart, while trying to show me he knew more about stats than me. Leered for an excessive amount of time. Blegh.

The thread exposes other problems besides people trying to get a date, too. Tara Levin wrote:

More common poster-related sexism for me: I go to someone's poster and ask a question, but am 1) ignored or 2) the presenter directs the answer to my question to the man standing next to me

Angela Tringali was not alone in this sentiment:

I gave a poster presentation once as a new grad student 10 years ago and haven’t done one since. Never again.

Florentina Tofoleanu wrote:

It happened enough times that I chose what conferences to go to depending on whether I got a talk, presenting a poster was not an option.

This makes me sad and angry. I love poster sessions. As I’ve written before, I think they are the true beating heart of a scientific conference. It’s frustrating that something that has been so rewarding for me personally is an experience that has driven others away.


Men in Science,

Over 1100 women in STEM reported that they have been made to feel uncomfortable by a man who won't leave their poster 25%-100% of the time they present.

16% of women say this happens to them at every conference.

What are you going to do about it?

Conference organizers: Make sure you have a code of conduct. I’ve seen the adoption and refinement process of this first hand in the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology. I know it’s a lot for a small conference to do, but templates exist out there.

I am seriously wondering if conference organizers should have poster session bouncers.

I think I have only seen visible security at the biggest meetings I have been at. Maybe conference organizers need to put more thought into asking what venue security there is, and advertising that fact more widely to conference attendees.

Faculty supervisors: You are responsible for the well bring and professional experience of your students. Don’t send new students to a poster session without a plan. Make sure the poster presenter has a contact number of people they can text if they want someone to come support them. There might be posters you want to see or people you want to talk to or grants you want to write back in your room, but make sure that you are in the poster hall when your student is and check in on them occasionally.

Check in with your students and walk by their poster regularly if you are not co-presenting it with your students. Ask your students if they want you to take over presenting the poster. Beth Ann McLaughlin recommends having a code for trouble, like asking the poster presenter if they need a red Sharpie. If they say yes, they want help.

If you are not able to go to the conference, at least talk to your students who are going. Make sure they are aware before they head to the conference. You, as supervisor, might know someone else going to the conference who can act as a “conference buddy.”

Be willing to call this crappy behaviour out for what it is, as McLaughlin does:

Physically get between the woman and the man, get his name off his badge and say, “Hey . I see you’re at UW. You’ve been here awhile. What do you need?” Smile. If he says they are “just chatting,” I’ll next level it. “Let’s not creep on my student. She’s working.”

Fellow post session attendees: Two things. First, look out for other presenters. Suzy Styles wrote:

If you see a presenter looking blocked or trapped, join the conversation to give them an ‘out.’


Don’t be that guy.

Nobody likes that guy.

Additional, 24 August 2018: Perhaps because I chose the “singles bar” metaphor in the title, several people on Twitter suggested that having alcohol during poster sessions contributed to harassment. I’m not a drinker myself, and have commented to some of the societies I belong to about boasting about alcohol consumption, but I think it makes about as much sense to blame alcohol for harassment as as it does to blame Ambien for racism.

I suspect conferences are problematic partially because people are outside their normal social spheres. They can convince themselves that, “What happens at the conference, stays at the conference.” They are away from people who might normally see their bad behaviour, and think they can act without repercussions.

McLaughlin’s poll was directed at women who had bad experiences with men, which are undoubtedly the most common problem. But it’s important to talk about these issues with everyone. Men and women. Presenters and attendees. This shouldn’t be a situation where men and women get different advice (i.e., women are told how to protect themselves and men are told to keep their hands to themselves). Discomfort isn’t just caused by someone doing something sexual or creepy. It can be someone who just won’t shut up or go away. Presenters who are men can be made uncomfortable by people who are trying to intimidate or bully them. Every poster presenter should feel someone has their back if they need it.

Similarly, supervisors should talk to all their students about being a good audience member at poster and how to avoid making someone feel uncomfortable. For example, at international conferences, people from different cultures may well have different expectations and habits about professional interactions and personal space. Some cultures are more comfortable with a handshake or “air kiss” than others.

09 August 2018

Critique and makeover: Bird timing

Today’s poster comes courtesy of contributor Carolyn Bauer. Her work has been featured before, and I’m pleased she liked the experience enough to come back for seconds! Click to enlarge this poster that was recently presented at the International Congress of Neuroendocrinology!

