24 September 2020

Link round-up for September, 2020

SciMobi is a new service for delivering poster-like content online. (I say poster like, because if it’s not on paper, is really it a poster?) Phil Greenhalgh has a pair of posts relevant to our interests here at LinkedIn. 

 The first is on QR codes. It arrives at the same conlusion of some earlier posts on this blog (always say what they lead to!).

The second is partly about the billboard poster format that has been the subject of much discussion. It uses a nice metaphor of catching. Throw one ball and someone can probably catch it. Throw a lot, and they will drop them. Excerpt:

Alas, when working in some of the most highly regulated industries in the world, the luxury of brevity isn't always one we can afford. The amount of balls is sometimes beyond our control, we are compelled to become jugglers. If the content just positively has to be there, it becomes our job to not throw the balls all at once at our audience, but to hand them safely one-by-one so they are not dropped.

Scimobi will soon have a 15% discount for Better Posters readers! I will announce it on the Better Posters Twitter when it’s ready. Thanks to SciMobi!

Update: The SciMobi discount code is:


It is good for three months (i.e., until mid December 2020).

• • • • •

Echo Rivera scored a coup with this awesome guest post from Heather Hinam. Heather makes posters for a living - only she knows them as “interpretive signs” for public displays like parks and museums and the like.

Bees and pollinators interpretive sign

Heather provides a breakdown of her process of making these rich, complex signs. I like this tip: write your text last!

Now that everything is where I want it to be, I finally start writing the text. I know some of you reading this will find it counter-intuitive, but by doing it this way, I never end up with too much copy. I can only fill the space that I have created.

While the target audience is general rather than academic, many academics would do well to look more at these sorts of signs as inspiration!

• • • • •

Florence Nightengale, she of nursing fame, was also a dataviz nerd.

Diagram of the causes of mortality in the armies in the east

Hat tip to Emily Anthes.

• • • • •

What art can do for science. Hint: way more than public engagement. How about:

  1. Change your perspective.
  2. Use data to create art and vice versa.
  3. Create new visual metaphors.
  4. Broaden frames of reference.
  5. Get inspired!

At Lifeology.

• • • • •

Kris Faraldo describes how to use PowerPoint make graphics fast with minimal graphics skills. (PowerPoint really is good for quick and dirty images.)

• • • • •

I am a big fan of actor Natalie Morales. Near the end of August, she dished some personal experienced with typography on Instagram.

The fact that people on here have the option to use Comic Sans is very upsetting to me

I'm dyslexic and I've heard Comic Sans is good for dyslexics but all it produces in me is pure rage. There are much better ones.

 As far as I am concerned, her word is law.

• • • • •

The first graphic novel created in India, The River of Stories, was recently reprinted. It’s a story of indigenous people, economic development, journalism, and more.

"The River of Stories" cover

The River of Stories is (mostly) English, and you can view it here (part 1) and here (part 2).

• • • • •

All for now!

18 September 2020

BioRender announces PosterRender

“Darn it, I don’t have a blog post lined up this week. What am I going to write about...?”

[Checks Twitter]

psst @DoctorZen have you seen!?


“Well, that’s this week’s blog post sorted.” 

BioRender just announced a new project, PosterRender. This cloud-based software features automatic alignment and global colour schemes.

It’s rare that I get to say, “Big news in the conference poster world!” But this is big news in the conference poster world.

I knew the company was thinking about a project like this, because a BioRender staffer consulted me at one point about the poster making process. I probably didn’t help much! 

This announcement is getting thousands of likes and retweets. I am not going to lie when I say I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, that a successful company like BioRender is throwing its weight behind poster making is fantastic. This will be a great boon for many people. 

On the other hand, the first glance suggests that this fundamentally a souped up template, and I have consistently struggled with templates. Templates prevent people from falling in deep dark holes, but they also generate a certain sameness that can be bland. BioRender figure have a recognizable style.

I also have a bit of a frown because the announcement says this is for people “who spent way too long making poster.” This was also an explicit selling point of the “billboard” style poster, as I mentioned last week.

I don’t like the implication that posters aren’t worth spending time on. 

It reinforces the idea that posters are third-rate ways of presenting scientific information. I never see people say, “You’re spending too much time on writing.” Nobody begrudges a few hours spent on creating a journal article, because people recognize that good writing takes time. Posters are a critical first draft of the scientific record. Take them seriously, damnit.

But I’m probably like the music nerd arguing that vinyl records “sound better” when the rest of the world has moved to listening to streaming music. 

This is going to be a very big success for BioRender and help many people make more readable and more attractive posters than they could have on their own.

Early access to PosterRender is available here. And you better believe I have signed up! I am excite!

Hat tip to Catherine Scott.

External links

BioRender PosterRender early access sign-up

10 September 2020

blog post with conference poster advice

A recent episode of the podcast 99 Percent Invisible looked at the rise of grocery store brands, and spent a lot of time examining generic brands.

No name baking soda

The example pictured is from No Name line of products from the Canadian supermarket Loblaws. In the late 1970s and 1980s, Loblaws started these generics as a cheaper alternative to national name brands. 

Of course, this “anti-brand” is in fact an instantly recognizable brand. The moment something becomes the subject of jokes, which No Name has often been, that’s a culturally significant brand.

