19 September 2019

Networking flair: Reasons to wear something ridiculous at a conference

Jessica “Rocky” Rohde presents a great networking tip from her Instagram account (lightly edited).

Three reasons you should wear a ridiculous hat like this at your next conference.⁣⁣⁣⁣

This is my cruising hat. Originally, it was for a Halloween costume (Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas ๐Ÿ˜œ).

But I wore it every single day of a conference on a cruise ship.⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣ Wearing this “piece of flair” is actually a strategy for meeting people and networking.⁣⁣⁣
It makes you recognizable

After taking the stage to speak about my work helping scientists become better public speakers, I ended my talk with, “If anybody wants to nerd out about science, tech and engineering, just look for the green hat.” Then I flipped it Justin Timberlake style onto my noggin. ⁣⁣⁣Throughout the rest of the cruise, people would come up to me and say “Oh, you’re the green hat girl!”

⁣⁣It makes you approachable

At a conference when you meet a new person every few minutes, you become exhausted of explaining where you are from and what you do over and over. Wearing something unusual gives us something unexpected to talk about.⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣
Them: “What’s with the hat?” ⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣
Me: “This is part of the uniform. I’m a cruise marshal. Don’t tell anyone, though!”⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣
It tells people something about you

I’m a little bit silly (understatement of the year ๐Ÿ™ƒ) and people know before I even open my mouth that I’m, well, a little different.⁣⁣⁣⁣
Your “flair” doesn't have to be a hat. Space pants work great, too. ๐Ÿ˜ If you want to be a little more subtle, it can be an interesting shirt, tie, jewelry, or a pin. A colleague of mine wears his conference badge on Mardi Gras bead necklaces!⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣

I have done similar things to Rocky. I’ve worn a kilt at conferences. I’ve had blue hair at conferences. And it works as a conversation starter. A distinctive piece of clothing, just like a poster, can act as a social object.

But Charles Cong Xu went next level when he presented a poster about spider web DNA at the recent EcoEvoEnto2019 meeting.

This, my friends, is committing to your theme. And you better believe there were a lot of pictures of Charles if you were following the conference hashtag. I reached out to Charles and asked about the experience.

Go big or go home was why I decided to dress up and have some fun with it. The socks and compression shirt worked well, but the mask was stuffy. I ended up just putting it on every once in a while when people wanted to take photos.

I did not get any pushback about the costume, at least none that I’m aware of. On the contrary, the poster and costume drew a lot of positive attention at the conference as Twitter would testify. ... I think it’s a good sign when people want to take selfies with you and your poster.

(I will have another post focusing on Charles’s poster soon!)

This clearly worked for Charles, but not everyone will have the nerve for full blown cosplay.

Even if you want do something this full on, you have to know the conference and know the crowd to figure out if you can pull it off without damaging yourself professionally. Navigating a conference as a professional means blending in to some degree. And while many academics claim not to care what a poster presenter looks like, they can be judgey about it.

Do you wear something that people always comment on?

External links

Rocky Rohde

Related posts

Conversation piece 

EcoEvoEnto photo by Canadian Society for Ecology & Evolution twitter account 

12 September 2019

Freedom to change from your abstract

Jennifer Rohn asked:

Academic STEM Twitter: how far have you ever strayed from your submitted abstract when it comes time to write the talk or create the poster? Or turn it around: if you went to a talk/poster and the presenter included extra information/some tangents, would this bother you?

For me, the real question is not whether people can or should change or add content, but why it happens so rarely.

In the world of academic conferences, abstracts are usually written months in advance. 

  • The Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology abstract deadline was 4 September, and the meeting will be held 3 January, which is four months away.
  • The Society for Neuroscience abstract deadline was 3 May, and the meeting starts 19 October. That’s five months out.
  • The American Geophysical Union abstract deadline was 31 July for a 9 December meeting. Also five months out.

With that much time between when the abstract is submitted, it should be no surprise that you may have learned a few things since the abstract was submitted. You may have collected new data. You may have completed an analysis. You may have changed your mind.

Because there are no poster police, there is no reason to limit yourself to what was on the abstract. 

The only thing that I can see a small reason for keeping the same is the title. People who are looking for a poster with a particular title might be confused if the title bore no resemblance to the original. But if the deep structure of the topic is the same, reworking the title should be okay.

Change whatever you need.

05 September 2019

Citing posters

Kevin polled his Twitter followers with the burning question, ¨Are poster session presentations citable in manuscripts?”

Poll results to, "Are poster session presentations citable in manuscripts?" 50% Yes, 50% No, 107 votes

The audience was spectacularly unhelpful, splitting straight down the middle. 50% said yes, 50% said no.

The way the question was posed was a bit vague. It’s not clear if Kevin was asking whether it is possible to cite posters or whether it is ever a good idea to do so.

If the question was whether it is possible to cite a poster: Yes, it is, and half the survey respondents were wrong. 

Google Scholar entry for Weathers et al. 1993, showing "Total citations: Cited by 4830"

A 1993 poster by Frank Weathers and colleagues has been cited over 4,000 times, according to Google Scholar. (Hat tip to Steve Lancaster.) This is a strong candidate for the most cited poster of all time

Proof positive that posters can be cited... if editors allow it. Some journals are fussy about what they will allow in their reference lists and only allow peer reviewed papers.