I like this. The illustration on the right is an approachable entry point. I also like the columns, one for each hypothesis.

What I wasn’t as crazy about was the title area. Two lines for the title and three for the authors was chewing up a lot of space than it needed. I changed the all capital names to regular letters, and dropped a lot of department affiliations and cities that I honestly think nobody cares about.

Some of my other revisions were my most common ones: to open up the margins, both around the border and between elements. In the revision below, there’s at least an inch around the edge.

I continued along with a few other changes. One of the things that bugged me was the birds are all facing to the right in the infographic... except one. So that bird got flipped! There were some other minor little movements to get the birds more in alignment in a column, too.

I also made a few little edits to the text to make the capitalization of the labels consistent. I tried a more condensed font and some light editing to make some of the labels fit the space a little better.

After those changes on the top and left, I still think the right side could use some improvement, but I’m not sure how. The “Hypothalamus / Pituitary / Gonads” labels essentially stick out into a margin between columns where nothing else is, and the look terribly intrusive. I’m not sure how to fix that. I might try rotating the words 90°.

Here are the changes in animated form:

Related posts

Critique and makeover: Migrating birds

You have options for numbers (PowerPoint users need not apply)

If you must  have a table on your poster, look into what options you have for your numbers. Many fonts have number variants.

Proportional numbers have skinny numbers (e.g., 1) and wide numbers (e.g., 0). Two numbers differ in width depending on what numbers they have. But tabular numbers are all the same width. So decimal places and dividers will line up if the numbers are lined up, as they are in a table.

If you have a table, it only makes sense to use tabular numbers if you can. They are explicitly designed to make your tables more readable! But tabular numbers will only do so if you follow a couple of other good practices:

  • Make your numbers right aligned.
  • Use the same number of decimal places in each column.

You may also find a couple of other options. numbers can be either lining numbers (all the same height) or oldstyle (with ascenders and descenders, like upper and lower-case letters). That means you have four options for many fonts.

In Microsoft Office, these options are sometimes buried. In Word, open Fonts and then look under the Advanced tab. In some Office components, number options are flat out unavailable. I’m looking at you, PowerPoint! The image in this post is a PowerPoint slide, but the numbers were made in a different graphics program (CorelDraw), exported to a WMF file, and then imported into PowerPoint.

To make things more confusing, which numbers a font shows by default are not standard. In the sample above, Corbel uses proportional numbers as its default, while Times New Roman uses tabular numbers as its default.

External links

Web typography: Designing tables to be read, not looked at.
Design better data tables

02 August 2018

Critique: Alfree

Andrzej Zielezinski‏ was proud of this poster, made entirely in the freeware package Inkscape. Impressive to me, because I struggled with Inkscape. Click to enlarge!

One of the most interesting aspects of the poster is the diagrams on the diagonal. As Ellen Lupton notes in the book How Posters Work, many great posters use diagonals to bring action and life into a design. Here’s how Andrzej did it:

I drew all 5 main elements (home page, 2 diagrams, ROC curves and navigation) in 2D. The image showing a guy on the mountain was also pasted in 2D. Then I skewed each element -63* horizontally and -27* vertically (Inkscape menu - Object - Transform - Skew). Shadows are just skewed and black rectangulars with some transparency (RGBA: 42424248) and blur set to 2.7.

An issue with that diagonal, though, is that because the figure reaches up into the upper right corner, the title can’t reach over into that space. So the title seems a little small to me. And when the title is 90% of your communication effort...

But this does a great job of making the images strong focal points that if the title was bigger, it would weaken the figure. It might be a case of swings and roundabouts: you might be able to make those two things different, but not necessarily better. Andrzej agreed:

You perfectly pointed the issue with the small title. I spent very long time trying different font sizes and locations of the title. At the beginning the title was larger and reached almost the right corner. But it seemed not right to me, so I decided to justify the text.

The bold heading for each callout works well, and the difference between the heading and paragraph under it is strong and clearly distinguishes the two. But the main text of the callouts use a very lightweight type and fades away slightly. I’m wondering if the weight on the callout text could be just one step heavier to make it a little more visible from a distance. But this is the sort of thing that I can only guess at. If the callout text was heavier, it might mess up the nice contrast between the heading and the text below. Again, Andrzej and I are on the same page:

I also had many trials with the weight of the text in abstract. I started with heavy font, but as you noticed, I was loosing the contrast between the text and the heading. Also, a less heavier font seemed somehow more elegant to me.