Marketer Terry O’Reilly says of the No Name design:

You don’t have to pay for the mass advertising and all the design work and all the marketing that goes on behind that jar of jam. All you should be paying for is the jam. And Nichol called that “brand tax.”

This No Name attitude is shared with a certain section of the scientific community who declare that scientific papers are mere “ads for data.” These are the ones who thumb their nose at reviewed, editing, proofreading, and typesetting. None of that should matter, only the jam / data matters.

And No Name’s ultra minimalist design also reminded me of... the billboard style poster

Poster template saying, "Teach people something cool you learned in 5 seconds as they walk by (or scroll by)."

On his original YouTube video, part of Mike Morrison’s argument for the billboard style poster was that people making posters (usually students and other early career researchers) shouldn’t be spending the time for the design work on a poster. Call it the “design tax” instead of a brand tax.

I couldn’t resist doing this:

Conference poster in No Name style with bright yellow background and black Helvetica text

But the 99 Percent Invisible podcast goes on to describe how the generics, like No Name, started to lose appeal. Loblaw’s kept No Name, but started a new, upscale line called President’s Choice. It was led by a chocolate chip cookie, The Decadent.

President's Choice Decadent chocolate chip cookie

President’s Choice was a 180° pivot from No Name. As much as No Name reveled in DGAF minimalism, President’s Choice reveled in slick design. 

Both were created for the same stores, but as of now, President’s Choice became the more successful model. If you live in the United States, you might see the Walmart equivalent, Sam’s Choice.

And the moral of the story for posters is:

There is no optimal design. No Name and President co-exist in the same stores. One does not drive the other to oblivion.

Many people like nice packaging. As much as some researchers are say they only care about content – the only thing that matters in the jam in the jar or the data in the graph – when people vote with their dollars, they quite often choose the thing that has put more effort into the packaging. 

To some degree, the billboard style poster demonstrates that same trendline. If you haven’t looked at the material on the Open Science Framework lately, the current template is up to version 43. The number of styles is more varied and the designs are more sophisticated. For something that originally billed itself as something fast and time saving, a lot of effort has gone into refining the design for more uses for more people.

Update: No Name has an A+ Twitter game.

Graph in No Name style showing scatter plot of pie related products. Titled, "Pie chart. May contain data."

External links

podcast episode on 99 Percent Invisible

03 September 2020

Critique: The great cleave

I love seeing how people’s approaches to posters change over time. I am tickled we have a trio of posters from Nadav Ben-Assa. Click any of them to enlarge!

"You are what you cleave" poster 1

This first iteration is a clean, straightforward design that shows lots of good design decisions. There a clean columnar layout. The text and images are integrated. The margins are generous and have lots of white space.

The “In a nutshell” section has a few decisions that I might question. “In a nutshell” is clearly a summary box. The logical places to put a summary are the top left or bottom right. The sidebar in the bottom middle is okay. But I wonder if the sidebar is in that position “because it fit there,” rather then, “This is where it should go, so I’ll make it fit.”

There are some parts of the poster I would like to see more edges aligned.

Perhaps the main issue with this first iteration is that it doesn’t have a lot of personality. The title bar is a sort of unassuming brown. The sort of colour you might expect a 1970s kitchen to be.

Version 2 of this project does not have that issue.

"You are what you cleave" poster 2

Right away, you can see so much more personality! The colour choices are more bold and frankly, more fun. The title has gone from a generic sans serif to a condensed typeface that is bigger and easier to read. The text and images are integrated in a more sophisticated way.

The is still one thing that immediately makes me twitchy. The use of numbers to signpost the reading order is excellent. However, it does draw attention to “5. References” down in the lower right corner. You travel from section “1” to section “4” easily, then... you have to throw the car in reverse and back up all the way to the other side of the poster. Because the poster is in portrait mode, the distance from corner to corner isn’t great, but it’s jarring to glance at the poster and see, “1, 2, 5, 3, 4.”

Just remove the number “5” and the problem goes away. You don’t need to give directions to optional fine print.

Version 3 clearly has some of the same DNA as version 2.

"Same strain - different phenotype?" poster

The signposting issue is gone, and the numbers fall in their expected order! 

The more confident colour choices are starting to extend into the figures used. Compare this to the first poster, and you can see how many more little spots of colour are popping out.

There also seems to be less text in this version than the previous two.

The title, you note, has changed. Nadav liked the title, but it wasn’t connecting with the audience. I think this is a good lesson: you only improve certain things by testing it out on other people.

There is a very clear improvement in graphic design with each version. We can all only hope to improve as much as Nadav!

27 August 2020

Link round-up for August 2020

Modesta Abugu and Caroline Dowling have a nice article describing their experiences with online poster sessions at the Plant Biology 2020 conference.
PlantBio20 online poster session
 Their messages:

  1. Take it seriously. It’s easier than ever for people to spot errors.
  2. Promote it!
  3. Align your poster with other content you upload.
  4. Be ready for questions.
  5. Don’t be discouraged!

I keep asking for other people to talk about their experiences with virtual poster sessions, and this is the most I’ve seen so far. Please, if you have done an online poster session, email or tweet me about it!