Whether posters should be cited depends on whether posters are ephemera or part of the scientific record.

The argument for “No citing posters” assume that posters are ephemeral and center on whether a claim is verifiable. This seems to be an extension of a “Raw data or it didn’t happen” position of some open science advocates. Since it’s usually an abstract that is published, not the actual poster, the record may not be as good as a complete paper. But even published papers vary in quality, so saying “no posters” is an arbitrary cut-off line. There are poster abstracts I would trust over some published papers.

Some posters don’t even have a published abstract. But some journals permit “personal communications,” and the poster could cited that way rather than a presentation.

Foster and colleagues (2019) argue that conference posters are part of the scientific record. Some conferences publish conference abstracts in journals, so the abstract is as findable as any journal article. People can self-archive posters one their own websites, institutional repositories, Figshare, and more.

I’ve sometimes cited posters that presented earlier versions of work in final manuscript I submitted to a journal, saying, “This work has been published in abstract.” Why do this? Just to pump my citation count? No. Because you cite prior work. That’s the point of citations. I want people to be able to track the progress of the work. If the conference abstract is findable, citing the abstract provides a way for someone who stumbles across the abstract to find the final version of the work in a journal.

There is a lot being said these days in biology about how preprints are speeding up work. And a recent conversation on twitter about a trainee whose boss was blocking publication of research led to a lot of people bemoaning wasted resources.

You want to talk about speeding things up and reducing wasted effort? Let’s talk posters.

A systematic Cochrane review found less than half of conference presentations are published, and posters are less likely to be published (Scherer et al. 2018). This means that conference posters may be the only record of some experiment or finding.

If speed is that big a concern to you:

  1. Archive your posters. Make the findable somehow.
  2. Publish work presented on posters. Do not let your ego get in the way. It the research was competent, find a home for it, regardless of whether it’s an “interesting” result or not.
  3. Cite posters. Don’t wait until someone publishes a peer reviewed paper, because it may never come. And push back on editors who don’t want to cite posters.

Posters are part of the scientific record, and we need to start treating them as such.


Foster C, Wager E, Marchington J, Patel M, Banner S, Kennard NC, Panayi A, Stacey R, The GPCAP Working Group. 2019. Good practice for conference abstracts and presentations: GPCAP. Research Integrity and Peer Review 4(1): 11. https://doi.org/10.1186/s41073-019-0070-x

Scherer RW, Meerpohl JJ, Pfeifer N, Schmucker C, Schwarzer G, von Elm, E. 2018. Full publication of results initially presented in abstracts. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, MR000005. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.MR000005.pub4

Weathers, F.W., Litz, B.T., Herman, D.S., Huska, J.A. & Keane, T.M. 1993. The PTSD Checklist (PCL): Reliability, validity, and diagnostic utility. San Antonio, Texas, USA.over 

29 August 2019

Link round-up for August, 2019

Sigma Chi has compiled a few short pieces of advice for poster presentations. And by “presentation,” the point where you are talking to other people during the meeting. There is not much on poster design here.

• • • • •

Today in the intersection of typography and psychology, an airline napkin that is much too easy to misread:

Delta Air napkin reading, "The world is better with you out in it."

“The world is better with you out in it.”

  • We parse text expecting to see common phrases. Who says, “you out in it”? Nobody. People says, “with you in it.”
  • We group things by proximity. The break between the second and third lines puts “with” close to “out” than the next word, “you.”

Both of which means that “with you out” is easy to misread as “without you.” Damn.

Move the “you” to the second line, or removed the word “out,” and I think it would be fine.

Hat tip to Natalie Walker and Drugmonkeyblog.

• • • • •

In interesting new fonts, we have Gerry. It’s ugly.

Better Posters in Gerry font

But it’s ugly on purpose. Because it has a political point to make. Each letter is a map of an American congressional district, gerrymandered into a weird shape. The font is ugly because gerrymandering is ugly.

• • • • •

I’m still collecting responses to Mike Morrison’s billboard poster style. These comments come from Neil Cohn. The integration of text and graphics is kind of Neil’s thing: he does research on comics.

What I find the worst about this #betterposters design is that it shows how poorly trained scientists are in visual communication skills that the "solution" is text alone, abandoning what should be an effective visual and multimodal medium.

• • • • •

A short thread by Josh Martin on the billboard style:

YES: limit text, and focus on takeaway. BUT: Give me details we can talk about!

• • • • •

Never let it be said that this blog shies away from controversy. Darren Dahly wrote:

Unpopular opinion: Posters are just a way to get you to pay to attend the conference. I know some people get something out of it, but its 2019 and if you are getting on an airplane to stand next to a poster for 1 hour...

That’s the start of a thread and discussion. Darren’s not just pissing on poster sessions, but pretty much academic conferences as a whole. He just picked posters to make the point.

• • • • •

On a related note, an article about conference swag.

We could get rid of cheap swag altogether. What if you left your next conference or trade show without heaps of notepads, pens, and USB drives stuffed in a cheap tote bag, all of which will eventually end up in the trash?