Another little detail I like is that this is one of the few times I’ve seen some text right justified, with the left edges ragged.

I like that the background isn’t perfectly white.

The QR codes and logo are not only placed unobtrusively in the bottom, but they are perfectly aligned and distributed. It helps that the funding agency logo is square, like the QR codes.

26 July 2018

Link roundup for July, 2018

Paul Frankland compares the electronic poster session to the traditional paper poster session at the 11th Federation Of European Neuroscience Societies (FENS) Forum of Neuroscience. Here are electronic posters:

And here are the paper posters:

I think this may be a “attendance vortex.” If the number of e-posters is small, there will be few people browsing no matter how good the posters are. People will go where there are people, which reinforces the poor attendance.

Electronic posters were courtesy Morressier, according to Gemma.

• • • • •

You are going to have to click through to see the video of this poster from the lab of Prosanta Chakrabarty. It... spins. Like Wheel of Fortune spins. This serves no communicative purpose. But it is fun.

Hat tip to Tidepool Ann.

• • • • •

The littlest poster presenter, at the International Congress for Neuroethology.

Courtesy of Dr. Paloma.
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Dr. Petra has a Twitter thread about taking pictures at conferences. While it’s mostly about photographing oral presentations, much of it applies to poster presenters, too. (Lightly edited.)

As it's conference season I'm seeing loads of pics of people presenting. Some are really great, but often the photos are shocking - blurring, bad angles, massively unflattering pics of presenters and slides you can't make out (but are encouraged to read). So here are some tips about photographing and sharing conferences/presentations/events. ...

  1. If you’re going to take pics, ask if people are okay with this. They may be, but they may not (and it’s not your business to question this).
  2. Even if they are okay with being photographed, check they’re also okay with that being shared on social media. And if their slides or any aspect of their presentation identifies others (patients or participants, etc), either don’t photograph or don’t show this aspect.
  3. Remember not to interrupt or otherwise get in the way of someone’s talk because you want to film or photograph it. Audience members may struggle to follow if you’re in the way.
  4. Really liked a speaker or slide? Want to promote yourself or a friend? If time allows, ask them to pose by said slide(s) at close of talk. Chairs? Allow time for this during questions. This also means you can take a few snaps to ensure the photo is good quality.
  5. If you’ve taken a pic of someone presenting, look at it and imagine it was of you and was about to be shared across social media. If you wouldn't be happy with a grotty image of yourself going out, don’t do it to someone else.
  6. So yes, appearance shouldn’t matter, but unfortunately in may ways it does. Which means if you're okay to be photographed, it might be worth checking you’re happy with how you look from all angles. (Trust me. I’ve learned the hard way on this.)
  7. This also applies to your slides, posters, etc. They’re not just there to appeal or be accessible to your immediate audience. If you’re okay with being filmed or photographed, they also need to translate to folk who're not present. (You can do this, by the way! It’s just a shift in focus)
  8. Again, if you're photographing people's work and you want others to see it (and you’re sure that's okay), then take a few snaps so you can pick the most clear, accessible, or understandable one (and annotate or explain if context is needed).
  9. If, after you’ve shared an image the presenter asks you to remove it, do them a solid and take it down. They may have very good reasons (including personal safety or safeguarding participants) for this to happen.
  10. Also, don’t be a conference creep. Seen other delegates at dinner, the conference disco or some other venue? Don’t sneakily snap and share. Certainly don’t snap, share and shame.

• • • • •

Posters will be getting their own museum next year: Poster House. But it already has some cool online stories, including this one about how the Woodstock was made.

• • • • •

Nominee for best poster title: “wtf causes aneuploidy”. (Pretty sure wtf is a gene or protein.) Hat tip to Ethan Perlstein.

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Rock on Doctor Freeride:

If you're a senior(ish) academic who wishes there was more space for new voices at your professional conferences, consider submitting your own research to the poster session rather than as a talk.

• • • • •

I blundered across this stirring defense of typography on Project Gutenberg:

(Typography) is Noble... because it is the nurse and preserver of all other arts and sciences; and is unquestionably the most important as well as the most beneficial invention the world has ever seen. It is the disseminator of every other discovery; the commemorator of all other inventions: it hands down to posterity every important event; immortalizes the actions of the great and good; and requires, moreover, in all who would thoroughly excel in its practice, the highest attainable combination of mental alacrity, educated intelligence, and expert manual dexterity.