• • • • •

Speaking of the Plant Biology meeting, there is now an archive of the workshop on illustrations. (Warning: Contains me.) 

All the speakers went through the chat transcript and added many more comments to the questions, many of which we could not answer live during the session. So even if you were in the workshop (and thank you if you were!), this may be worth visiting!

• • • • •

Animate Your Science have turned their blog post on poster design into a free PDF (17 pages), which is a little more portable and polished than the original blog post.

Cover to "How to Design an Award-Winning Conference Poster"

You do have to give up your email address to get it.

Animate Your Science also wrote a guest post over on Echo Rivera’s blog.

• • • • •

Academic conferences have changed this year. This article by Rafit Ali argues that even if COVID-19 fears goes away, the dominoes have started to topple, and the event industry will never be the same. 
"Then" over Napster logo. "Now" over Zoom logo.
Zoom is the Napster of the event industry, the ease with which you can put on good-enough virtual events with a global audience, almost for free, much to the undercutting of the underlying economics of the physical events world. All types of business event — conferences, trade shows, conventions — are in danger of their revenues streams of tickets, sponsorships, memberships, and other types of fees being eroded as the world gets used to digital formats and alternatives emerge to physical networking, matchmaking and other tasks we get out of these events.

Perhaps the most worrisome prediction is that by moving conferences online, “analog dollars become digital pennies.” Many scientific societies make much of their income through their conferences. The financial stresses on existing societies could be huge.

(I was a little surprised to see RELX, the parent company for the academic publisher Elsevier, listed as one of the biggest players in the event industry.)
• • • • • 
Jessie Baldwin tweeted:

I have been told that my study (currently under review as a Registered Report) isn’t eligible to be submitted for a conference presentation because the results are not known. Apparently the results are essential for the paper to be evaluated. This isn’t how science should work!

That’s... new. Incredibly unexpected and definitely counterproductive. But new. Rank and file conference presentations should not be vetted to this level of detail. People should be able to show incomplete or preliminary projects.

• • • • •

Calibri is a fine typeface that people are sick of because it is overused because it is the default in Microsoft Office. It used to be Times New Roman. A Microsoft team member explains why the default was changed.

Mobile phones were a big part of the switch.
• • • • •
Typography against fascism. The largely unknown politics of the Futura typeface.

• • • • •

The new logo for Iceland’s soccer team is quite something.

Iceland soccer logo, composed of four part: eagle, giant, bull, and dragon.

The abstract logo is kind of like those giant Japanes robots that combine to form one big robot. It has four parts that work individually: eagle, giant, bull, and dragon. But they are also combined into a single image.

• • • • •

Typography nerdery meets SF nerdry. The typography of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (with notes and comparisons to classic series, and newer movies, too!).

USS Enterprise saucer

My love for sans serif fonts like Microgramma trace straight back to this.

This post is an extract from the book, Typeset in the Future.

• • • • •

Nature reports that most acronyms never make it into wide use. Stop making new ones. And especially don’t make up ones for a poster!

• • • • • 

Speaking of Nature, remember how they redesigned their journal a while ago, including a custom typeface? The Atlantic did it, too. In June, Goldman Sachs became one of the first businesses I know to develop their own custom typeface: Goldman Sans (+1 typographic pun there, people).

Numbers in spreadsheet typeset in Goldman Sans

 There’s a New York Times article about it, too, with some fun jabs at the font from other type designers and good analysis.

This dual life is a lot to ask from a font: distinctive enough to please aesthetes, neutral enough to include in paperwork for an initial public offering.

You can download the font file (six roman weights, three italic weights, and two condensed weights) here. Hat tip to Geetesh Bajaj and Ellen Lupton.

• • • • •

In July, I reviewed a few online graphics editors like Vectr, Canva, and DesignCap. Another service in that space is Piktochart

Piktochart logo

The user interface and features look very much like Canva and DesignCap. Like DesignCap, paper size is a potential dealbreaker. 40 inches wide and 52 inches tall are the maximums.

Hat tip to Sydelle de Souza.

24 August 2020

The Word Lab Session on poster design

This week!

"10 Simple Rules for Designing an Academic Poster" Sydelle de Souza, 26.08.2020, at 1430 (UTC+1)

WordLab presents “10 simples rules for designing an academic poster.” with Sydelle de Souza. It’s free to attend this Zoom meeting, but you do need to sign up here to get an invite and the link to the meeting. Scroll down, and you’ll find it on the left-hand side.

Word Lab Sessions is an online place for casual conversation about linguistics in academia. I stumbled across their upcoming session on Instagram and though it would be of interest for some readers, particularly for any of you who are in Europe or Africa. (The time differences make it an early morning for someone in western North America!)

This is just one of several sessions they have hosted. Another general topic coming up is “The Fundamentals of Writing an Academic Paper” on September 16. (It‘s good to know even linguists have to work at this.) Most of their session focus on linguistics, so if linguistics is your main wheelhouse, definitely check them out!

External links 

The Word Lab Sessions

20 August 2020

Your poster text is too damn small!

One of the most frequent questions I get when I talk about posters is, “What’s a minimum point size?” I got it a few weeks ago when I was speaking at the Plant Biology meeting. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you might guess that it’s hard to answer this question. But in general:

Your poster text is too damn small

Your poster text is too damn small.

