08 June 2021

Better Posters book reviews

In this post, I’ll be compiling reviews of the Better Posters book.

Reviews are extremely helpful to get the word out on books. I thank everyone who takes a few moments to review or rate the book.

June 2020

Better Posters: Zen Faulkes on ways to rescue the poster session by Stephen B. Heard at the Scientist Sees Squirrel blog. Excerpt:

I’ll cut to the chase here: this book is great.

• • • • •

If you spot a review to include here, please email me the link at BetterPosters@gmail.com!

07 June 2021

About that frontispiece...

I want to explain something about the frontispiece to the Better Posters book.

Presenter, Zen Faulkes, in front of a poster.

 The poster shown there is bad. 

Poster about shrimp motor neurons.

I’ve said as much in this blog post.

Poster of shrimp motor neurons with criticisms written on it.

So why, in a book about improving posters, is the very first one a reader is likely to lay eyes on, a bad example of the format?

I included that picture not because of the poster, but because of the presenter, which is to say me.

The picture is not a recent one, so I suppose some people might think I picked it because of ego: that I wanted to show myself younger than I am today. (Maybe there is a little of that. I do like how I look in that picture! And it’s got a favourite nerdy T-shirt that I don’t have any more.)

But I chose that picture as the frontispiece because that photo captured how I feel in a poster session. Happy, excited but not tense, and just... in my element. (And was even before I started blogging about conference posters!)

For many people, presenting posters is not a happy experience. For one reason or another, hey are stressed, they are tense, they are frowning. 

I chose that photo because it shows the feeling I want anyone to have during a poster session. It’s the enthusiasm for the poster session that I wanted to share in the book.

Related posts

Critique and makeover: Shrimp MoGs (rhymes with “rogues”)

06 June 2021

Join me on IAmSciComm starting 7 June 2021!

I have just taken over the reigns of the @IAmSciComm rotating curator Twitter account! This is my second time hosting, and am gratified to be asked back.

Here is a rough schedule for the week.

Monday, 7 June: Show me a poster, graphic, or dataviz!   Tuesday, 8 June: Why streaks matter!  Wednesday, 9 June: From blog to book!   Thursday, 10 June: Posters for everyone!   Friday, 11 June: Posters reviewed!  Saturday, 12 June: The randomizer!

  • Monday, 7 June: Show me a poster, graphic, or dataviz! 
  • Tuesday, 8 June: Why streaks matter!
  • Wednesday, 9 June: From blog to book! 
  • Thursday, 10 June: Posters for everyone! 
  • Friday, 11 June: Posters reviewed!
  • Saturday, 12 June: The randomizer!

Join me, won’t you?

Related posts

The IAmSciComm threads

External links

IAmSciComm home page

03 June 2021

Poster sessions in street view: Review of Artsteps

Artsteps logo
TL;DR: Artsteps provides some nice features for virtual poster sessions, but it is hampered by clunky navigation and limited resolution to view posters.

• • • • •

When many conferences flipped to online events starting in 2020, I have been trying to track how academic conferences have tried to handle poster sessions. Not only is this an issue for large national and international conferences, but individual institutions are trying to deal with how to hold their own poster sessions.

Artsteps provides a service to host “virtual reality exhibitions.” It was used by the student research office at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley to host showcases of undergraduate student research.

Click any of the images below to enlarge!

The session takes place in a three-dimensional virtual environment.

Virtual room with student posters on walls.

You click and drag the window to look left, right, up, or down.

The navigation experience using the mouse reminds me most of the “Street view” in Google Maps. It’s not smooth scrolling through an environment, as with you might get with a first person video game like Doom or Metroid Prime (yep, going old school for those references).

Instead, if you look down at the floor, you can click to place “footprints” to indicate where your want to got next.

Virtual room with footprint icons in lower right corner of the virtual floor.

This is a somewhat frustrating way to navigate. It’s incredibly difficult to judge the placement of the feet so that you are a reasonable distance from a poster. It’s easy to come in way to close, and there isn’t (as far as I can see) an easy command to take a step back. You have to turn the room around, walk away, turn the room around again, and look at the poster.

(Edit: I discovered you can use the arrow keys on the keyboard to navigate, which is a significant improvement. It provides smoother movement through the environment. It’s just not immediately obvious that you can do that.)

I think this ability to see something from many angles would be awesome for something like a virtual sculpture. But for posters, you mostly want to see them dead on, not from an angle.

Poster in virtual room.

The photographs of the presenters are a nice touch.

The posters are clickable. Clicking a poster brings it to the foreground and “flattens” it so it’s facing the screen dead on. Clicking the poster also open a pop-up window that allows you to click to play narration recorded by the presenter.