I almost wanted to applaud when I read this. By William Skeen in 1872.

25 July 2018

A T-shirt tangent

If I may be permitted a moment of self-indulgence, I would like to share this:

This is a T-shirt design I entered into a contest for the International Association of Astacology. And it won!

  • First place: “Astacus fluviatilis” by Zen Faulkes
  • Second place: “Euastacus,” front and back design by Premek Hamr
  • Third place: “Astacolic” by Alexa Ballinger

I can now say the Better Posters blog is written and curated by an award-winning graphic designer.  😉

Over at the NeuroDojo blog, I wrote about the design of the shirt, other designs I made that I like even more but that didn’t win, and my newfound admiration for Rösel von Rosenhof.

External links

Crayfish clothing contest conqueror!

19 July 2018

Critique: The eyes have it – as inspired by xkcd

Adam Stone was kind enough to share this poster from the Third International Conference on Sign Language Acquisition in Istanbul, Turkey. You’ll definitely want to click to enlarge this one!

This is the second comics-inspired poster in as many month (the first was here). I was a little caught off guard when I read there was a connection between them, as Adam explained:

I was inspired by this tweet by my colleague who saw a comic-inspired poster at LREC.

So this poster is a direct descendant of the one featured on the blog last month!

Adam continues with how he made the poster (lightly edited).

I love xkcd so I went with that. I used vectormagic.com to vectorize the stick figures so I could resize them easily. It’ll be nice to have a graphics tablet to draw more fine-tuned artwork instead of hacking it out in PowerPoint.

I added eyes to them because my postdoc supervisor and co-author Rain said, “These are deaf people, right? And it’s about eye tracking, so the characters should have eyes!” And I’m glad we did that.
 With a comic-inspired poster, you really need to get the comic panels/storyboard locked down first, then do the artwork second. I made an entire draft of the poster, complete with text and artwork. But then we had to make many not-trivial revisions to it, which was painful after all the time I had already put into it. Lesson learned!

The response to it has been phenomenal. Infant and child language/education advocates want to hang the posters in their offices/waiting rooms, and others have proclaimed that all scientific posters should be produced in comic format.

While there's room for all types of expression in science publications, I think comic-inspired posters do well in making scientific discoveries accessible to the public. Just look at xkcd or PhD Comics or many of the other science comics out there!

This poster is another great example of the power of pastiche. If you can find something that you like, design wise, imitating aspects of it helps prevent complete disaster. You’re not starting from scratch, and you have to pay attention to what are the design elements that make the thing recognizable. Even if don’t follow it perfectly, and find that sometimes, you just gotta add eyes to stick figures.

12 July 2018

What your graph palette says about you

Errant Science is on form again:

I loved this, but I thought it didn’t include options I see surprisingly often, at least for bar graphs. Click to enlarge!

Hat tip to Justin Kiggins.

05 July 2018

When white space makes you well up

Last Thursday, there was a shooting in the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland.

On Friday, the Gazette put out a damn paper, and ran this as its editorial page.

Capital Gazette editorial: Today, we are speechless. This page is intentionally left blank today to commemorate victims of Thursday’s shooting in our office.

Today, we are speechless. This page is intentionally left blank today to commemorate victims of Thursday’s shooting in our office.

I nearly cried looking at this. What gives it power is not just the words. It’s the space around the words.

Imagine if that powerful statement had appeared like this:

There’s no impact at all.

I’m always telling people, “Don’t fill up your poster! You don’t need to cover every inch with stuff!” This is the kind of stuff I’m talking about.

28 June 2018

Link roundup for July, 2018

Starting off this month with a “Done in one” advice article on poster design by Tullio Rossi. I disagree with a few very minor points (bullet points are not your friend), but overall very good!

Hat tip to Anna Clemens.

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A five tweet thread from Tolpa Studies from the recent Twitter conference, #BTCon18, about visual literacy.

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This guide on making graphs more readable is very good. One of the key things in this graph makeover and why it works is the designer listened to what the scientists said about it. They used the expertise to defined the graph’s “talking points”, so to speak.

Hat tip to Garr Reynolds.