One place we can look for guidance for text size is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the act, which was a big win for people with disabilities in the United States. The ADA has a lot of specifications intended to maximize accessibility for people, including people with visual limitations.

Not surprisingly, the ADA does not offer guidance for academic conference posters. But it does offer guidance for signs. Signs are probably a pretty good parallel for conference posters. Both need to be visible from a distance and easily read, even for someone with less than perfect vision.

Rather than using point size, the ADA makes recommendations based on the height of capital letters; the uppercase letter “I” if you want to be specific.

Capital letters should be 16 mm high for signs viewed from 6 feet or less

The ADA requires that the capital “I” on signs be 16 mm tall if you are viewing from six feet or less. That is the usual kind of range people are viewing conference posters. That’s usually in the ballpark of a 66 point font. Point size is not a precise thing in digital fonts, so you have to double check the exact point size.

If you are viewing from further away (as someone might be when reading your poster title, say), the required minimum size goes up. For ten feet, that recommend height of capital letters is 28.8 mm, which is around 120 points.

Those ADA requirements for signage asks for text that is much larger than I usually see when people talk about “minimum point sizes.” I usually see recommendations like, “No smaller than 24 points” (that was AGU’s recommendation last year for body text, for instance) – less than half the ADA standard.

Of course, the ADA is not the only guidelines out there for making visual material accessible to many people. I’m sure other nations have developed their own standard for accessibility.

Nor I am not saying your academic conference poster needs to be ADA compliant. But I think this is a good example of a mismatch between the concern of many academics, which is “Show as much stuff as I can” and the concerns of people thinking about accessibility, which is, “Make is visible to as many people as I can.”

When face-to-face poster sessions return, consider it a challenge to make your poster ADA compliant!

13 August 2020

Posters with plans get as much feedback as posters with results

“Prereg posters” was an idea floated a couple of years ago (and nobody told me about it!) (Tibon et al. 2018). The idea is to present planned work on a poster, before data are collected, to solicit feedback.

Recently, a new paper came out (Brouwers et al. 2020) showing that these prereg poster work pretty well. The prereg posters with no data (or maybe very preliminary) seemed to get as much feedback and as much foot traffic as posters with data.

The kind of feedback people got differed, though, with prereg posters getting more attention to the methods and stats discussed, as shown in the figure below (click to enlarge).

Distribution of responses to the post-conference survey question, “what kind of feedback did you receive?” among presenters of prereg posters (left) and traditional posters (right). NR represents the total number of responses.

One question that wasn’t asked of poster presenters was, “How valuable did you find the feedback you received?” It would have been nice to try to asses whether the feedback was as valuable in addition to how much people got.

I think this is an important finding for people making posters in general. The abstract submission deadline is often so far in the future that people haven’t completed data collection and they don’t know what they will have when the conference rolls around. This can be reason for people to stress out. This paper suggests that that’s okay. People will still come and talk to you!


Brouwers K, Cooke A, Chambers CD, Henson R, Tibon R. 2020. Evidence for prereg posters as a platform for preregistration. Nature Human Behaviour. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-0868-z

Tibon R, Open Science Committee CBU, Henson R. 2018. Title TBA: Revising the abstract submission process. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 22(4): 271-274. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2018.01.008

06 August 2020

Mystery whiskers: deciphering box plots

Last week was the first Animal Behavior Society virtual meeting. I watched a lot of presentations (which I wrote about over at NeuroDojo: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4).

A lot of presentations showed data in box plots, like this:

Box plot

I’m having a hard time understanding this graph.

This plot shows both the box plot and what I assume is raw data overlaid on top. But the raw data are so scattered in the horizontal, it’s hard to figure out which data points are supposed to be associated with which boxes.

But putting that aside, I’m wondering what people think the plot shows. Because none of the components are labelled.

Here’s another example.

Box plot.

Nothing labelled here, either.

In looking at posters over the years, I have noted that one of the most common problems is that people show something like a bar graph of averages, and show error bars, but nowhere on the poster does it say what the error bars show. Even when I ask, presenters often turn back to the graph to look at it and make a face while trying to remember. They often can’t remember.

The whole advantage of box plots is supposed to be that they provide a more detailed view of the data than a simple average. But you don’t tell me what any of the components in the plot are, then there is no advantage.

That I kept seeing box plots with no description, nothing, made me curious: what do people think are being shown by those whiskers?  (I asked on Twitter, too; most replies here.) Obviously, the person making the graph thought it must be clear. They probably think there is an “industry standard” for box plots, but there is not.

And you can’t just assume that everyone draws box plots the same way you do! Wikipedia notes:
(W)hiskers can represent several possible alternative values, among them:

  • The minimum and maximum of all of the data
  • One standard deviation above and below the mean of the data
  • The 9th percentile and the 91st percentile
  • The 2nd percentile and the 98th percentile.

Any data not included between the whiskers should be plotted as an outlier with a dot, small circle, or star, but occasionally this is not done.

Some box plots include an additional character to represent the mean of the data.

On some box plots a crosshatch is placed on each whisker, before the end of the whisker.

Rarely, box plots can be presented with no whiskers at all.