Hat tip to Shaena Montanari and Kristina Killgrove.

22 August 2019

Infographic imposters

I went looking for examples of infographics recently. This page boasted of having some of the best infographics of the last year. Their choices left me confused.

This is a bar graph. It’s a bar graph that’s been contorted in a circle, but it’s a bar graph.

This is a pie chart. It’s a pie chart with gun symbols, but it’s a pie chart.

It’s weird to me that standard graphs get very slight changes to their skin, and are suddenly “infographics.” And not only that, but acclaimed ones. And in neither case is either a significant improvement on the standard design. I think in some ways, they are more harder to read and more difficult to interpret.

External links

[Infographics Roundup] – Best Infographics Designs Till 2019

15 August 2019

Critique: Nucleus versus cytoplasm

Today’s contributions (we have two!) come to us courtesy of Colin Cheng. Click to enlarge!

I always like to see how people refine their presentation from one version of a poster to the next. Colin says of the first poster, above:

This was for a cross-faculty PhD student seminar within my school, and is meant to propose my long-term project for the next few years. I wanted to give a more general introduction for the non-virologists, so my intro was both ‘verbal’ and ‘pictorial’.

Because my project is about nuclear versus cytoplasmic NS5, I thought the yin and yang analogy was cool.

I like the use of the yin / yang symbol. I might have maybe tried to push it even further. If you're going to run with that, run all the way. I might have placed the inside "dots" closer to their traditional position in the curve -- they look too close to the edge. And I might have considered centering the text exactly on the curve dividing line.

Yes, the readability drops a little because of the letters changing colour. But I think with the right text size and weight, this would not be a huge drop. It makes the graphic element more conspicuous and deliberate. You never want your design choices to look accidental or timid.

Here’s round two of this topic:

After looking at his first poster, Colin made changes:

I realised it didn’t make sense to detach the words from the diagram (keep related things together…); indeed, it was redundant to even have most of the words. So I was happy dispensing the verbal intro for the second poster.

I think that was a good choice, and poster 2 is stronger for it.

The yin and yang symbol, while cool, was reincarnated in another form:

I realised after presenting to a few people that it was more helpful to have a cartoon to remind people where the various NS5s are localised. Having placed it in the top right corner, I’m still not sure that people are aware of it enough to refer to it as they go through the data below.

My solution would be to flip the positions of the diagram and logo. Put the diagram on the left, where it gets more attention. Upper left is where we look first.

Colin asked me about using the photo of contributors in the second poster. My question is: is there value in that photo for the viewer? People do like to look at faces, and it’s easier to look at a picture than read words. So that helps, though the difference is not huge.

Colin is a reader of the blog and read some of my posts on boxes. Colin wrote that boxes helped him to organise ideas, which is great. But the question I asked before remains: even if the boxes help you, do they help the reader? Colin wasn’t convinced boxes hurt the reader’s experience, and here, I agree.

The boxes here are done fairly well. I like “signposting” the reading order with the numbers in orange circle. (And it’s not escaped notice that the poster is making nice use of blue and orange as complementary colours.)

In box 2, I would remove the blue lines around the orange boxes entirely. The contrast between the orange and white is so great the box will still clearly read as a box.

For the major numbered boxes, I would keep the blue lines, but make them thinner – perhaps shrinking them almost to hairline width. The contrast between white and the background is not as big as the orange and white, so having a line help make box be visible, but it doesn't need much help.

I like the orange line under the title bar, but wish there was a little more room between it and the top of boxes 1 and 2. I wish the vertical space between the boxes was about the width of the horizontal space between them.

While the main boxes are well aligned, I would like to see more alignment and organization within those boxes. For example, the fine print word “Unpublished” in box 4 seems to align with bullets above it. It would be better aligned with the words above it. In box 3, “Unpublished” doesn’t align with anything else in the box.

Colin wrote:

I wish I could encapsulate my project in a single photo the way lobsters or anther flowers do.

These posters come closer than many! The cell illustrations here are very good. That’s the kind of visual that you want to include when possible.

08 August 2019

Poster vandalism

In part of a discussion about authorship and ownership of projects, Keira Lucas mentioned this anecdote:

I had a previous disgruntled employee crumble up one of my biologist’s poster at a conference because he felt entitled to the data.

Coincidentally enough, this was one day after I heard a story about a presenter who had a poster that was stolen during the conference.

I was gobsmacked. Stealing a poster? Why? I mean, a conference poster isn’t exactly a Monet.

And the morals of the story are:

Conference organizers should have some sort of security plan in case people behave badly.

Conference organizers should have some plan to help people recover from disasters. This can be as simple as asking if there is a large format printer at the conference site or nearby.

Third, conference presenters should have a digital version of their poster that is accessible to them. This might be on a flash drive, on a tablet, laptop, emailing a copy to themselves, a cloud storage service like OneDrive or Dropbox, and many other ideas.

Update, 19 August 2019: A poster was defaced at the 2019 Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists. A PDF of the report provides some details. I’ve removed the name of the faculty member from this post because it’s irrelevant to the point.

