14 March 2019

Critique: Float like a butterfly, think like a bee

This week’s poster comes from Jeremy Hemberger. I believe that this was presented at last year’s Entomological Society of America meeting. Click to enlarge!


Jeremy writes that the graphic design parts were done in Illustrator. All the pieces were then assembled using inDesign.

I love the relaxed feel of this poster. One of the things that helps tremendously is that it very consciously and deliberately shows how it is not trying to fill all the available space. The bottom quarter or so of the poster contains a couple of logos (appropriately tucked down in the corner) and some simple, inviting artwork. And even between the two of those, there is a big space in light blue that is comfortable just holding space and doing nothing else.

It’s kind of a glorious signal of confidence. More stuff would look desperate.

I like how the title is broken down in a a simple, highlighted phrase on the left, and a smaller subtitle over on the right.

I haven’t seen author information handled this way before. Author photos are a tricky thing, but these are good pictures. Having them in a circle both minimizes their footprint and adds a little visual interest. There’s no affiliations here, just contact information, which is arguably the most important thing to a viewer. This approach might not work well with large numbers of authors, but this shows it works well with one or two.

The poster’s headings also show confidence in not using the typical “IMRAD” format. Instead, the headings clearly divide the space into “Problem,” “Solution,” and “Visualization and outreach.” The heading parallel the title, using the same left / right divide to separate a short, simple heading and a smaller, slightly more complex subheading.

The flow chart / infographic is concise, visually appealing, and well thought out.

The one place that I might suggest some very mild revision is in the text. Some of the text suffers from classic academic wordiness. The first sentence and filler words like “Indeed”, “are known to be”, and ”As such” might be edited out.

The type used for the paragraph text is condensed and a slightly heavy weight. It is a little small and difficult to read from a distance. But then, I say this as someone who has an optometrist appointment today. The older I get, the more I appreciate the need for things on posters to be big.

Fine work all around.

Related posts

Mug shot

07 March 2019

Critique: Virus stamping

Today’s poster comes from contributor Benjamin Wu. Click to enlarge!


Ben and I talked about capitalization, particularly in the title. There are three styles: headline / title casing (on left below), sentence casing (right), and all capitals. (The example above is not a good example for a poster, because the title is the same size as the main text. You wouldn’t have on a poster title.)


I see examples of all three on posters all the time. I’m not a fan of all capitals, because it looks shouty, like a Hulk or Dalek Twitter account.

I lean towards sentence casing, because we read sentences all the time. It makes it easier to recognize proper nouns. But proper nouns (name of person, place, or thing) should always be capitalized in any case!

The poster’s layout is clean, with consistent space between boxes both horizontally and vertically. 


The left quarter of the poster is mostly taken up with an abstract, and it is killing me. Having any abstract is bad enough, but this one is worse than most. It’s a structured abstract. I love structured abstracts for journals, but they are horrible for posters, because breaking the abstract into sections makes it longer and even more redundant than usual. When I look at the poster and see that huge block of text, and my will to read the rest of the poster just shrivels. 

In fairness, Ben informed me that the decision to include the abstract was not up to him.

But if you can get past the abstract, the rest of the poster fares well. The introduction is short and snappy, and the central two columns contains lots of well constructed graphics to outline the methods.

I like the discipline of the predominantly greyscale palette, but I worry a little about the contrast making the text difficult to read. I tried lightening the boxes, but not all the way to white:


Lightening the fills in the boxes make the headings stand out a bit more. I like the use of bands to highlight the heading for each box. The headings are unusually consistent in their position for a poster made in PowerPoint.

A fine poster, but it is kind of a shame about that abstract.

01 March 2019

A decade of Better Posters



It has been a decade since I started this blog. It had a slow start, but it has turned into one of the most successful, and rewarding, projects of my career.

Thank you.

To readers who have shown me that this is helpful, thank you.

To those who have recommended the blog to others, thank you.

To contributors who have been generous enough to share your posters with me and blog readers, a big thank you.You have made it much easier for this blog to continue by always giving me new things to talk about.