I suspect this is another case of computers making it too easy to draw the wrong thing, as Dan Roam says. People just use the default box plot their graphic software creates and don’t critically examine the output.

I’m just surprised it’s a problem for box plots, since I would maybe expect that if you’re interested enough in showing variation in the data, you’d think about what people need to interpret the variation.

I am not sure what the best solution here is, There are several.

  1. Ask if you can replace the box plot with a bar graph, and put “SD” or “SE” or whatever in the Y axis label. Bar graphs cop way too much abuse. (Remember, the context is posters here, not journal articles.)
  2. Put the description in fine print under the graph. This is the simplest to achieve.
  3. Make a legend for the plot. (Origin 2020 does this automatically, so this can be fairly easy in some cases.)
  4. Label the elements on the graph the first time you show a box plot. This may be the most clear for a viewer, but is probably the most work for the presenter.
The last two options both have the advantage of putting information at the point of need, on the graph itself.

Update, 7 August 2020: I was surprised that the day after I post this, I pick up a journal from my mailbox, flip it open, and spot a box plot. 

Box plot with legend that describes none of the part of the plot
The figure legend contains no help whatsoever in deciphering the plots! There is no way to tell what anything means. All I can tell is that the averages are kind of around 50, and most of the data are somewhere between 25 and 150? It’s not useless, but it certainly could be more useful.

30 July 2020

Link round-up for July 2020

The Journal of Biogeography has an article from its editors about how to make a great figure. heir take-home messages:
  1. Create introductory figures to set up your problem.
  2. Create figures at final size.
  3. Use vector graphics. (Emphatic agreement here!)
  4. Make figure captions understandable on their own.
  5. Don’t overuse colour.
  6. Use maps to show geography.
  7. Include node support in phylogenies.
There are no figures in this article (!), although it links out to several other articles for figures.

• • • • •

Green charts
This is a good blog post on choosing colours. In particular, it considers the problem where you are give a style guide and told, “You must use these particular colours, because that’s our brand.”
At one organization I worked for, before I created a data visualization style guide, the guidance for charts was to “use brand green.” This meant that all charts were green, no matter what data they represented. It was hard for readers to tell the difference between graphs in a report, because they all looked the same. Green. To show the complexity of the data, we needed more colors.
Your institution’s colours were probably picked by how they’d look on a t-shirt and not how visible they will look on a graph.

• • • • •

Cumulative graph of sup[erhero sightings in neighbourhood
This is a good post on how to make graphs more understandable. Excerpt (which was highlighted as “Important!” in the original):
If you’re going to show people a cumulative graph, it’s important that you tell them it’s a cumulative graph.
• • • • •

Defaults are risky. At least this article on typefaces for research manuscripts suggests so. Because a lot of people do not like Calibri.

• • • • •

A history of emojis from 1862 (!) to today. Some fun tidbits in there, like the role of AOL (remember them?) has by introducing buddy icons in the messenger app.

• • • • •

How did Georgia hide a huge increase in COVID-19 cases?

Map on the left is 2 July 2020. Map on the right is 17 July 2020. Check the legend carefully.

That said,  Jonathan Schwabish offers a counterpoint here. Excerpt:
I believe that the issue of the changing legend is likely due to how the data visualization tool (whatever it is) automatically sets the map bins based on the data.
This is a Hanlon’s razor argument. I used to invoke Hanlon’s razor much more often, but living through 2020 has all but blunted that razor for me. I’ve seen far more heartlessness than cluelessness this year.
• • • • •
This post on the billboard poster format proposed by Mike Morrison is from last September. Excerpt:
I had the most “traffic” at my poster than ever, especially from a more generalized audience. In the past, most of the people who have visited my posters were specialists who picked out keywords from my poster title and were working with the same organism. With the main takeaway of the poster front and center, I also met people who were interested in my methods and intermediate findings and the applications/implications for broader research.
Sorry I missed it then! 

27 July 2020

#PlantBio20 is this week!

Plant Biology 20 banner

A quick reminder that I will be speaking at Plant Biology 20 this Wednesday, 29 July!

Plant Biology "Get Your Message Across" workshop

Wednesday, July 29, 2020, 1:30 PM – 2:30 PM EDT

Get Your Message Across: A Guide to Artwork and Illustrations for Better Impact and Clarity

Speaker:  Magdalena M. Julkowska, PhD – KAUST
Speaker:  Patrice A. Salomé – UCLA
Speaker:  Zen Faulkes
Chair:  Ivan Baxter, Ph.D – Donald Danforth Plant Science Center
Chair:  Mary Williams

Update, 9 August 2020: An archived version of the workshop is now online here. In particular, all the speakers went through the chat transcript and added many more comments to the questions, many of which we could not answer live during the session.

