02 April 2020

Pandemic publishing plans: Better Posters book update

Plan, design and present a better academic poster
When I started working the Better Posters book over two years ago, the original plan from the publishers was to release it in the first quarter of 2020. Which would have been the end of March, 2020.

Er. Yes. About that.

I never mentioned the “first quarter of 2020” date publicly, but because we are now past that date, this is a good time to talk about the status of the book.

The writing is done. The copy editing and revision is done. The cover design has gone through a few versions, and is probably close to being finalized. Planning is going on for production and promotion. But we’re not going to be close to that original planned publication date.

Part of the reason we slid past the planned publication date was my own fault. Copy editing took longer than I anticipated. I always knew it would be complex, but things that I didn’t think of cropped up, like getting permissions for quotes. And I was still teaching full course loads when the copy editing was going on. And it was partly because the copy editing wasn’t just text, either. I ended up revising a lot of figures, and even creating a few new ones.

But the other big reason it will still be some time before you can hold the Better Posters book in your hand is not my fault. There are more important things going on than my little book.

So you may have noticed we’re in the middle of a global pandemic.

Normally, if the book was coming out in the next few months, it would be leading into, or in the middle of, summer. Summer is peak conference season, but every scientific conference that I know of has been cancelled for 2020. It is the worst time ever to release a book about conference presentations.

Of course, that problem even assumes that the book could be physically printed over the next couple of months. Much of book production is digital now and can be done remotely, but there’s enough stuff involving moving atoms around instead of bits that printing and shipping a book would be somewhere between “slow and difficult” to “Shut up and get out, and take your impossible demands with you.”

We’d be doing nobody any favours trying to get this book out in the next few weeks. There’s no point. (Thanks, COVID-19!)

I am still hoping that you will be able to read this book before the end of the year, but only time will tell. It always does.

Update, 4 April 2020: Yesterday, Beth Meachum, an executive editor at Tor Books, took to Facebook to outline why publishing is in a tough spot now. Some of this is specific to the US, and the Better Posters publisher, Pelagic Publishing, is in the UK. Still.

I want to talk for a minute about why publishing is in so much trouble right now. It’s way more complicated than most people seem to think.

First, you need to know that the vast majority of our business remains in hardcover and paperback books. Hard copies, physical objects. The second strongest sector has been audio books. Ebooks are a distant third.

Selling books is a very long and complicated supply chain. Ignore editorial – writers and editors can work at a distance and electronically. It really starts with the paper. Storing paper for the big presses takes an enormous amount of warehouse space, which costs money. Printers don't store a lot – they rely on a “just in time” supply chain so that when a book is scheduled to go to press, the paper is delivered to the printer. Most of that paper is manufactured in China. Guess what isn’t coming from China? Anything, for the last three months. Some of it comes from Canada. Guess what the Trump administration put a big tariff on at the beginning of the year?

So, we don’t have adequate paper supplies. Then consider, big printing plants are not “essential businesses.” There are only a couple printers in the US that can handle the book manufacturing business. One of them shut down last week. COVID-19. We started rescheduling books like mad to deal with that.

But supposing we had paper, and a printer and bindery, the books have to be shipped to the warehouse. Again, non-essential movement. The freight drivers moving books? Staying home, as they should. Not all of them. I hope they remain healthy, because dying to get the latest bestseller to the warehouse doesn’t seem quite right to me.

Now then, our warehouse. We have a gigantic facility in Virginia. Lots of people are working there, bless them, but it’s putting them at risk. There they are, filling orders, packing boxes, running invoices. Giving those boxes to the freight drivers who take the books to the bookstores and distributors. Again, truck drivers risking their lives to bring books to the bookstores.

But think again. The bookstores are closed. The distributors are closed. No place open to deliver the books to. Some bookstores are doing mail order business, bless them, but they aren't ordering very many books from our warehouse. Amazon isn't ordering very many, either – because they have (correctly) stopped shipping books and are using their reduced staff to ship medical supplies and food.