 • • • • •

I recommend against tables on posters almost always. But if you must have a table, make it a nice table. This is a nice animated makeover of a table by Joey Cherderchuk from Dark Horse Analytics.

Hat tip to Catherine Crompton

 • • • • •

Picture in Portal is a course for making scientific graphics. Hat tip to B. Haas.

  • • • • •

Lauren Oldach invites us to look and contribute lab logos in this Twitter thread.

  • • • • •

Julia Jones liked this poster:

I like the simplicity, but I am not a fan of how I have to read the poster in a reverse “S” pattern.

 • • • • •

Richard McElreath shared this lo-fi poster, saying:

In a world of look-alike LaTeX conference posters, the hand-written manifesto gets my eyes every time.

Hat tip to Jarrett Byrnes.

 • • • • •

Tom Patterson describes a situation where text is preferable to graphics.

My boss recently asked me to design a symbol for Clothing Optional Beach, a challenge that I gleefully accepted. But I couldn’t come up with a clear and tasteful solution. In this case, conveying the message with text worked best. It also kept me out of trouble.

Hat tip to NeuroPolarBear.

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A Twitter thread about posters on screens versus posters on paper, particularly with regards to the issue of waste. Andrew Pruszynski calls screens:

Massive environmental burden for effectively no gain.

The thread is lively. Hat tip to Justin Kiggins.

 • • • • •

Another poster that appeared in my Twitter timeline, by Adam Stone. It’s an excellent pastiche of a favourite science web comic. Click to enlarge!

Hat tip to Lorna Quandt.

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You normally have to submit an abstract when you register for a poster. Hilda Bastian has tip for how to write a good abstract.

 • • • • •

The only good way to do 3D charts.

Hat tip to Hadley Wickham.

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How to make a colour palette in R. Hat tip to Flo Débarre and Meghan Duffy.

 • • • • •

I made one.

21 June 2018

Critique: Sciencing on eggshells

A colleague of mine was at the 9th Bird Working Group Meeting, The archaeology of human-bird interactions. He snapped a pic of a poster by Beatrice Demarchi which he thought would interest me. It did. I contacted Bea... who thought I was punking her.

I almost binned the message thinking that it was a joke then I figured that it must have been real as not many people know about the Bird Working Group! :)

She was nice enough to send along a better version of the poster. Click to enlarge!

I love the clarity and simplicity of vision here. I love how text and visuals, instead of being two separate elements, are fused into one element. The words are the picture.

I was impressed, because I had tried to design something similar – text forming the outline of a shape – for a t-shirt. I was not able to make the text fit the shape anywhere near as well as Bea did. She explained how she did it (lightly edited):

I popped an image of the bird into Adobe Illustrator, and then text that sort of stopped at the boundaries of the image. I then deleted the image below and voila! It took me 30-40 minutes, plus a bit of tinkering, which is precisely why I resorted to this type of presentation. I had no time!

As they say, necessity is the mother of invention, and constraints are a friend to creativity.
 I can see how the horizontal lines of text would be easy to fit the outline. The last curving line forming the auk’s chest might have been a little more challenging if you were starting from scratch. It would probably be quick if you fit text to paths all the time.

I suppose if I am being a typographic and editorial purist, I might grumble that the text could be hyphenated. But the lines are so short, and the outline so unusual, and not surrounded by any other nearby text blocks, that I can live without hyphens. Just this once.

External links

9th Bird Working Group Meeting, The archaeology of human-bird interactions.

14 June 2018

Critique: Future work

Today’s poster is contributed by Bayo Adeniji. Click to enlarge!

Bayo wrote (lightly edited):

Can you spot the influence of the Better Posters blog in the poster?

I hoped to create a poster that was uncluttered and which had a clear message devoid of management theory jargon. My PhD is multi-disciplinary, and I’m learning to straddle the divide so I don’t alienate either fields. My worry though, is the issue of oversimplification.

I replied:

I think “oversimplification” is a worry too many people have. It's the kind of thing that makes undergraduates reach for a thesaurus when writing essays, n the mistaken belief longer, rarer words make them sound smarter. They are judged less intelligent by readers when they do that. Simple does not mean stupid.

While Bayo was nice enough to say this blog influenced the poster, I never would have made a poster that looks like this. It’s very much Bayo’s own creation. I’ve talked before about using circles to break up the monotony of rectangles, and using a few intense colours to make a bold aesthetic. There is no obsession filling of every inch of the poster.