23 July 2020

One simple trick to improve (some) bar graphs

I ran across this figure because it was being used as a good example.

redictive power (root  mean square error: RMSE) of edaphic  (dark grey), topo‐climatic (pale grey) and  overall (white) predictors calculated on the  diversity of protist operational taxonomic  units from the overall community and nine  broad taxa retrieved from 178 meadow  soils in the Swiss western Alps. The RMSE  were calculated on 100 cross validation of  Generalized Additive Models performed  with 20% of the samples as test dataset.  The letters on the top of the boxplots  represent significantly different groups  according to a multiple comparison mean  rank sums test (Nemenyi test p < .05) for  each of the edaphic, topo‐climatic and  overall variables

This is a journal figure, not a poster figure, so there are many things I would want to do differently on a poster. But I just want to focus on one thing:

The most important things to read on this figure are the labels on the x-axis. You’re probably crooking your neck right now trying to do so. Readers should not have to contort themselves to read your graph.

For that matter, the all the y-axis labels also require you crook your neck read them. Even the numbers, which have no business having their being vertically aligned.

But luckily, the solution is simple: rotate it!

redictive power (root  mean square error: RMSE) of edaphic  (dark grey), topo‐climatic (pale grey) and  overall (white) predictors calculated on the  diversity of protist operational taxonomic  units from the overall community and nine  broad taxa retrieved from 178 meadow  soils in the Swiss western Alps. The RMSE  were calculated on 100 cross validation of  Generalized Additive Models performed  with 20% of the samples as test dataset.  The letters on the top of the boxplots  represent significantly different groups  according to a multiple comparison mean  rank sums test (Nemenyi test p < .05) for  each of the edaphic, topo‐climatic and  overall variables
Suddenly, this graph becomes easy to scan. No information is lost. The data is not harder to compare. And by definition, the graph takes up the same amount of space on the page. Some tweaking might be required to optimize to columns widths, though.

There are a couple more changes besides rotating the entire image. The old y-axis scales are on the top with a simple rotation, and those got moved to the bottom. The legend and the comparison letters, which were the only things oriented horizontally, got “unrotated” back to horizontal.

If your labels are too wide to be horizontally aligned, consider turning your vertical column graph into a horizontal bar graph.

You don’t want to do this in every case. If you are plotting time as a variable, it is almost always better to keep time on the x-axis, because that is such a standard way of portraying time in graphs. Fortunately, you can often use abbreviations for time (“Jan” or even “J” instead of “January”) to avoid vertical text.

I can’t help you with those taxonomic names, though.

And the moral of the story is: English text wants to be horizontal!


Seppey CVW et al. 2020. Soil protist diversity in the Swiss western Alps is better
predicted by topo‐climatic than by edaphic variables. Journal of Biogeography 47:866–878. https://doi.org/10.1111/jbi.13755

16 July 2020

Review: DesignCap

Having reviewed a couple of online graphic editors this month, I got an email from a company, DesignCap, asking me to do a third. I created an account and logged in.

Wow, it’s a lot like Canva (reviewed last week, here). The user interface, the templates... these two services are clearly trying to occupy the same space.

Lots of features are locked for paid membership. You can only save five designs at a time. You are limited to five image uploads (that would be a big problem for many posters). You can export to JPG but not PNG or PDF. You can only expert in “Small” size.

Some features are missing entirely. There is no “space evenly” button, paid or not.

I try a poster template. They are all 420 by 594 mm (16.5 by 23 inches). That’s really the size of a flyer to me. Too small for a conference poster.

I tried to create a poster to a custom size. Hm, can’t enter size in inches, only pixels. And the maximum number of pixels is 4,000. Too small for a conference poster.

DesignCap can’t make a conference poster. We’re done here.

09 July 2020

Canva review

Canva logo
TL;DR: Canva is great for simple things like an Instagram post, but I would hesitate to use it for a conference poster.

In January (before we knew that 2020 would be a dystopian hellscape, remember?), one of my contributors mentioned making a poster in Canva. I’ve been playing around with it on and off since then, and am here to report what I've learned.

Note: All my comments are based on the free version of Canva. There is a Canva Pro that you pay a subscription fee to use.

One big advantage of Canva is that this is a cross platform app. I suspect many people will run it in a desktop web browser (which seems to be its native form). But there’s a desktop version. There are tablet and smartphone versions for iOS and Android. With an account, your work is stored online and accessible from all your different devices.

This is nice, because it means you can sketch out designs away from your desk. You can tinker with a project standing in a socially distanced line to deal with the cable company.

The big selling point, I think, is the templates. I’ve been using Canva mainly for creating Instagram posts. Here’s one I made to promote a post from a couple of weeks ago:

This was derived from a haphazardly picked Canva template, removing the text, and replacing it. For quick, small, simple things like this, I like Canva a lot.

For more complex tasks like a poster, I like it less. When you look for a poster template, the size is 18 by 24 inches. Too small for a conference poster. You can create a custom size, as long as it’s smaller than 64.5 by 38.7 inches. That is smaller than I would like, but given that many conferences seem to be trying to squash posters into smaller and smaller space, it may be all you need.

Typography is a critical point for any poster. Navigating the font selection is challenging. First, fonts you use on your desktop are not on the Canva list. No Times Roman, Arial, Gill Sans, Helvetica.

Second, the list of fonts you have is kind of huge. Forget trying to scroll through them all to find one you like.Your best bet is to search with a term like “serif,” “slab,” or “semibold.”  How these are tagged is not clear to me. I’m not sure what makes these “decorative.”

Decorative fonts in Canva

Even with a search, you are often still presented with a damn long list to scroll through.