There were rumors... that [a faculty member] had bullied a postdoc (originally reported as a student) into changing his poster. After reviewing the discussion with the poster presenter and a witness, this was determined to not be the case. In fact, the presenter was upset to find out that these false rumors had begun and has sought to bring the facts to the Ombud. The postdoc’s poster was indeed later defaced by others, but [the faculty member] had nothing to do with this incident, and was not even present when it happened.

While this statement is intended to “clear the air”, it could be improved. There is no way to know from the PDF which meeting this is about (by which I mean the year), or when the PDF was created. So someone who stumbles across it would have no way of knowing if this was last week or years ago.

Hat tip to David Shiffman.

Related posts

01 August 2019

Critique: Beach plastics

I promised this as the end of May, and I finally delivered! Today’s poster comes to us via Fabian Roger on Twitter. Fabian called this poster by Therese Karlsson “absolutely brilliant.” Click to enlarge!

This was presented at the 2019 European meeting of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC). Therese said, “Never had as much fun making a poster as this one!”

Comic-inspired posters get good responses from viewers. I think this is because they are:

  • Different. It is difficult to break out of the mold with posters. They usually have the same kind of text structure (following the IMRAD format of journals) and standard presentations of data. Comics break that monotony.
  • Visual. Many posters are, in their heart of hearts, text-based documents. They may be cut back to a minimum, but I think most posters are verbal instead of pictoral. Comics put images first, and text second.
  • Short. Because more of the poster is used for pictures, you have to cut back on the words, and it becomes a more attractive thing to stand and scan for a few moments.

25 July 2019

Link roundup for July 2019

Sarah Knowles wins our completely informal “Best poster of the month” award.

From here and here. Hat tip to Colin Purrington and Elaine Williams.

• • • • •

Speaking of awards, Hannah Isotalus (whose work was featured here) was screwed out of her poster award by the British Association for Cognitive Neuroscience.

Ages ago I tweeted about how I got rewarded a poster prize last September at a conference and how they said at the time the prize and a certificate would be sent over later on. Following multiple emails they stopped replying to me and never sent me a thing. ...

It’s also somewhat important to note that two years in a row I have loud and proud outed them on twitter for never in their history having given mid or early career prizes to women. I don’t want to wear a foil hat here... but you know...

For shame. If you are a member of this society, you might want to ask those in charge what is going on. The person behind their Twitter account has promised to look into this. BUt as far as I know, this hasn’t been resolved.

• • • • •

From 2017 but new to this blog is a post by Veronika Ch on recycling her poster into a skirt.

What makes her skirt an epic win? Simple. It. Has. Pockets.

• • • • •

“Oh, you have a skirt made from an old conference poster?” asks Rajika Kuruwita. “Hold my beer.”

More about Rajika’s dress is a longer poster later!

Hat tip to Needhi Bhalla on these last two entries.

• • • • •

Conference service provider Morressier has an article about how to create a great digital posters. (Warning: Contains me.) Digital posters have a few tricks that paper posters don’t.

While many of the design tips that are useful for traditional posters also hold for digital posters, there are several features that an ePoster provider can offer that deserve to be looked at in depth. One of these is the ability to zoom in and out of the poster’s content. ...

One of the features that is most revolutionary when it comes to digital posters is the ability to embed audio and video files directly into the body of your poster.

Video is probably the “killer app” of digital posters.

• • • • •

Edgar Bering has a request.

Dear colleagues,

Please stop wearing backpacks to poster sessions. Your innate kinesthetic sense has not adapted to your appendage, which means you bash into people… a lot.

Hat tip to Rachel French.

• • • • •

The University of Cambridge shows how not to run a poster session:

Zig-zagging poster boards mean viewers and presenters of one poster have to look across the other. One end of the poster boards appears to be next to a wall, which causes congestion at the entrance to a lane.

Hat tip to Ewan St. John-Smith.

• • • • •

You like infographics, but don’t have time to create every image from scratch? And you need things to scale? You will love Dimensions Guide. It has scale drawings of all kinds of things. Want to make a point about accessibility? They can help.

Need to compare a bunch of breeds of dog? How about a basset hound for a start?

The site is chock-a-block with useful diagrams. Plus a few figures that are a little less practical.

• • • • •

What if you like pie charts but hate circles? This website has you covered. (Oh god, I’m an enabler...)

But in the immortal words of Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park:

Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.

Weird pie chart shapes might prompt you to stop to think if you should.

Hat tip to Alberto Cairo and Justin Kiggins.

• • • • •

Perhaps the people behind the “all the shapes” pie charts should look at Helena Jambor’s blog post about making figures.

• • • • •

I would love to read more on getting more out of academic conferences in Times Higher Ed. But it’s paywalled.

But maybe you have a subscription, even if I don’t.

• • • • •

Over on Instagram, a poster meme that starts, “Trying to present a poster at a conference like:

• • • • •

Scientist Suzanne Eaton died horribly while attending at a conference. I am sorry for everyone who knew her, and hope they are getting all the support they need during this tragedy.

Three threads emerged from this about conferences generally.