Virtual poster showing media controls.

This media window initially overlaps the full screen poster. A little frustrating, because you probably want to see all of the poster while you’re hearing the presenter’s tour.

Virtual poster with smaller media window on top of it.
 You can enlarge the media window / narration window to “full screen”, but somewhat unexpectedly, the “full screen” view of the poster in the media window is smaller than the “full screen” in the virtual room.

Poster in media player window at fuill screen.

Once you have made the poster full screen, there is no option to zoom into a particular section. This was frustrating, because I found a lot of posters had detail that was difficult to see. I am viewing this session on a laptop, which may have a lower screen resolution than many people are using for desktops now. Even so, it’s not like I am viewing these through my phone. 

Not being able to resolve detail could be solved by good design for this specific platform, but a “zoom” or “magnify” tool would be super helpful.

Some presenters worked around this by presenting what appeared to be a slide deck of rotating images rather than a single static poster.

There are chat boxes and other features that you can presumably use during scheduled presentation times. Unfortunately, I did not see this during the scheduled presentation time. It suspect that it would work okay for small groups, but I don’t know if this experience would scale to, say, the hundreds or thousands of posters needed for a medium or large conference.

As the name implies, Artsteps seems geared to reproducing the small, intimate feeling of walking through a little art gallery with paintings, photographs, and scultures. I’m not sure that experience is quite what is needed for online poster sessions.

External links


UTRGV Engaged Scholar showcase November 2020

UTRGV Engaged Scholar showcase May 2021

Related posts

Link round-up for October, 2020

27 May 2021

Link roundup for May 2021

I’m increasingly convinced a major secret to making a good poster is editing – whether you edit yourself or are lucky enough to have someone else do it. Ian Dunt worked as an editor for years, hated it, but learned a lot. And he shared what he learned in this post.

Excerpt from his fifth point:

Your readers are busy. Your job is to make the process of accumulating knowledge about the world easy. They should not struggle to understand you. You are not a poet, writing for people to appreciate your words through introspection in the moonlight. You are a hack, writing for busy people on a bus who are late for work. Your job is to deliver this information into their brain effortlessly.

The post was targeted for political writers, but there are gems in there for anyone who wants to communicate.

• • • • •

Root Illustrations look to be a useful source of artwork. People are fairly tricky to draw, so “ready to go” illustrations of them are helpful. And to sweeten the deal, they are vector based images, which means they will scale to any size.

Illustration of a person searching for something

There is a modest charge for their use, but... buried down at the bottom of the page is a note that you can get 50% off if you are a student or teacher.

Hat tip to Echo Rivera.

• • • • •

Observable Plot is a tool for data exploration and visualization. It’s a JavaScript thing, if you’re into JavaScript things.

• • • • •

MyFonts offers always excellent advice in their primers. This time it’s about how to create emphasis in text (PDF file). 

Importantly, they have a list of “nevers.”

  1. Never underline.
  2. Never “highlight.”
  3. Never use bold and italic.
  4. Never use all capitals.

And here’s another primer on readability. (Again, PDF.)

• • • • •

Stock photos are sometimes rightfully mocked, but they have their uses. Matic Broz at Photutorial provides a resource comparing stock photo websites

Pros and cons list for stock phot website.

Compares 22 different commercial sites.

• • • • •

The Canadian 🇨🇦 research agency NSERC has a “Science Exposed” People’s Choice competition that features 20 outstanding scientific images. 

Vote vote vote! Voting continues until September 26, 2021.

• • • • •

A tutorial on making graphs in ggplot2

• • • • •

Typefaces often suggest concept and attributes like “feminine.” This article argues that we should avoid using such gendered descriptions of letters.

• • • • •

A new to me Twitter thread (from last November) by Ian Brennan on how to make cartoon-style illustrations of animals.

• • • • •

That’s all for this month!

24 May 2021

Critique: Mercury in peatlands

Yes, the Better Poster book launches today, but you know what? There’s no better way to celebrate than by doing the thing that, if I’m honest, has become the absolute heart and soul of this project: looking at the work of other people and trying to improve it.

Today’s contribution comes to us from Lauren Thompson. Click to enlarge!

Poster: Seasonal patterns of mercury from thawing permafrost catchments

This poster was given at Mer Bleue and Beyond virtual symposium this month. I noticed this poster in my Twitter feed because it had a strong colour scheme (attacking the Pokémon problem). Even shrunk down in my Twitter feed, I could see there was an emphasis on visuals over text. It was clear that this was a solid bit of design work.