So the books that distributors and sellers ordered months ago are not being printed or shipped or sold. And because of that, they aren't making any money. And because of that, they are not ordering any books for months from now. Plus they aren't paying for the books they got from us last month and the month before. Cash flow has ground to a halt.

Now, audio books... turns out that people mostly, almost 100%, listen to audio books while they commute to work. Sales of audio books collapsed about three weeks ago. Fortunately, there isn’t a physical supply chain there, so theoretically that business can restart immediately upon resumption of commuting.

So given all the above, it’s not a good time in the publishing industry. The damage is going to last for a long time, the effects will be felt for at least a year to come, even if we do go back to business as usual in May. Or June. Or July.....

Oh let’s be real. We won’t go back to business as usual until there is a real vaccine for this coronavirus.

The insight is welcome, the honesty is bracing, and it’s just a little scary for a first time author to read. But I’m lucky. Very, very lucky. My livelihood doesn’t rest on this book.

P.S.—The artwork at the top is a snippet of a cover concept! Just a teaser to show production is happening, and to give you a little more than authorial angst over publication delays.

P.P.S—Because the book is still in production and should still be released, I thought this was a good time to give the blog header a new look. You may notice it is a little more in line with the cover concept sample above than the old blog header.

Better Posters, Improving poster presentations since 2009 (it's taking longer than we thought). Soon to be a book!

This was my first project in the newest version of CorelDraw. I was excited to play with some of the new features, like variable fonts. Looking for references for the “Soon to be a major motion picture” sticker was also fun.

26 March 2020

Link roundup for March, 2020

The big news about poster sessions this month is that... there are not going to be very many of them any time soon.

Conference after conference has been cancelled in response to the threat of COVID-19. Even those that are still a few months away have pulled the plug rather than face the uncertainty.

So far, some of the largest meetings in fall, and some conferences in summer, are still pressing forward, but this could be “the year without a conference” worldwide.

• • • • •

So what else is there to do but make infographics about social distancing?

Two people separated by the length of a lion

From Dani Rabiotti.

Two people separated by the length of a tapir

From Niall McCann.

Two people separated by the length of a turkey vulture

From Stefany.

From Alena Ebeling-Schuld. Hat tip to Gaius Augustus.

From Milton Tan.

Social distancing: 6 feet is about 457 mosquitoes

From aedecost. Hat tip to Fran Officialdegui.

Social distancing for marine biologists: Always stay 1 blac-browed albatross apart

From Huw Griffiths.

Social distancing for marine biologists: Always stay 13 sea pigs apart

Also from Huw Griffiths.

Social distancing for marine biologists: Always stay 1 giant squid mantle length apart

Huw Griffiths is just a busy, busy man.

Huw Griffiths: the greatest hits compilation. 

Ikea instructions for staying home. Door closed: yes. Door open: no.

From Ikea Israel. Hat tip to Amy Spiro and Prachee Avasthi.
• • • • •

Chloe Christenson shows sarcastic fringehead papercraft that could very easily be adapted to a poster!

Because Twitter sucks at letting you download video, you’ll either have to view the tweet or settle for these screen grabs:

Pencil sketch of sarcastic fringehead with mouth closed

Pencil sketch of sarcastic fringehead with mouth closed

Hat tip to Echo Rivera, who rightly points out this sort of thing could be incorporated onto posters a lot more often.

• • • • •

The genome engineering company Sythego has short post on how to make an effective scientific poster. And at least in late January, they were offering a chance to pick up a free poster tube!

Green transluscent poster tube with Synthego logo

This is one of the cooler and more useful bits of conference swag I’ve seen in a while! Hat tip to Meenakshi Prabhune.

• • • • •

This image of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is a wonderful visualization of the invisible threat to us.

Anna-Maria Meister asked a great question about how that visual was made.

(A)nyone know the story behind the #covid19 representation? Especially the one with the red spikes? It’s a thing of beauty, and I wonder what the aesthetic choices behind it are, and why and how they translate between cultures.