  • Leslie Vosshall has a thread reflecting on how this event (plus others) are making her reconsider conferences entirely.
  • Needhi Bhalla shares these concerns, but argues the cohort opportunities still make conferences a potentially good thing.
  • ItatiVCS’s thread discusses the conference experience for minorities, again focusing on the cohort experience.

18 July 2019

Critique and makeover: Biodiversity in a time of change

Today’s contribution comes from Tamara White. Click to enlarge!

This is a work in progress; it does not have references.

This feels busy. At first glance, it’s tempting to blame this on the colourful backdrop, which has four different main colours: blue, green, orange, and brown. Here is is alone:

This is a strong illustration of climate change, but so much of it is covered that I am not sure the message comes through. I think this is why Tamara has several of the main boxes partially transparent.

But I don’t think the background is the main culprit contributing to the visual clutter. In theory, this poster has four main elements: a title bar, and three columns.

There are black lines around the main columns to try to to unify them, but this doesn’t work. Each individual element is very recognizable as a separate element, only loosely connected to those around them. The text is laid out in white boxes, and each one creates an edge against the coloured background.

To show this, I removed the text. Everything that has a recognizable edge (either by a line or a difference in colour) has been given a red line around it.

Instead of four to six elements, the poster reads as 36 to 40 separate elements.If this was against a white background, the number would drop a bit, but not much.

The other issues that I see are pictures that are distorted, and lots of elements that are misaligned.

Those are the three things I tried to address in the makeover below.

First, I used the eyedropper tool to lift a light shade from the background. I made all the text boxes in each column the same colour.

I went into the image properties for each image, and made sure the amount of stretch was the same in both dimensions. No more compressed penguins, stretchy fish, and circles forced to become ovals!

I turned the paragraphs with bullets as their first character into lists with hanging indents.

I made almost all the photos and text within a column the same width.

Here’s the result:

The revision retains some of the colourfulness of the original while removing some of the visual clutter. The variation in column width is still noticeable, as is the variation in the width of the content from one column to the next. Ideally, this layout would probably be well served by dividing the columns into halves, and laying out the pictures in the left half and the text in the right (i.e., a six column grid).

I mentioned the idea of a “six column grid” to Tamara, who took it a little differently than I meant it, but the result was great.

This lets you see more of the background. In addition to having columns, you also end up with even rows that fall along the horizon line of the background. The headings pop out more.

Always be ready to love your accidents.

11 July 2019

Critique: Artseed

Today’s poster is from contributor Chetan Keshav. Click to enlarge!

Chetan wrote, “ It’s not as scientific as most of the posters featured on your blog though.” That is a good thing! One of my biggest wishes for this blog is that I would get a lot more posters from the humanities and other disciplines. I will take all conference posters from any discipline! Love all, serve all.

This poster does something that everyone is familiar with: it compares the old and the new, side by side. It’s a classic “Before” and “After.” But it’s a little hard to tell that at a glance.

Normally, when you see a “Before” and “After” comparison, it’s pictures of the same person. Like these people who got new haircuts:

You don’t need to label these as “Before” and “After,” because it’s obviously the same person. The face, and in this case the clothes, are identical.

With a website makeover, there is no such continuity. Everything changed. It would be helpful to indicate that these two different looking images are, in fact, the same site at different times.

To do this, the poster could embrace its four column format more strongly. As it happens, everything on the whole left half is “Before” and everything on the whole right half is “After.” I would try dividing it exactly down the middle, and put big “Before” and “After” headings at top that span half the poster. Then, I would divide the poster into four equal columns, instead of the kinda sorta even-ish four columns it has now.

If the design went that route, the title bar might need a little reworking to give space to the “Before” and “After” headings that would go up at the top.

I would keep almost everything else almost the same. I like the coloured headings, which are a nice way to break up grayness simply and quickly. And the icons and typography in the main text boxes are very good and don’t need changing.

04 July 2019

Critique: ROMS comm

A poster about ROM? I remember ROM!

Oh? It’s ROMS, you say? An acronym for Regional Ocean Modelling System? Okay, that’s almost as good as old Marvel Comics. This acronym is part of this week’s contribution from Stefanie Mack:

Stefanie wrote:

I really like the background. It’s a photo I took myself, while on a research cruise, and I use it or part of it on everything from my twitter background to my CV.  It adds interest, isn’t overwhelming, and gently separates the title from the rest. 

I agree. This is one reason why I am often advocating people try to get more photos for their posters! She continues:

I’m mostly happy with the content.  The section on the bottom left, “Smoothing Criteria,” is one of those sections where I don’t actually talk about it unless someone is asking very specific, detailed questions, and then I have to have it to explain properly.  This was my first presentation on a new project that, unfortunately, had no results to show at this stage.  My objective was to lay out the problem and research direction.  It ended up feeling too negative, so I substituted “So, why ROMS?” section for a typical conclusion. 

Sometimes the presentations that you make early in a project are some of the best ones, because you can focus on the problem and aren’t burdened with all that data.

Finding what “ROMS” stood for took a little more effort than I would have liked. When approaching a poster like this, I almost inevitably scan the headings first, because those are visible from a distance. I could read, “So why ROMS?”, even though that heading was down in the lower left.