Where the poster has a bit of a pain point is, unfortunately, at eye level right smack dab in the middle.

There’s just no way to get around it: The two scatter plots on the left are too close to the bar graphs on the right. The right axis labels for the scatter plots are bumping right up against the left axis labels for the bar graphs. It’s confusing, because the right axis labels almost look like they belong to the right graph.

The scatter plots have a couple of issues. The legend for both is in the bottom graph, not the top one, where one might expect to see it. I suppose this is because the Smith Creek data weren’t as flat as the Scotty Creek data, so there is no convenient space to put the legend inside the top graph. 

Not only does the position makes it easy to overlook the legend, the colours do, too. The colours of the symbols are different in the legend (open symbols) than in the graph themselves (green fill).

Moving over to the bar graphs on the right side, I always have a problem with duplicating information. The same information is shown in the length of the bar and the label. 

The visual noise gets worse because the unit for the data points (shown for all four bars) is long (ng MeHg km-2 d-1) and shown in bold.

The one other element is that the box has two arrows coming from it, which seems to indicate that there are two possible directions to read after reading the section. I do not like “choose your own adventures” on posters. But even then, the background grey is quite light and the arrows are a little hard to see.

Here is a quick and dirty revision.

I separated the two panels, and did quite a few changes to the bar graphs on the to get rid of the visual noise. Cutting the years to two digits was hard, but it helps the separation of the left and right so much. An x axis label is still missing, though.

The rest of the poster doesn’t need much tweaking. The other panels have some of the same issues, but they are not as severe as the section shown. The axis labels are a little heavy, and elements are a little too close. For instance, in the funding section:

Multiple logos of funding agencies.

The Weston Family Foundation logo is kissing the edge. The NSERC logo has no breathing room on either the top left or bottom right.

It turned out Lauren was a reader of the blog. Thanks, Lauren!

20 May 2021

Using poster assignments in courses

This post is for my fellow educators. How can you best use posters in a course?

There are a few reasons you might want to have students make posters for a class. Probably the biggest one is practice for presenting a poster in a professional setting, like a conference. Same reason we ask students, even undergrads, write in journal format: to give them practice communicating like professionals.

I’m going to give an outline for how I integrate posters in a science communication course. 

The science communication course I teach is one semester class for advanced undergraduates.

The poster “officially” takes up only one week of the class, but several exercises before I give students the poster assignment build up and reinforce what I ask students to do in the poster module.

In the first few weeks of the course, I ask students to prepare standard application materials like a CV or résumé and a personal statement. This is usually fairly straightforward in terms of content, because students are writing about themselves. These modules give me a chance to talk about typography. I use these modules to emphasize the importance of good typography in the appearance of a professional document.

The learning objective within the applications module:

Describe key elements of typography that improve the appearance of documents.

A couple of weeks later, I ask them to create a few simple plots of data. I usually give them some raw weather data (say, a month of temperature data from two different cities) and ask them to make a few standard summary diagrams like bar graphs (with error bars!) and scatter plots. This module gives me a chance to talk about data visualization and introduce some basic concepts of graphic design.

The learning objectives for the graphing module:

Describe advantages of plotting data.
Describe and use best practices for creating tables for publication in scientific journals.
Describe and use best practices for creating graphs for publication in scientific journals.

In this particular course, I don’t ask students to make a poster about their own project. (They do have a project, but I ask them to do an oral presentation instead.) Instead, I tell them to base their poster on a recently published open access journal article. 

The advantage of asking students to modify a published article instead of making a poster of their own class project is that I want students to edit. It’s often easier to edit someone else’s work than your own.

I tell them:

Do not "dump" the paper into the poster and be done with it! That will get you a crummy score, guaranteed! The best posters are likely to be the ones that are the most different from the original paper. For an example, compare a paper I published here to a poster I made about the same project here (from this blog post). The paper has ten figures; the poster has only five. The difference in the number of words is obvious.

The learning objectives for the poster module:

Describe how posters are presented in academic conferences.
Create a design brief for a conference poster.
Describe basic concepts used in graphic design.
Describe and use several best principles for conference poster design.
Design a conference poster.
Use a checklist to evaluate your poster.

Of course, they also end up revisiting some of the learning objectives from the previous modules.

I direct students to a checklist here on this blog to assess their own posters. I use a modified version of the checklist as the scoring rubric.

After the students design and submit their poster, I ask them to do a round of peer review. In an online course, I do this using a discussion forum. Depending on how the semester is going, I might give students an opportunity to resubmit a poster for a revised grade. 

Later, I have students give an oral presentation of their class project, and that gives them another opportunity to revisit some of the graphic design and typography skills from the poster module.