I suppose this is as good a time as any to mention that a book about poster design is coming. A book written by me, published by Pelagic Publishing.

Before I committed to writing a poster book, I needed to be sure it would provide value above and beyond what the blog already does. I’ve always felt there needs to be a reason for writing a book for academics. I see a lot of books (particularly textbooks) that don’t provide much different than others in the field. I never wanted to write a book “just because.”  

But I think there is a good reason for a book.

Many colleagues have told me they recommend this blog to others, particularly to students doing their first poster. While I’m glad so many put trust the suggestions here, I’ve been very aware that this blog is not terribly helpful to a novice. It’s not fair to expect a new person to trawl through ten years of blog posts that have no organization beyond “What I happened to want to write about that week” to get a sense of how to put together a poster.

A book can provide coherent “start to finish” advice that this blog can’t.

In the meantime, the blog will continue with its weekly* schedule, with new posts on Thursdays.

* Well, almost weekly. I’ve missed a few weeks here and there.

Photo by Justin S. Campbell on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

28 February 2019

Top tips for Twitter posters


More academic societies are hosting events on social media. One established example is the Royal Society of Chemistry Twitter Poster Conference 2019 (#RSCPoster), which is heading into its fifth year!

If you want to participate, here are my top tips.

Design within size limits.

Twitter will only post images 5 megabytes (MB) or smaller. As a designer, I usually want to know the height and width of my image in pixels, not the size. There isn’t a simple relationship between image size in pixels and file size. Greyscale images can take up less space than colour. Different file formats use different numbers of bytes.

It’s worth briefly comparing the three image formats Twitter accepts.
  • GIF: Small file size because of its low colour resolution (8 bit colour). The only one of the three that supports animation. If you use a limited colour palette, GIF is a good option for making a large image with a small file size.
  • JPG: Small file size because of image compression. The amount of compression varies, and it is often unnoticeable if compression levels are low. But the nature of the format is that it always causes slightly lower image resolution. The advantage is the format (why it was created in the first place) is its high colour resolution (24 bit colour).
  • PNG: High colour resolution (24 bit colour) and uncompressed.

Update, 4 March 2019: I found a web page to estimate file size from number of pixels. Using it, an GIF image (8 bit colour) could be about 3,000 × 1,500 pixels in size and come in under Twitter’s 5 MB limit. But a PNG image (24 bit colour) is more likely to be in the 1,800 × 900 pixels big.

(Yes, I know this is a bit of an eleventh hour update. Sorry.)

Keep crops in mind.


If something important or attractive is sitting outside the preview window, people are less likely to click the whole thing.

According to sites like this and this, Twitter shows sizes anywhere from 440 × 220 pixels to 1,024 × 512 pixels, and these sites recommend using images with a 2:1 ratio in landscape. Looking at Twitter on my desktop now, I see lots of preview images that are not in that ratio.

But there are many other apps that people may use to view tweets, and their preview images are different sizes. Tweetdeck seems to use a preview image that is close to a 16:9 ratio. The Android app Talon seems to use a 3:2 preview image. Because different apps will crop your image to fit their own preview window, there is no optimal image shape.

But there is something consistent: all these apps crop the edges of images. Make sure your most recognizable image, the one that tells a viewer what your poster is about, is in the middle of your poster. You might consider even working your title into the middle so that it is always visible.

Use animation if appropriate.

Animation is hard on paper, but easy on Twitter. And animation is more engaging that still images. Twitter supports GIF uploads, although again, there are file size limits (5 megabytes on mobile, 15 megabytes on web).

There are lots of ways to make GIFs. I recently found the gifmaker.org website to be quicker and more efficient than my graphics program.

Edit yourself ruthlessly.

This is Twitter. A forum that built itself on being short, sharp, and to the point. Some of use remember those hard honed skills when there were only 140 characters, including retweets and pictures. It took real skill to craft good tweets, especially retweets.

Be like old school Twitter.

Make a single point.

2016 RSCPoster presenter Helen Casey puts it this way:

My advice to participants is to make your poster as simple and effective as possible. Really get the take-home message across.