Robin Wolfe Scheffler found an article with the creators of the illustration, Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgins. Robin pulled this great quote:

“We used color and contrast to help distinguish the structures, provide emphasis and help enhance emotional response in order to demonstrate the gravity of the virus and the situation.

It’s great to have these kind of thoughtful individuals making these images.

• • • • •

Rosamund Pike plays Marie Curie in a new biopic, Radioactive.

The Nature podcast has an interview with her that is quite interesting, and touches on the importance and difficulty of making science visual. At 3:30 in the interview, Lizzy Gibney asks why Pike learned about the science for the role.

Well, I knew I couldn’t play Marie Curie unless I had some inkling of what was going on in her brain, outside of the lines of the script. You know, science isn't necessarily, as probably your listeners know, the most visually seductive subject for a film – as are many very interesting pursuits. Thinking is one of the hardest things to convey cinematically. It’s not like there’s a huge lot of drama in the lead-up to their discoveries. There’s drama afterwards, but the actual having of an idea, having of a position, all the things you try before you hit on the right solution, all of that is not essentially cinematic. So we have to create beauty out of it, and interest.

I have to know the practical application of how they might have measured, how they might have distilled, evaporated, done any of the procedures they did in the journey to isolating these elements. As well as one the spectrometer. Exactly what those readings showed, and how, when you saw the little graph, that a certain piece of uranium ore had a higher quantity of this unknown element. I had to be able to look at these readings with knowledge and accuracy, because you know, the film camera is in your eye. They're close ups. They're seeing the activity of your brain. I had to be able to look like my brain was processing – and it’s more exciting if your brain is processing accurate information. It's not just thinking about what you’re going to have for breakfast. It's obviously more enticing and exciting.

(Emphasis added.)

12 March 2020

Critique: Dirty, dirty flies

Today’s contribution comes from Gowri Rajaratnam and was presented at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting back in January. Click to enlarge!

I saw this browsing the session, liked it, and reached out to Gowri. Gowri had this to say (lightly edited):

I created this poster using a free account in Canva. It was actually inspired by the Mike Morrison better poster template. I was trying to modify my usual wordy, traditional-format poster design into something that was more appealing. Most of the time, when I attend poster sessions, I’m put off by posters with chunks of text in tiny fonts because it looks like its going to take me more time and effort to infer the key points of the poster.

I tried to do the opposite by including only the bare bones of the research project. I used the QR code to include videos and more details on the study (methods, results, etcetera) so that anyone who couldn’t talk to me at the poster session would still be able to get the whole picture.

I think it worked in catching people’s eyes. I got a few compliments on the sexy title and design.

The main graphic of the flies is an excellent entry point, showing what the poster is about instantly. And the light touch on text is always appreciated. It’s those two things that made me stop and look at the poster instead of passing it by.

The type follows the good idea of using two typefaces: one for title and headings, and one for main text. The elaborate ampersand give the title a particularly nice little flourish.

While I would prefer sentences instead of bullet points, these bulleted lists at least have consistent punctuation and spacing.

The attention to alignment is my biggest issue.

Each section has a hard, dark shadow which draws attention to the misaligned edges. The only reason not to have the two bottom sections aligned is because of the superfluous logo. Here’s a revision with the logo removed and the “Take-away” section aligned to those on either side:

The scattered placement of the data in the results is bothering me, too.

Here’s a quick revision of that:

Not perfect by any means, but I think it demonstrates a direction to head towards to clean it up. I want to put the species name above the images instead of below them, too.

I’m not sure the icons in the corner of each section are in tune with the aesthetic of the rest of the poster. They’re cartoonish, when the rest of the poster is not. I’m not sure how a brain in a jar is supposed to suggest “Background.” I’m also a little perturbed that all of the icons are in the same corner – upper right – except one.

Still, the overall effect is strong enough that it does the main thing a poster has to do: stop a viewer from walking on to the next one!

05 March 2020

Eleven years on

March is anniversary month! The Better Posters blog has been running, improbably and incredibly, for eleven years now!