You can upload pictures from your computer (such as graphs, etc.). But there is no serious integration with standard desktop products like Microsoft Office. You can’t upload an Excel spreadsheet and get a graph from it. You will need to make a PNG, JPG, or SVG file to import into Canva.

You cannot create guidelines. Instead, there is a lot of automatic “snap to” features that help align elements. You can also space elements evenly by selecting multiple objects.

You can create a grid, but only sort of. You click “Elements” in the left sidebar, and search for “Grid.” You don’t get a grid in the usual sense of a series of lines diving the page. Instead, you get another template that divides up the page and lets you “drop” elements into those spaces.

Here is an image with a three column “grid” with pictures dropped in.

Three side by side images in a square. The images reach top to bottom.

You can resize the grid, and it resizes everything within it giving different crops.

Three side by side images in a square. The images do not reach top to bottom.

Notice that hairline space between elements has stayed the same. I can’t see anything that allows you to set margins between elements.

As far as I can tell, you cannot set anything in Canva to a certain size. You cannot easily take an image and force it to be six inches wide, say. For an Instagram post with maybe two to four elements, that’s not a problem. For a conference poster with maybe dozens of elements, that’s a problem. You may want to make sure all your text boxes and graphs are five inches wide, for example. That’s very difficult in Canva.

Related posts

Critique: Dangerous LDL

External links


08 July 2020

Better Posters book cover reveal!

Look at this!

Better Posters book cover

The Better Posters book has moved another step being closer to reality, a blogger’s dream you can hold in your hands!

Current publication target: 25 January 2021!

Read more on the Pelagic Publishing website!

02 July 2020

Vectr review

I often use Pixlr as a quick online photo editor, and recently noticed a new product, Vectr. I was intrigued because it made vector based graphics. (If you don’t know what those are and why you should use them, here’s a post that explains.)

I tested out Vectr by trying to make a version of my new blog heading.

I soon noticed was that picking typefaces from the dropdown menu was a nightmare. Because this is an online app, you can’t add new fonts. You take what you’re give. Fortunately, there’s a huge variety of typefaces, but unfortunately, few familiar ones. You can’t filter for “serifs” or start typing a name. You have to scroll down laboriously. You want a substitute for Times New Roman? Happy hunting.

In Firefox, the name of the typeface was duplicated, once in a plain sans serif and a second time in the typeface itself. It was near impossible to read and know what you’re getting.

I thought that couldn’t be right. On a hunch, I opened up and tried Chrome. The typeface list was displayed correctly.

(Aside: I am deeply annoyed that we’ve had web browsers for over twenty years and I still run into pages that render differently on different browsers.)

You can pick colours for everything, but you either need to be happy with eyeballing the colour or work out a hex value. You cannot input RGB or CMYK values directly. And I didn’t see the “Recently used” button did anything.

You can import images in several formats, both pixel based (*.jpg and *.png) and vector based, including *.svg, Adobe Illustrator (*.ai) and *.eps. By the way, the import of an *.svg file I tried was more accurate than CorelDraw 2020.

You get a much more limited range of export options, though. Just three: *.svg, *.jpg, and *.png. It is a bit weird that this bills itself as a vector based illustration program and two of the three export options are pixel-based.

Some features, like alignment, are buried in “right click” menus rather than being visible on the main page. In fairness, I did not run through the tutorials.

The end result of my tinkering:

Not horrible, but I could not duplicate some elements I had created in CorelDraw, notably the shape I used for “Soon to be” and the strike throughs.

Related posts

Will it scale?

29 June 2020

#PlantBio20: “Get your message across” workshop

I’ll be speaking at the Plant Biology 2020 meeting next month as part of the workshop, “Get your message across: a guide to artwork and illustrations for better impact and clarity.

I will be joined by Magdalena Julkowska and Patrice Salome. They will be hard acts to follow!

If you are attending that meeting, please join me! If there is anything you would like me to address, @ me on Twitter or shoot me an email.

29 July 2020. Don’t miss it!

External links

25 June 2020

Link round-up for June 2020

Hey! Everything is still awful. If you are taking the time to read this, thank you.

• • • • •

A typeface for the times: COVID Sans.

Hat tip to creator Felix Bernoully.

• • • • •

Many poster creators would benefit from working with people whose specialty is art and / or design. But part of the challenge is making it typical, not exceptional. It is possible. Steve Cook wrote:

We have “normalized” including money for art and design within the grants we apply for. This past year our lab spent $15K+ on graphic design, fine arts, video production, photography, story boards, and animated shorts. A powerful way to increase the impact of the work we do.

• • • • •

Which nicely segues into this month’s gem. This is a deep dive blog post on how to work with a science artist. Fifteen artists answer common questions! Questions include:

  • How can I meet a science artist?
  • Where do I start – how do I reach out to an artist?
  • What questions should I ask?
  • What can I expect from working with an artist?


• • • • •

Magda Julkowska gives a nice seminar on data visualization, courtesy the folks who bring you Plantae.

• • • • •
I’ve said a lot that the title of your poster is the most important thing on it. Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein does a close analysis of a great headline and why it matters.
(I)n today's news landscape, headlines circulate MUCH more widely than the associated stories.

The headline was, “Police Erupt in Violence Nationwide.”