Editing yourself is hard, as I’ve talked about before. This is why it’s good to show your work to other people.

Related posts

#RSCposter 2018
Four simple tips for shortening your poster

External links

How to post photos or GIFs on Twitter (Twitter document)
Always Up-to-Date Guide to Social Media Image Sizes

Twitter image from here.

07 February 2019

It’s dangerous to go alone! Getting help from campus offices and staff

Sometimes, we academics believe that we have to do everything ourselves. We have to write, teach, research, analyze, manage, lead, critique, and design.

Consequently, people are far too likely to take “do it yourself” (DIY) approach to poster design. This leads to people searching the web and grabbing crummy, low resolution images instead of figuring out better alternatives.

We forget that our campuses have professionals who can help us with some tasks. It’s easy to forget because often those staffers have more contact with administration than faculty and students.

For example, lots of campuses have offices and staff that can help with:

Oversized printing. As the cost of plotter printers has come down, more campuses have one somewhere on that can be used for printing posters instead of sending them to professional printers and having to ship them back to campus.

Graphics. Who do you think makes all those campus fliers and promotional material? These offices are sometimes in university relations or news or some other place, but most universities are going to have staff tucked away somewhere who are busy creating the look of documents the university puts out. And let’s admit that universities put out a lot of documents.

Some bigger campuses have their own campus press, with people who are experienced in technical printing and design (though perhaps not large format documents).

Photography. Again, universities are always needing photos of events for news and promotion, and and have photographers on staff. They are often looking for shots of faculty and students doing stuff. Contacting a staff photographer might be a great way to get a compelling visual for your poster.

I would love to have a photograph as striking as this one on my poster. Click to enlarge (it’s big)!

Photograph of researchers on dried, cracked mud

This photo was taken by David Pike, a photographer on my university. I don’t think this is the sort of image that a professor or grad student taking a few snapshots with their smartphone would be able to make very often.

I could easily see this sort of dramatic image as the centerpiece for a big conference poster.

Admittedly, offices and staff vary. I’ve been in some universities where there were dedicated staff photographers in the department, while at others, you have to go to another office some where across campus. Some are easy to collaborate with. Some are a little more reluctant, since they have their own work to do. And some get in the way more than help, more interested in maintaining the university’s branding than design that is suited for the task.

They may be other offices and staffer who can lend a hand if you poke your nose around and ask.

Related posts

Finding photos
Misplaced priorities on institutional templates

Photo by UTRGV photograph David Pike. Hat tip to him for prompting this post.

31 January 2019

Link round-up for January 2019

Very helpful article about how to pick two typefaces that complement each other,


Almost every text-based layout will benefit from more than one typeface. ... With the right pairing, your typography will instantly appear more professional, polished, and attractive.

• • • • •

Kaoru Sakabe discusses best practices in figure assembly.


Hat tip to ASBMB.

• • • • •

Brent Thorne has help for R users:

Do you like #RMarkdown but also need to make a conference poster? Well, the posterdown 📦 has been updated to include: fully customised colour options, sizing of your #PDF conference poster, and automated citation generation🙃🎉 Check it out here.

• • • • •

A listicle on the eight most popular types of posters says this about conference style posters:


What makes educational or research posters different is that most posters are very visually pleasing to the eye and rely on composition and aesthetic qualities while educational ones often rely on information and presenting a resumed version of the research. Notice that the entire scientific process of the research seems to be resumed in the academic poster above.

This is a very round about way of saying, “Damn, you ugly!”

Sigh. Just another reason this blog won’t be going out of business any time soon.

24 January 2019

Poster sessions for wheelchair users

Amy-Charlotte Devitz and service dog Fisher in front of a “Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology" sign.

I’ve visited the issue of poster accessibility on this blog, but mainly in the context of visual issues, like colour blindness and dyslexia. Of course, these are not the only challenges the people might face attending a scientific conference. Amy-Charlotte Devitz, a.k.a. The Bendy Biologist on Twitter, has a great blog post talking about navigating a scientific conference in a wheelchair with a service dog. The conference at hand is the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB) meeting this month in Tampa, Florida.