To celebrate, this project is expanding again. Better Posters is now on Instagram if that’s your thing, and will be following the #conferenceposter and #academicposter hashtags there.

This is also a good time to announce I’ll also be curating the IAmSciComm Twitter account this month! I will be talking poster design (and maybe a few other things) from 16-21 March 2020!

An update on the book that I announced last year. The manuscript was delivered at the end of October. I just finished copyediting and some revisions near the end of February. I’ve even seen a couple of draft cover designs. It’s going to happen!

Thank you for your support! Readers – that’s you! – have helped make this blog into the resource it is. That’s you.

Thank you for recommending this blog to others, submitting posters for critique, and just reading a good ol’ fashioned blog. Your continued generosity means the world to me.

External links

BetterPosters on Instagram

Photo by Roberto La Forgia on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

27 February 2020

Link roundup for February, 2020

The Smithsonian has created a huge archive of material that is now open access for anyone to use.

This includes photographs. 3-D models. Datasets. Ever needed a high quality image of the first airplane?

How about Lt. Uhura’s uniform?

Smithsonian’s got you covered. Incredible resource, with lots of potential applications for poster makers.

• • • • •

How did I miss this at SICB?

 Not the first flipbook I’ve seen, but always a nice reminder of what you can do!

• • • • •

Jane Ferguson wrote:
Not only is a fabric poster super easy to pack, it makes an excellent toddler playmat!

Tweeted out a couple of years ago, but new to me and the blog. Hat tip to Real Scientists.

20 February 2020

Pronouns on posters

My given name (Zen) is an ambiguous gender signal. I know both men and women with the same first name as me. I understand that other people often want to know someone’s gender, and that people may want to explictly state how they like being referred to.

For those reasons and others, some conferences have started adopting the practice of putting pronouns on conference badges. The point is to try to reinforce that different people might have different ways they want to be addressed, thereby creating a more welcoming environment to all.

Nelson Stauffer suggests extending this practice to posters.

Approach to pronouns on a poster? Just add more superscript characters.

Nelson tweeted this image as an example.

Poster title and author list, with pronouns indicated by special characters

I’m not crazy about this particular implementation of the idea, because the symbols that Nelson used (a dagger and a double dagger) are hard to distinguish in this particular font, particularly at small size.

Is this a good idea more generally?


Adding pronouns adds visual complexity. You have to match the symbols, the pronouns, and the names, and do a dance back and forth between the three for each author. That’s a lot of cognitive load to ask someone to take on in a busy poster session.

The suggestion here is to put the symbols and pronouns in the title bar, part of the poster which can be overloaded with authors’ names and affiliations.

A good general rule in graphic design is, “Put information at the point of need.” People are most likely to want to know preferred pronouns when they are having a conversation with someone. That makes an excellent case for putting pronouns on name tags because if you can read someone’s name tag, you’re close enough to be having a conversation with that person.

If pronouns are already on name tags, putting pronouns on the poster is duplicate information. If pronouns are not on name tags, the argument for putting those pronouns on the poster is much stronger.

Similarly, adding pronouns for the poster presenter makes a lot of sense. Again, knowing pronouns can be valuable when you are conversing with someone, which is most likely when you are speaking to a presented.

Adding the pronouns for all presenters may be overkill. If you have a poster with a long author list, there may be many authors who are not at the conference at all. So on the one hand, adding pronouns for all authors is consistent. On the other hand, are the pronouns of all the individuals participating in a project – who may or may not be at the conference – something that a viewer needs at that moment?

Some authors may not want their preferred pronouns on the poster. Authors who are not at a conference may not want to disclose something about their pronoun use to everyone in attendance.

Star Trek original series title card showing "Written by D.C. Fontana"Some people have argued for going in the opposite direction (more with scientific papers than posters) on pronouns. That is, some prefer to display only initials rather than given names to downplay gender and minimize bias. Many women writers (like Star Trek’s Dorothy Fontana) used their initials for their author credit for this reason.

If you want to include pronouns, many of the tips regarding showing institutional affiliations might be helpful here.

Related posts

Showing authorship on posters