16 March 2023

Canva revisited

I reviewed Canva back in 2020. Canva has introduced many new features since then, so here are a few quick updates on the platform. 

Size seems to have increased, but is still limited. I still can’t make a poster that’s 6 feet wide by 4 feet tall. But now it seems to have a limit on total area. I think when I reviewed it before, it had a hard limit on height and width. I can now make a poster that’s 6 feet wide by 2 feet tall, which I don't think I could before.

There are now university research poster templates. (They may have been there before, but I don’t think so.) Search the templates for “Research Posters” and you get about 20 or so different templates. 

Poster template with large grey title bar and sans serif type.

 A couple are recognizably based on Mike Morrison’s billboard style posters.

Poster template with large central text and sans serif type.

 Many have the same boilerplate text that doubles as a guide.

How to make a research poster: A guide for students

Many technologies and breakthroughs would not be possible without research.
It is important to keep members of the community informed about the latest updates. One way to do that is through research posters.

Most of the templates are good on colour and typography. 

Poster template with light background and serif type.

But most have too much fine text. 

Poster template with half black, half light background and sans serif type.

Some have confusing layouts.

Poster template blue title bar and sans serif type.

Canva has certainly improved as a platform for making conference posters. It would still not be my “go to” for posters, because the size limitations bother me.

Related posts 

Canva review

09 March 2023

Don’t make your figures like journal figures

I’ve written about the importance of respecting reading order on this blog many times. English readers generally look at the top left of a page first, because that’s where we have learned that text starts.

Rectangle with "Start here" in upper left and "End here" in lower right.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how scientific journal articles break information apart. But I didn’t realize another shortcoming of typical journal figure layouts.

You are supposed to start reading in the middle. It’s not necessarily clear if you will end up at the last image in the figure or the end of the figure legend.

A figure from a scientific journal, showing "Start here" pointing at the start of the figure legend under the images.

Not only that, you have to look back and forth from the legend to the images. Your eyes are constantly travelling. 

Multi-panel journal figure with overlay showing reading pathway back and forth from text to figure and back to text.

But graphics from news organizations (like the New York Times, FiveThirtyEight, Nature or Science magazines, and so on) do things a different way. The title goes at the top.

A graph from news in Nature, with "Start here" pointing at the title above the figure..

Rather than having the description underneath, the graph is annotated. This makes the graph less compact, true, but reading it is more in line with our reading expectations.

The more I think about it, the more I think this format is a much better model for figures on posters..

Conference posters in movies: Awake

The opening minutes of the Netflix movie Awake (2021) take place in a secured research building. How do I know?


You can see them in the right side of all of these screen shots.

Screenshot from Awake 2021, showing hallway with posters on right.

There are a few posters in this tracking shot, but the one closest to the edge of screen is the only one where the components are visible. Solid two column layout. This is the only poster we see with any colour: some orange in the section headers.

Screenshot from Awake 2021, showing hallway with posters on right.

The two posters in the shot above drove me a little nuts. Typical academic poster, far too much tiny text. At least the one on the left has a good “hero” figure in the upper left. Two columns again, which is a little unusual, since three columns are more common.

Screenshot from Awake 2021, showing hallway with posters on right of Gina Rodriguez opening a door.

As star Gina Rodriguez enters the room, we see two more in the background. Two columns again, clearly with a lot of small text. Neither appears to have any graphics, although there are some shaded boxes in the right one, perhaps highlighting tables.


Screenshot from Awake 2021, showing room with posters on right, as Gina Rodriguez opens door.

While the shot is a bit dark, this is the only poster whose title can be seen.

Screenshot from Awake 2021, showing room with posters on right, as Gina Rodriguez opens door.

Appropriately enough for a movie about people not being able to sleep, the poster is “The impact of caffeine”!

Here’s a close-up, brightened up for visibility:

Poster titled "The impact of caffeine."

The only poster using the classic three column layout.

At first, I thought the posters must have just been there in the location they were filming in. But this is so on point with the movie that I am thinking that maybe the art director dressed the space with posters? At least this one? 

That the posters have such a consistent design and so little colour also make me think these are set decorations. You wouldn’t want brightly coloured posters in this dimly lit scene.

Maybe I’ve been at this too long when I’m paying more attention to the posters than the end-of-civilization plot...

External links

Awake on Netflix

Awake on IMDb

02 March 2023

Plastic octopus

This is not timely post. But join me and step into the Wayback Machine with me, to go back to 2017. I stumbled across this award winning poster from Stephanie Harris. This is from the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour Easter meeting from that year.

Stephanie Harris holding a certificate for her poster prize, with her poster in the background. A plastic octopus is attached to the poster.

I was looking at is, and thought... “Wait, what is that just to the right of her certificate?” I zoomed in.

Plastic octopus attached to poster.

It’s a plastic octopus. But not some plastic octopus randomly attached to the poster for no reason. It was actually used in the research project to test birds’ personalities.

So I just wanted to make this very short post to remind people that you can use your poster space to do more than just put up a sheet of paper.

01 March 2023

The annual tradition continues: the Better Posters blogiversary

We made it. Fourteen years, my friends! That’s a lot!Birthday cake with "14" cake topper.

Having been in a pandemic for a few years, I don’t take it for granted that a project will make it another year. So I’m glad this one has.

One of the reasons I started this blog was that I thought there was so much more to say about posters than was normally being said. And I think the fact that this has made it for 14 years shows that was something to that hunch.

Whether what I have to say about the topic is valuable or interesting is a decision I will leave to you. 😉

As always, I thank you for your attention.