Here’s an excerpt, focusing in on what she says about poster sessions (emphasis added).

100+ posters were on display and you had a chance to interact with those who had made them. These were admittedly a bit of a challenge to navigate in a chair. It was crowded, meaning it was very hard to move around, and with so many people around I wasn’t able to get a proper look at many of the posters. The alternative was to come and look at the posters before the official sessions started, a time when very few people were present, so I did this often. The downside of this was that one, the presenters weren’t there to speak with and two, it meant skipping other events to come look at the posters. Improvements in accessibility could be made by the increasing the space between rows of posters as well as the posters themselves to open things up a bit. This may be limited by the space available in the venue, but it something to consider.

As I said in the beginning, my focus in this post would be on accessibility for individuals for mobility impairments, but I have a few points left to make. For one, almost every talk I saw used color-blind friendly color palettes in making their slides, and most used large fonts that were easy to read even from the back of the room. Encouraging these in all talks and posters would assure someone colorblind or visually impaired could view any material.

Full disclosure: I was the chair of the Student and Post-Doctoral Affairs Committee during this meeting, so I have a professional interest here above and beyond the usual. I was supposed to attend this meeting, but could not due to unexpected events.

It’s worth noting that SICB’s poster sessions used to allow people to have eight foot posters. Here’s one from 2017. In 2018, this was reduced to less than four feet of space for a poster. I do not know how far apart the poster boards were placed in those years, but it seems likely that the square footage of poster viewing space was probably about halved by this move.

That square footage of viewing space is extremely important for wheelchair users. Whatever reasons there are for shrinking the poster size (and there are probably reasonable ones), this does not change the fact that it virtually guarantees that the poster session is a worse experience for everyone, even if wheelchair users are a little more affected than most.

There is a lot more in Charlotte’s post, and I recommend it highly to you.

External links

SICB 2019 – An accessibility perspective

17 January 2019

Critique: Lending low tech tools

Today’s poster contributor is Scott Johnson. Click to enlarge!


This is a great marriage of content and form. The content is about something that is unabashedly “low tech,” so the hand-written, slightly lo-fi (okay, low tech) look is completely right here. It adds character and interest.

Regular readers know that I personally am anti-underlining, and try to remove it in almost every instance I see it. But here, because it’s hand written, I can see the case for it. When people write by hand, they do underline for emphasis. I would experiment a bit with removing the underline, but I don’t know if removing the the underlines for headings and making the headinga a bit bolder would lose the look.

I appreciate the purity of the monochrome greyscale, but it does wash out from a distance.

I would like to see a little colour – even if subdued, and not everywhere. To keep the “low tech” look, I would suggest referencing some old photos, like daguerreotypes. They often weren’t pure shades of grey – certainly not as pure as here. Old pictures often have creamy or brownish overtones to them, as you can see in this picture of American write Edgar Allen Poe.

Edgar Allen Poe daguerreotype


Making the background of the page a subtle shade off-white or something might help.

Alternately, the poster might use a single colour to highlight a few elements, like duotone printing.
I'm thinking of maybe a very light yellow for the “sunburst” behind the building.

If the poster stays pure monochrome, it could use a little more contrast to make some portions stand out. I like how the lines around the house and title are heavier to make them stand out at distance. But the text, as mentioned, is fading a little.

Very charming work!

Picture from here.

10 January 2019

When posters fail

When a poster fails, it’s usually because it failed early in the design process.

Years ago, I showed this poster:

Poster overflowing poster board and spilling onto floor

It does not matter whether this poster does a lot of the detail work right. It does not matter how good the layout is, or how good the typography is, or whether the colour scheme is consistent and pleasing to the eye, or whether there is enough white space. None of that matters.

The authors of this poster doomed it at the very beginning, when they picked a page size... and got it wrong.

In my experience, there are two places where posters fail early on.

On the content side, people do not edit enough. They want to include everything, rather than focusing on one thing, and the poster suffers.