I would think about how to change the width of the “Background” text. The first five lines that make up the bulk of the text have an average of 22.8 words in them, which is about double what typesetters usually aim for.

So if it’s twice as wide as what you would normally read, there is one thing to try: chop it into two pieces.

Because you need a margin between the two columns, you will either have to use up a little more vertical space, or make the point size slightly smaller.

And if I had the ability, I would try to make the text in the circles circular to avoid that “bubble pop” feeling.

Bayo got back to me about the response.

The feedback about the poster was also quite interesting. The designers seemed to like it, and a few even took pictures. But the manufacturing engineers, not so much. My second supervisor, who is from an engineering department, said my non-use of pictures, bold colours and technically worded title is the reason (ha!). One good thing though, is that the university’s Deputy-Vice Chancellor of Research was there, and he loved it!

As the saying goes, you can please all of the people some of the time, and please some of the people all of the time, but you can't please all the people all the time!

Related posts

Coming round the corner

08 June 2018

Critique: Hansard

Asad Sayeed nominated this poster for a design award. You really need to click to enlarge this one to appreciate it:

You can see it in pieces in first author Gavin Abercrombie’s Twitter feed.

“Lessons from comics” is something of a recurring theme on this blog. And I’ve featured posters that used the vocabulary of comics before, but this might be one of the best examples I’ve seen.

The poster makes the “row by row” reading order clear because the panel heights are all identical, so there is a straight horizontal gutter marking out each row. The panel widths vary, so there is no white gutter running down the page that suggests “columns” to your eyes.

The one area where I would try a few things differently is the title. I’d use one typeface for the title instead of two. The two styles are just similar enough that the combination looks like it could be a mistake instead of a choice. I’d also like to see the looser, freehand style used through the rest of the poster reflected in the title, too. The generic Arial-style type used for the “‘Aye’ or ‘No’?” line looks uncomfortable and out of place with everything else on the poster. I think the same font is used for the author credit, but that is less noticeable and bothersome because it is so small.

I reached out to Gavin about the making of the poster. He wrote (lightly edited):

This was the third poster I have made. For the previous two, I had focused on trying to use as few words as possible on the page (bearing in mind that language and text are the object of my research).

This time, I had the idea that comics might be a great medium for scientific posters. Comics comprise image driven communication of ideas with a fairly limited use of text to help tell the story, and they also naturally focus on the narrative – which is generally a good move for science communication.

I used mainly Adobe Illustrator and a little Photoshop. Here’s the process I used:

  1. I made a list of comic cells based on the key points I wanted to make, and wrote the text content for each cell.
  2. I sketched out rough storyboard.
  3. I laid out titles and story cells in Illustrator.
  4. I drew images in Illustrator, mainly using the shape, line, pen and fill tools. The only exception is the second cell image, which is a photo altered in Adobe Photoshop using the color halftone filter.
  5. I created speech bubbles and narration boxes, and added text using fonts I found on Google Fonts.

All in all, it was quite a lot of work, but this is a three-year PhD project, so I anticipate being able to reuse quite a lot of this for future presentations.

Hat tip to Mary Ellen Foster.

External links

Google Fonts FAQ (How to download fonts is not obvious)

Related posts

Learning from Superman
Scott McCloud’s “Big triangle” and poster design
Critique: Protein biosynthesis
Don’t hold my handCritique and makeover: Captain Canuck

31 May 2018

Coming round the corner

Regular readers will know of my distaste for boxes around things on posters. But that’s doubled for boxes with round corners.

There is a “square peg in a round hole” problem. Blocks of text typically “want” to be rectangular. The corners of the rectangle implied by the text fight with the round corners of the box.

Most graphs want to be rectangular, too. And most photographs.

PowerPoint has some sort of algorithm that rounds the corners more for bigger boxes. So if your boxes are different sizes – which they almost always are on posters – your corners are going to be rounded off by different amounts. Click to enlarge!

You can fix this tweaking the corners by hand. There’s a yellow dot near one corner of the box that you can drag to make the corner more or less rounded. The problem is that to do this, you have to recognize it as a problem!

24 May 2018

Link roundup for May, 2018

Poster season has started, so we have people tweeting the coolest ones. Here is one by Alison Wardlow:

She starts with a blank page, then draws the poster while explaining her theory. Bold move. And people told me it couldn’t be done when I suggested this years ago! Hat tip to Nancy Chen and Emily Austen. and B. Haas.