My first thought is to look for a definition in the first paragraph. Not there.

I finally noticed the ROMS acronym in “Goals,” just under the affiliations. This should be a good place to put that information. It’s at the top, when you first start reading, right?

But it’s easy to miss. First, you’re going to read the title – which is left aligned. Then you’ll read the authors’ names and affiliations – which are left aligned. Then you normally read the introduction (or “The Problem” in this case) – which is left aligned.

But here, there’s a “Goal” statement  – which is centered. Because the goal statement is not left aligned, there’s empty space between the affiliation and the introduction, making it easy to miss. You have to backtrack up to find it.

Make the goal statement left aligned, like everything else up at the top, and the problem is solved.

I’m also concerned about the backtracking between “The Models” diagram and “The Problem,” as indicated by the arrow. It feels like “The Models” diagram (which also defines ROMS) is supposed to be the entry point for the poster. If that’s the case, there needs to be more signposts to show that.

I would rather the trackback be boxes and right angled arrows instead of ovals and curves. Perhaps more like this:

The poster has some rather long text blocks, which makes for a lot of gray areas. I’m wondering if the diagrams in “Smoothing Criteria” and “Pine Island Glacier Example” could be coloured, or set against a coloured background to break up the grayness a little.

I’m not sure if there is any strong reason for the columns to be different widths, or for those top headings not be be aligned.

External links

Just Swimmingly
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27 June 2019

Link roundup for June 2019: National news edition

Did you know that this year may mark the fiftieth anniversary of the conference poster? The Federation of European Biochemical Societies boasts of having the first international conference poster session in 1969! (Mentioned in this short article on poster design. Hat tip to Ben Marwick.)

So it is only appropriate that today, conference posters are having a moment.

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Mike Morrison’s billboard style poster has done the seemingly impossible. It turned academic conference posters into national news.

First, it was on NPR. Excerpt on what problem this design is trying to solve:

“A poster session, ideally, is this incredibly fertile ground for creative insight,” says Morrison, who met me at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science in Washington, D.C. “You’re walking into a room, completely open-minded, and ready to hear and read findings around stuff that you didn’t even study before. If there are 50 posters here, it should transmit 50 new insights into your brain.”

Then the Matthew Effect kicked in, and more coverage ran in Forbes. Except:

(M)ost communication between scientists involves tedious levels of detail, to ensure that their colleagues have enough information to replicate the work. A conference presentation doesn’t have that same purpose.

Thanks, Forbes, for reminding us how boring we are.

Then EdSurge. Excerpt:

Rankyung Hong, a PhD student in computer science at the University of Minnestoa, said the new design is probably “more ideal” than the traditional template. But she admits she will probably continue to fill all the available space on her research posters with findings and detail about her research. “It’s very complicated material,” she says of her research. Plus, she says, presenting as much information as possible is “the norm in our department.”

And Inside Higher Education got in on the act, too. Excerpt:

Trauth said that he supports a movement toward better posters, "in principle." In his graduate course on science communication, for example, he asks students to review 10 posters and guess which won awards. There is a typically little consensus. In reality, all have won some kind of award and none, in Trauth's estimation, is really great. That's in part because awards tend to assess content, not design, he said.

Most of this month’s link round-up consists of reactions and discussions about Morrison’s format, largely prompted by the NPR coverage.

(Aside: Having run this poster blog for ten years, it feels weird to be suddenly documenting a controversy.)

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Derek Crowe has a thorough post analyzing the billboard format and suggesting some alternatives.

Morrison called the billboard format the “better poster”, so Crowe calls his “butter poster.”

(“Better” is a hard name to top, so I went with Butter)

One of the key pieces of information that Derek provides is some data on how long people are willing to spend at a poster:

This is an important consideration that I hadn’t seen data on before. This was important enough that I ran my own poll, worded a little differently. Not the longest time, but the optimal time:

Poll results: 0-5 minutes, 65%. 6-10 minutes, 30%. More than 10 minutes, 5%. 289 votes.

About two thirds of people want to spend five minutes or less at a poster.

This sort of detail makes this not only one of the best weighing of the pros and cons of the billboard poster, but one of the best articles about conference posters I’ve read in a while. Derek is still working on this, and has a set of follow-up notes that are also good.


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From Derek’s notes, I was led to this article by Echo Rivera about conference posters. This is another great post (some of which aligns with some of my own opinions). Excerpt:

3 things I LIKE about #BetterPosters

(1) It’s changing minds & waking people up about how bad conference posters are.

The #1 biggest struggle I face when trying to get academics and scientists to design better presentations is that most people think their slide design is much better than it actually is. And I’m not saying that as a judgmental snob. I’ve lost count of how many people have come to one of my presentation training workshops thinking they’ll just get a couple “quick tips” but walk away realizing their entire approach needs to change.

She also lists five things she doesn’t like about the billboard format. She also warns against any conference ever mandating any template.

This is another one of the best posts on conference posters I’ve read in a while. Also recommended.