• • • • •

MyFonts has a guide to using ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. Their main message? “If you choose to set display copy in all caps, do so sparingly.” (My emphasis.)

That is to say, you probably do not need to set the long-ass title of your poster in all capitals to get attention.

• • • • •

Research posters as done by 4 year olds.

Paper with kid's drawing, saying "Bird week has started!" with labeled pictures of owl, puffin, eagle, peafowl, and ostrich.

Just one example here, there are more in the link!

• • • • •

Krista Byers-Heinlein has a nice thread on electronic posters. Excerpt:

Landscape format pdfs require scrolling both vertically and horizontally - not great. We wanted something with vertical-only scroll, that would adapt to different devices (phone/tablet/computer)(.)
This example later in the thread shows the “scroll down” format well. It was created in Visme.

I’d like to think efforts like these validate my suggestion that that a single scrolling column probably works well for on online poster.

These posters remind me of Scott McCloud’s “infinite canvas”: experimental web comics where he took advantage of the fact that he could have a “page” on the web that was bigger than any printed page could ever be. A computer screen was conceptualized as a window, rather than a page, As we see more and more online conferences, it would probably be wise to revisit comics’ forays into graphic communication on the web.

• • • • •

Nature looks at how scientific conferences are managing the pandemic and whether they can survive in the future. Posters appear briefly (emphasis added):

Researchers who have attended virtual meetings say that the meetings have several important downsides. Poster presentations can fall flat in an online space, and it’s difficult to have serendipitous encounters between sessions, which is where a lot of collaboration normally happens.
I think the pandemic will definitely force a lot of societies to push harder on setting up online experiences. But meeting in person has so many advantages that it's hard to imagine it vanishing entirely.

18 June 2020

Review: Academic & Scientific Poster Presentation: A Modern Comprehensive Guide

Full disclosure: This book was published after I had started the process of writing my own book on posters. I wanted to write my book my way, and didn’t want to imitate Rowe’s work. I bought Rowe’s book, but put it aside until my manuscript was handed over to my editor and my book was well along its own path to publication. That’s why there has been no review until now.

That I have my own book coming out means I am not exactly a dispassionate observer here. You may gauge my comments about this book accordingly.

Nicholas Rowe’s Academic & Scientific Poster Presentation is only the second book I have found specifically devoted to academic conference posters. The first, from 1999 (reviewed here), hasn’t aged well, so it was past time for a new book on the topic.

Near the end, in Chapter 12, Rowe admits the book is the end result of his own frustration:

(T)he author (tired and mildly disappointed after a mediocre poster session) began to wonder about the actual benefits of poster presentation and what could be done to improve the current situation. ... This book is one output of the research(.)
It’s telling that Rowe describes the book as a research product. The style of the book is conceptual, theoretical, and analytical. (There is even an equation.) Here’s a taste of the style:

Figure 3.3 shows the way that poster presentation facilitates transactional
exchange around a given topic (for a more detailed discussion on this subject, see
Rowe 2012). No robust empirical studies have been conducted into the level of
knowledge transfer that is achieved by the poster medium...

This is more a book of scholarship about posters more than it is advice on how to create posters. For example, Rowe reproduces one of the earliest examples of something that might have been at a “poster session” from 1946!

Rowe repeatedly mentions how little research has been done into conferences in general and posters in particular. The lack of research is strange, he notes, given that the cost of making posters probably reaches into the billions of US dollars per year, and is the second most common form of academic communication.

There is some “how to” advice. If you pick up this book looking for advice on how to make a poster, chapters 6 to 9 on design, and chapter 12 on presentation, are the most relevant. Like most of the book, the advice tends to be on the theoretical side. The advice sometimes delivers very specific details on how to do things in PowerPoint, which is can be a somewhat jarring shift in gear.

The book has 26 figures. Most appear to have been made in PowerPoint. This would not be surprising, since many of Rowe’s specific recommendations concern how to do things in PowerPoint.

Figure 5.1 The needs of parties involved in poster sessions

As you can see here, most of the figures are low resolution mock-ups of posters, not final, polished versions. Chapter 6 has examples of completed posters, but they almost thumbnails (4 and 7 examples to a page) where the detail is hard too see.

One of the ways I check for “currency” is whether links still work. Some diagrams have QR codes, so I scanned a couple of those. They still work!

There is only detail which I disagreed with.

(T)he annual convention of the Modern Language Association of America, the MLA, is said to be the largest academic conference in the world, and in 2014, it had more than 10,000 attendees and 810 sessions and lectures

This is in no way near the largest. The 2014 American Geophysical Union fall meeting had 25,920 registered. The 2014 Neuroscience meeting had 31,250 in attendance. This claim was, unfortunately, on page 2! Fortunately, this did not auger ill for the rest of the book.

Rowe’s book is alone in its scholarship of poster presentations, and ends with several potential research topics for the future. I absolutely agree with his point that posters and poster sessions have been an overlooked topic for research. Rowe’s book is an excellent starting point for any scholar who wants to start examining an untapped vein of research about research.


Rowe N. 2017. Academic & Scientific Poster Presentation: A Modern Comprehensive Guide. 170 pp, 26 figures. Springer: Cham, Switzerland. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-61280-5