• • • • • •

The biggest debate in typography rears its ugly head again. One space or two after a period? I’ll save you a click.
  • The effects are small – at best.
  • The study was done with a monospaced font, which you rarely see any more. It may not apply to most typefaces you will see.

• • • • • •

Confession: I’ve been interested in conference badges since I read this article about them in American Scientist. I keep scans of my badges from meetings I’ve been to.

So I was interested in this website, which does for conference badges what this blog tries to do for posters (though it doesn’t seem to be updated). It sprung out of this post on how to make a better conference badge. Hat tip to Michael Hoffman.

• • • • • •

Vintage IBM posters from the 1970s.

The posters were a creative outlet for imaginative minds working in a corporate job. Even projects that were clearly made for internal use only – like a Family Day at the local fair grounds – became artistic experimentation.

So much Helvetica. Hat tip to Doctor Becca.

17 May 2018

Fighting the fade

I get emails! Yesterday, I got email asking, “How can I stop posters from fading over time?” I’ve touched on this in the blog briefly, but did a little more digging.

I remembered from working with people who supervised our departmental plotter printers was that there were different inks available for the printer. Some were billed as more fade resistant than others.

But I quickly found the situation is more complicated than that, based on this page about consumer inkjet printers. The printer manufacturer and the paper and the ink are all important variables in determining fade resistance.

To start, there are various paper types. Microporous paper is more fade resistant that cast coated paper. Matte paper holds colour longer than glossy paper, according to this page.Which, again, is a trade off. Personally, I think glossy finishes looks sharper and better than matte finishes in the short term.

Ink types also come in a few different varieties. This page divided inks into dye- and pigment-based inks (pigment being more fade-resistant, because the colour comes from solid particles). This one further subdivided inks into water- and solvent- based (solvent being more fade-resistant). The trade off is that dye-based inks are brighter and look better in the short term. And there are even more types of inks.

To make matters worse, there is controversy about how to compare the longevity of printed materials. “Archival” is an advertising term that has no particular meaning consumers can rely on.

One independent testing agency, Wilhelm Imaging Research, as been working on these issues since at least 1998. A quick visit to their website is... not a quick visit to their website. There is a lot of material on their website, and it’s not organized in such a way you can quickly dip your toe in and grab some answers. It’s clearly a deep and ongoing issue.

Even knowing all of this, however, may not be information that the average conference goer can leverage for their own use. If you print in your department, the choice of printer, paper, and ink may not be up to you. Someone else probably handles purchasing and isn’t necessarily concerned about whether someone’s poster meets archival standards or not. If you are working with a commercial printer, the options they present to their customers might be limited.

The amount of fading can be reduced if you cover the poster. You might use some sort of lamination. You could frame your poster, but that will probably cost a lot more than the poster is worth.

There is only one partial solution for fading that I know: put up your poster someplace with dim light. That's why museums and art galleries are often dimly lit. If there’s no light, there’s no fading.

I know that’s not very helpful. Curse you, physics.

Related posts

Fade out

External links

Inkjet print longevity
Wilhelm Imaging Research

10 May 2018

Critique: Not following protocol

Today’s poster is courtesy of Catherine Chen. Click to enlarge!

The “Background” section is good, because it explains a lot in very little space. I was confused by the “Key Points” until I read the “Background.” I would take those “Key Points” and replace the “Conclusions” with them.

Eight “Future Directions” seemed like a lot. When I read them in detail, two points stood out as candidates for editing: the ones written in past tense. “A screening questionnaire has been added” is not a direction for the future. It’s done.It’s done and dusted.

This combination of typeface and subject runs into a kerning problem. Look at the word “CIWA” in the title.

There’s a bigger gap between the “W” and “A” than the other letters. This is something typesetters know about and watch for. “A” and “V” is another combination where this is a problem. It’s not as bad in the main text, because the point size is smaller, so the gap is less noticeable. But ideally, they should be closer together.“Tight but not touching” is a common typesetter’s instruction.

Always look at common words in your text when selecting a typeface.

Catherine did her poster in PowerPoint. In PowerPoint, this can be fixed by selecting two letters, going into “Home” tab on the ribbon, then the “Font,” pop-up menu, the “Character Spacing” tab, picking “Condensed” from the drop down menu, and fiddling a bit.