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Colin Purrington has one of the longest running resources on poster design out there (predating this blog), and he offers his thoughts in this Twitter thread. Excerpt:

The #betterposters push is in part a desperate plea for a reset. I also like that he’s pushing experimentation to see whether it’s actually better. Hopefully that will involve randomly assigning poster presenters to treatments. That would be, um, very entertaining.

Colin raises one important point that I haven’t seen explicitly stated elsewhere:

One technical matter that makes me cringe is that the #betterposter model encourages visitors to take photographs of posters (to activate QR code). Posters often have data that is not published and presenters don't want photographs taken. Some conferences even forbid it.

The Society for Neuroscience was one big holdout for years is forbidden poster session pictures. But nobody followed their rule, and they are repealing it this year.

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Meanwhile, Lorna Quandt polled people to see what they thought of the billboard style poster.

Most people liked parts of it (45%), but at the edges, the haters (27%) outnumbered the supporters (17%).

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Lorna’s results are echoed in a thread by Amy Cheu. Excerpt:

I really dislike the proposed new “conference posters”. From a #SciComm view, I think it’s ineffective. From a graphic design perspective, it’s incredibly ugly. Posters are supposed to be conversation starters, nothing to talk about when there’s nothing on the poster.

Cheu is also quoted in the Forbes article:

“Every example or use I have seen so far has continued the trend of text-heavy, graphic-poor posters. Only now, the text is smaller and smashed into the corners of the poster.”

Hat tip to Rachel French.

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And another Twitter thread on the billboard format by Cecile Janssens. Excerpt:

I don’t want to consume a conclusion, but be given enough relevant details about methods, statistics, and results to invite a conversation.

Hat tip to Giulia Liberati.

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Roger Giner-Sorolla makes a similar point:

New style poster, intellectually arrogant version: POGO STICK JUMPING INCREASES SELF-CONTROL.

Intellectually humble version: In 3 studies, N = 320 US undergraduates self-reported higher self-control after pogo stick jumping for 1 min.

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And Mark Piefer writes:

It’s anti-scientific, asking you to boil things down to an over-simplified conclusion.

There’s good discussion in the thread arising from Mark’s initial post. It’s a good window into people’s assumptions and ideas about what poster sessions are and should be. There is a wide variety of opinions on display. For instance, Erin Williams made this counterpoint:

I find large poster sessions can be info overload & this format would help me quickly decide if I wanted to know more, in which case I’d find the abstract, talk to the presenter & scan the QR code for full details.

I also think Gregory RSL hits on something important:

This idea was designed to meet a goal that I don’t have: extract every conclusion from every poster in the room. I never have that goal and I’m not sure anyone should.

The key design point that Gregory makes is that how you design something depends on what you think the user’s goal is (or should be).

Some audience members want to read the abstracts in advance, pick a few posters to visit, then do a few deep dives on a couple of projects. If that is your goal, it doesn’t matter if your poster is a wall of text or not. The billboard format does not help you.

Some audience members want more of a “core dump” where they can get something quickly from many posters. Then, they might follow those up with more conversation. This is what the billboard poster style is explictly meant to do.

Different people are going to have different ideas about what they want to get out of a poster session. And that’s okay. But different designs are going to meet their viewing needs.

Hat tip to Milton Tan.

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Garr Reynolds, author of the Presentation Zen blog and book (and a major source of inspiration for this blog), is positive about the billboard poster format:

Yes. First you want to get people’s attention, then bring them into your poster. Well done!


Fantastic, Mike! Well done!

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Matt Crump uses the billboard poster format for over 30 great jokes. Go to the Twitter thread for all of them! Here’s one:

Hat tip to Lorna Quandt.

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Virginia Heinen also used the format for fun:

Hat tip to Dani Rabiotti.

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Hilda Bastian asks why the visualization of our methods lags so far behind the visualization of our results. She uses this example of a clinical trial flowchart:

She notes:

Conference posters are a great place to experiment with diagrammatic representations, and there must be lots of great examples.

Having looked at lots of conference posters, I can say that there are not a lot of great examples. Alas. The problem is PowerPoint. Because PowerPoint is the default poster making program for many academics, that’s what people use to make flowcharts. And the PowerPoint flow charts aren’t very good.

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Wendy Nather has a demonstration of the power of visual hierarchy.

Hat tip to William Gunn.

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Free fonts! K-Type has some awesome free fonts for you. Seventy free fonts, to be exact.

They are meant to be samples for their wider font families, but you can get a lot of mileage out of their free samples.

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Martin Kyzwinski has some suggestions on plotting data. Click to enlarge!

Martin’s Twitter feed is full of good tips. Hat tip to Damien C-C.

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Graphic design. Play the game! This is an interesting game called “Can’t Unsee” that teaches design. You’re shown two comparable images and asked which is better.

It can be challenging! Hat tip to Garr Reynolds.

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The Evolution meeting has some awesome guidelines for presenting a poster (PDF). Lots of conference have poster presentation guidelines, so what sets these apart? They specifically address how to present a poster in an inclusive way. They consider wheelchair users, people who have interpreters, people who may not be able to see well, and so on.