On the design side, people do not make a grid. They start drawing boxes without any underlying thought to structure, and treat their data like some sort of jigsaw puzzle to fit together.

I was reminded of the while I was making a poster for the Student and Post-Doctoral Affairs Committee (SPDAC) for the recent Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB) meeting in Tampa (#SICB2019 on Twitter).

This poster was not a typical data-driven poster. Authorship was on my mind, and I wanted to do some consciousness raising about this issue to early career researchers.

What struck me was how little the poster changed from beginning to end. You can see this in the animation:

Animation of SICB authorship poster creation

Here are a few frames from that process. I had created a six column grid template for a poster class I was doing for SPDAC:


I decided to used that as a basis for a three column layout. And I what kind of graphic I wanted*. And those were apparent in the very first stages of layout, shown below:

Draft one of SICB authorship poster

Even as the poster is filling out, the underlying structure stays the same:

Draft two of SICB authorship poster

And here is the final version:

Final version of SICB authorship poster

Looking at it now, I should have made the title bigger. Oh well.

I have noticed a similar pattern when I’ve created animations of my design process before (here and here). This first one from 2015 keeps the same five column structure throughout the design process. A second one (from 2017) has a little more movement early on, but quickly settles down.

While you can see in the animations that a lot of time is spent tinkering. But the late stage tinkering is the polish that will differentiate the “okay” from the “excellent.”

It’s the early stage decisions that make the difference between “competent” and “embarrassing,” “okay” and “crap,” “success” and “fail.”

* From this blog post


(T)wo chess pieces suggest conflict. But if you know how knights move in chess, the reality is that neither can capture the other. In other words, from the point of view of those pieces, it’s a “no win” situation.
I think that represents most authorship disputes pretty well.

Related posts

Posters should not be usable as drapes
A poster with no conference, or: What I made in that #SciFund poster class
Critique: Sand crab summer

03 January 2019

Critque and ruination: Antibiotic resistance CARD

For the first blog post of the year, allow me to ruin a poster. And even more ironically, I’m about to ruin an award-winning poster.

This week’s contribution came from Sally Min. It was presented at McMaster Innovation Showcase, where it won the People’s Choice poster award. Click to enlarge!


When I first opened the file, I thought, “This is strong.” We have that intense White Stripes colour scheme. The diagonals add a lot of visual interest and make the poster look different than the usual rectangular format. There is not a lot to read, because the poster uses icons and flow charts effectively.

But those diagonals, which bring so much of the cool look to the poster, also mess with the poster.

They look like arrow heads. We expect to follow arrows.

At a glance, this is how I expect the order of stuff on the poster to flow.


But the numbers make is clear that this is the order the authors intended.


We don’t expect to go “left and up” from section 5 to 6, because there is stuff to the left we’ve already read (section 2).

Because those numbers are so helpful, it might be worth making them bigger or more prominent somehow. Maybe numbers inside bullets would make them more visible. Here’s a very quick and dirty version:



While I know intellectually what the problem is, I don’t know how to fix it in a way that doesn’t make the poster look worse.

My first thought was, “The top row is confusing. It looks like there is an arrow pointing right to left, from black section 2 to the red section 1. I’ll keep the diagonals, but reverse it so the implied arrow is consistent with the reading order.”

I tried that, but you have the same problem with the diagonals looking like arrows on the right side of the section 4, which pointed across to section 6, when the authors want you to go down to black section 5.


I tried to create a visual cue, another arrowhead made of diagonals, to show the authors preferred direction, and that’s a hot mess. The shape created by black section 5 is just a weird polygon that makes no sense.


Maybe the solution is to flip the content. Put the material in black section 5 where red section 6 currently is, and vice versa.

I think this style of design could work, but the back and forth reading flow would need to be built in at the beginning. Something like:


You end up with “half boxes,” which in this sketch I’ve used for fine print.

The thing is that after all this struggling, I’m actually not sure it matters much. This is still a sharp looking poster, and that the authors were smart enough to add the explicit guideposts by numbering each section. That means that I am only momentarily confused looking at the poster.

Presentation pic! The poster in real life...