If possible, it would be great if you could get those middle charts all aligned horizontally. In particular, the rightmost “Nursing survey” pie chart, the circle sits noticeably lower than the other three pies. It’s distracting. Same with the two bar graphs underneath. They’re so similar in shape and colour that it draws your attention to one being higher than the other.

I wasn’t able to do much with the middle graphs, which would require going back to the original plots, but I tried tidying up the outer columns and title, and all the kerning issues with “CIWA.”

03 May 2018

Critique: Generic python

Today’s poster is from Leonardo Uieda. This was presented at the American Geophysical Union fall meeting last year. Click to enlarge!

A modern Python interface for generic mapping tools

Leonardo explains:

It’s about a software project I’m working on and not really about research results. That’s why it has no results figures (though the background of the poster was generated by the first code block on the right, so it serves as a kind of result).

The message I was trying to get across is: “We’re building this thing. This is what we currently have. Come help us!”

It’s always tough to have a poster that is just text. I might have tried to bring some element of the map off the background and somewhere into the foreground. The subtlety of the background enhances the legibility of the text, but at a glance, I can’t see anything that says, “maps.”

Leonardo continues:

I expect that my main talking points during the presentation will be around the code. Each line was put there so that it would represent an idea in our design and why we think it’s a good choice. The online demo and websites have a lot more information for people to read.

Colour coding the text in the code block is another nice touch that adds to the visual interest of the poster. I have no idea if the colour highlight consistent elements of the code, but that would be the principle to look for.

Finally, Leonardo says:

After printing, I realized that I should have made the margins wider, particularly between the two halves of the poster.

I agree with Leonardo that a bit more white space between the halves would be a good idea. But luckily, the text on the two sides only approach each other at about two points, so this is not a horrible problem.

There are two QR codes. Leonardo is good enough to give brief descriptions of what they are, which is excellent. I might want a little more detail about what the demo consists of, though. Can I run it on my phone? Is it interactive? Is it a video?

This poster shows a lot of good decisions. I just wonder if there are enough people browsing during the conference who would recognize and care about “Python” or “Generic Mapping Tools” to come and chat.

External links

Poster: A modern Python interface for the Generic Mapping Tools

26 April 2018

Link roundup for April, 2018

Charlotte Payne, I love you! Well, not in that way. I love you for tweeting about posters in haiku. I think my favourite is this one, on de-extinction:

resurrect the lost?
can we really right our wrongs
with a tweaked dodo?

• • •

Here’s how Meredith Rawls made an award-winning poster. Here are a couple of points in her description that I like:

Re-read the abstract you submitted to the conference weeks ago. Is it overly ambitious? Totally off-base? No matter. Your poster is an opportunity to communicate what you’ve done as of TODAY.

Do you know what I did with all the words I wanted to put on my poster but didn’t? I used them in conversations, and they appear or will appear in papers.

And here’s said poster:

Very nice!

• • •

A lot of people on Twitter were impressed by this poster:

This is a great example of how a poster can be, at one time, very simple and focused conceptually (there’s really only one figure, and no text elaborating introductions and methods and so on), and yet still show be very rich, showing a lot of data.

• • •

Nominee for “Best title of a poster, ever”, from Bryan Ward:

• • •

More unsolicited recommendations. Kirsty McLeod reckons Alecia Carter makes “the best posters I’ve ever seen!” Here’s one, and it would certainly stand out at a conference:

Check out more of Alecia’s work here.

• • •

Interesting presentation (in blog post) on whether design is too insular. Hat tip to Melissa Vaught.

• • •

Adam Calhoun lets us look into his creative process for designing a poster:

They all start like this.

• • •

Dyslexie is a font intended to aid dyslexics. Their page shows lots of clever ideas to distinguish letters.

Hat tip to Margeaux and Asia Murphy.

• • •

The May 2018 issue of American Scientist has a nice little feature on the design of business cards by Henry Petroski. Excerpt:

It was because of incorporation into mechanical filing systems such as the Rolodex that business cards became standardized in size. A square or outsize card might have stuck out from the bunch, but it also might have made the system jam and become useless. Being different for the sake of being different can defeat the object of any design.

It runs on pages 144-147.

• • •

There is a font inspired by Charles Darwin’s handwriting.

Hat tip to Andy Farke.