23 February 2023

Link roundup for February 2023

Even though online conferences seem to have lost almost all momentum in 2022, papers describing online conferences from 2020 to 2021 keep coming.

Secpholand vitural poster session

The poster session was important to the planning of the conference. In part because of the poster session, the organizers picked a platform called Secpholand.

This type of 3D virtual environment has been selected mainly for the possibilities of interactivity with other attendees... What is especially attractive is how posters are presented, which for us was very important given the high number of poster contributions and considering that many of the presenters were early-career researchers, sometimes at their first conference participation. The poster room is configured like a real poster room(.) Moving your avatar around, you can see the posters, zoom on them to check them out and especially, when entering in the dedicated area next to the poster, a voice call with the other people in the area is started(.) Thus, the platform is able to reproduce a traditional poster session in an online platform reaching more than 2600 poster visualizations.
de las Heras A, Gómez-Varela AI, Tomás M-B, Perez-Herrera RA, Sánchez LA, Gallazzi F, Santamaría Fernández B, Garcia-Lechuga M, Vinas-Pena M, Delgado-Pinar M, González-Fernández V. 2023. Innovative approaches for organizing an inclusive optics and photonics conference in virtual format. Optics 4(1):156-170. https://doi.org/10.3390/opt4010012

• • • • •

This is a real figure published in a book chapter.

Three crudely drawn turtles with three different shell shapes

Spangler M. 2015. Amphibians and Reptiles at the Ometepe and La Suerte Field Sites: Toward an Overview of the Evolution, Diversity, and Natural History of Central America’s Herpetofauna. In: Huettmann F, ed. Central American Biodiversity. Springer, New York, NY. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4939-2208-6_12

Hat tip to Alexandra Phillips.

• • • • •


Apologies for this being a short link roundup. I deleted an earlier draft of the post and couldn’t recover it.

16 February 2023

Critique: Limpet or leave it

This week’s contribution comes from Louise Firth. It was presented at the International Tidal Reef Symposium (#ITRS2023) in January. Click to enlarge!

Poster titled, "Limpets in our lives."

I am a big fan of using the techniques of comics on academic posters. So when I spotted this comic-inspired poster (hat tip to J. E. Byrnes), I wanted to share it here on the blog.

Usually, posters are the first drafts of papers. But in this case, the poster arose out of a review paper that Louise wrote at the start of the pandemic.

The paper was my “Lock down project,” because I, like everyone else was struggling with work and this was a fun way to make me enjoy doing work in a bubble. As the paper was so long, I figured no one would read it so the poster was my way of summarising it and advertising it.

She also used the artwork in this poster in a summary of her limpet review paper on Twitter. I think this is another advantage of the comics format: it can be often broken apart into individual, sharable pieces for things like a Twitter thread.

Things that work on this poster:

The title. It reminds me of how many Sunday comic strips were laid out. The title of the strip would take up a good chunk of the upper left corner, and the action would usually start in the upper right corner.

Here’s an example from Dick Tracy, circa 1938:

Dick Tracy comic strip from Sunday edition.

A later example from Peanuts:

Peanuts comic strip from Sunday colour edition.

And an even later example from Bloom County:

Bloom County comic strip from Sunday edition.

That layout of the title very much enhances the comic feel of the poster.

The art. I think a lot of this was originally from a variety of sources, but I suspect that Louise did a little editing to harmonize the style of the artwork on most of the poster. The exception is the title, which stands out because of its dark background on a poster where most of the panels have a white background.

What works less well?

The lettering. Yup, it’s our friend Comic Sans, whose shortcomings have appeared in this blog many times before. If this used a professional level comic font like something from Comicraft or Blambot, it would just elevate the whole poster.

Here’s one original panel (snitched from the Twitter thread):

Poster panel reading, "Don't forget inspiration! In Canadian Haida culture, Raven first created two women from clam shells. He then turned one into a man by throwing a limpet shell at her – creating the Haida Gwaii people."

Here’s the panel using Ready for Anything, an outstanding general comic font from BlamBot:

Poster panel reading, "Don't forget inspiration! In Canadian Haida culture, Raven first created two women from clam shells. He then turned one into a man by throwing a limpet shell at her – creating the Haida Gwaii people."

And here is something a little more ambitious: using different type for the spoken words (Back Issues) and the captions (Manly Men).

Poster panel reading, "Don't forget inspiration! In Canadian Haida culture, Raven first created two women from clam shells. He then turned one into a man by throwing a limpet shell at her – creating the Haida Gwaii people."

Thought I like these revisions, I can’t so another element easily change...

Word balloons.The word balloons. These balloons are highly characteristic of Microsoft PowerPoint. Professional balloons in comics have pointers that are thinner and curved, and the proportions of the ovals are different. I didn’t think there was a simple solution at first, but then I found that Comicraft has word balloons for sale in Illustrator EPS format for a very reasonable price.

Blambot has word balloons for sale, too. 

Blambot Balloon Brushes v. 1 showing examples of balloons.

Blambot’s balloons are Adobe Illustrator paintbrushes, so maybe not quite as readily portable into other graphics packages.

Are these issues just me scratching my comic book nerd itch? Yeah, probably a little. But I think if you are going to use a form, it is worth leaning into it. The lettering, in particular, would not be hard to change. It would costs just a few bucks to buy a font, a few minutes to install it, and a few more minutes to change the text in the poster. 

Thanks to Louise for being this week’s contributor!


Firth L. 2021.What have limpets ever done for us?: On the past and present provisioning and cultural services of limpets International Review of Environmental History 7(2): 5-45 https://search.informit.org/doi/abs/10.3316/informit.190553729493929