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A paper on how to make better conference abstracts and presentations:

Foster C, Wager E, Marchington J, Patel M, Banner S, Kennard NC, Panayi A, Stacey R, The GPCAP Working Group. 2019. Good practice for conference abstracts and presentations: GPCAP. Research Integrity and Peer Review 4(1): 11. https://doi.org/10.1186/s41073-019-0070-x.

Section 3.2 discusses posters.

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Speaking of how to make poster sessions better, Matt Garcia says, “Give people some space!”

The current paradigm among conference organizers for poster sessions is approaching broken. Too-small rooms, too- narrow aisles (certainly not accessible if you're on crutches or in a wheelchair), and way too loud. Lots of crowded communication, but only by shouting.

Hat tip to DrugMonkey.

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Kylie Hutchinson did not have a good poster experience with this poster:

She describes what she learned here. (Aside: I like some of the elements here, but I’m not sure what the sticky note swarm in the upper right is supposed to convey.)

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Speaking of bad experiences, Casey terHorst wrote:

I don’t know what your name is, but to whomever chewed out the undergrad in our lab giving her first poster last night and told her she didn’t belong here, please quit science #Evol2019

Do not be that person. Do. Not. Knock that shit off.

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And that wasn’t an isolated incident. Catherine Sheard reminds everyone that conferences are sometimes attended by horrible people.

I have had a series of extremely negative conference interactions over the past few years.

And I’m not talking awkward misunderstandings or borderline slights; I’m talking the total stranger who came up to me at Evolution and told me I didn't deserve my PhD. ...

My colleagues of colour all have stories about how conferences are especially difficult for them. My trans and non-binary colleagues all have stories about how conferences are especially difficult for them.

I don’t want to explain my dietary requirements, thanks, because a surprising number of strangers seem to think that a biology degree makes them qualified to assert that my doctors must be wrong and/or I must be lying.

I get it. I really do. It’s small talk. People blurt out all sorts of strange things while trying to make small talk. But, uh, that food thing that you’re joking about could kill me, and getting even joking death threats from senior people in my field isn’t cool?

Your female colleagues, your colleagues of colour, your disabled colleagues, your LGBTQ+ colleagues, your colleagues who are any intersection of these categories thereof – they’re at conferences for the same reason you are. To present their research and to hear about yours.

So let's treat our colleagues with respect, okay?

And even better, let’s try to intervene when necessary (major kudos to the colleague who immediately defended me to the person who thought I didn’t deserve my PhD) and work to make conferences generally more inclusive.

I say again: knock that shit off, people.

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Amelia Brookins, object handler, arranges a poster of Bella Abzug to be photographed at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

The Smithsonian Museum is in a quest to digitize a huge collection of political posters.

The Smithsonian said it hopes to have the new images available online by late summer and, with the help of Google’s Arts & Culture program, broaden the project’s reach and sophistication.

Hat tip to Merilee Proffitt and David Shiffman.

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Some smaller conferences are letting people promote their posters in talk sessions. Colin J. Carlson showed someone who took a few seconds of poster promotion on stage and made it remarkable.

Hat tip to Milton Tan.

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I respect the hell out of science journalist Elizabeth Pennisi, who regularly writes about biology for Science. One of her pieces of advice for scientists on how to get news coverage?

Have on hand a compelling set of visual media – videos, photographs, artwork – to accompany your research. In today’s visual news environment, not having eye-catching imagery can be the difference between coverage and no coverage of your work.

Notice that she did not say “graphs of data.”

Hat tip to Alex Wild.

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This one is hard to summarize, because it’s a disparate group of tweets that revolve around this graph (this image from Dave Baltrus).

Posting that led to a lot of discussion about what test could show those two distributions were different. Kevin Mitchell does a longer thread about the paper (which apparently suggests autism is related to the microbiome), saying here that:

I know they have p-values attached to them, but they don’t pass the eyeball test...

Now, when I wrote a blog post about judging stats by eye, I got some pushback from people who harrumphed and said, “This is why we have statistics.”

Well, J.J. Emerson ran the stats.

Unsurprisingly, not significantly different with either Wilcoxon or t-test.

Thomas Lumley dug deeper, and seems to have found how they tested the data sets.

They fitted a model with no correlation structure but with different variances for each Donor. Which, in the phrase of a colleague of mine, is not international best practise.

Regardless, a lot of the commentary showed some interesting ideas about statistics. In particular, it’s important to know that real but small effects are detectable in large sample sizes with a lot of overlap.

My point (and I do have one) is that all of this re-analysis, commentary, and a little handwringing were all brought about because of a visual image. If these data were described in a summary table or text, it’s less likely that it would have gathered as much attention as it did.

Pictures are the best form of communication.

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While trying to attend a conference, Jason Chow flew to the wrong place. The wrong city. In the wrong time zone.

Booked flights and hotels in a rush, both are Canadian cities I’ve never been to that sit nicely on the south side of a river and have similar looking night-time pictures of their respective Westins. In hindsight, I got Calgary and Carleton (the university where the conference is) mixed up in my head.

At least he got the country right. If he had just remembered “Carleton,” he could have ended up somewhere in England.

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And let’s wind up this epic link round-up with Melissa Ingala:

When you’re preparing to give talks and posters on data you have yet to generate: