29 March 2012

Colour clash

ResearchBlogging.orgWhat should you wear to a poster session? Never mind the formal versus casual versus comfortable dilemma, what colour should you wear? A nearly decade old paper making the social media rounds last week suggests looking at your poster while picking your outfit.

Several people, knowing I’m the poster blog guy, asked me what I thought.

The authors themselves write:

Our study had several limitations.

This is an understatement. This study, by Keegan and Bannister, is almost nothing but limitations. It’s as lightweight as this:

The hypothesis is that having the presenter’s clothes match the colour of the poster will result in more visits to the poster. The design of the experiment is actually not bad. The authors show a statistically significant decrease in poster visits when the presenter was wearing clothing that did not match the colour of the poster. This is also supported by ad hoc observations of poster visitors:

5 people were overheard by the observer during the clashing-attire phase to say that the presenter’s blouse did not match her poster, and none visited the poster.

Let’s run through some interpretive issues.

1. The test poster had not one, but four colours on it: blue, lavender, green and yellow. This makes it tricky to say the lavender blouse “matched” the poster colour. It matched a colour, but not all.

I took the colour with the largest surface showing in the picture, and also closest to the presenter’s eye level - green - and placed it into Kuler. The picture below shows the suggested complementary colours using the “triad” model.

The colours at the end, a purple and a gold, are not too different from the other colours in the poster. This suggests that coordination might be a more appropriate description than simple matching.

If I take the same base green and select a “complementary” colour scheme:

I get a suggestion for an orange-brown that is not too far off from the rust worn as the “clashing” colour. Designers often use such contrast colours to make subjects “pop”. For example, red rose petals look redder next to the green leaves of the rose.

2. There is no control for the clothing colour itself, isolated from the matching to the poster. The authors acknowledge this, noting:

People may have decided to not visit the poster... because they did not like the rust blouse regardless of whether it coordinated with the poster(.)

There is no accounting for what colours look good on this presenter. Some people look great in particular colours and terrible in others (I happen to think I look stunning in purple).

This is particularly an issue given that the clashing colour is nearly red. There have been many suggestions that red signals all sorts of things in humans (Changizi et al. 2006, Elliot et al. 2007, Elliot & Niesta 2008), including aggression (Hill & Barton 2005), though the latter has been contentious. Just wearing something reddish may drive away visitors. To test this, you’d have to do an experiment with a red poster; you’d predict lower numbers of visits with the presenter wearing lavender blouse if Keegan and Bannister’s paper is correct.

3. Joshua Drew asks:

(W)hat about if it was a dude who was clashing?

Indeed. You could fill entire libraries have been written about gender expectations, particularly with regards to appearances. It’s an open question if this effect would persist if the presenter were male.

4. The definition of a “visitor” at the a poster includes people looking at it. This would include mere glances of people walking by. It would be interesting to see the data broken down by those looking versus the number talking to the presenter. The numbers would be smaller, but might be a more meaningful measure of poster popularity.

Especially given that we don’t know how the details of the conference. If it’s a busy conference in a small space, with tables in the middle of the walkway (I’ve seen this), you almost can’t look at anything else, because you’re stuck in foot traffic.

5. Two presenters at two posters at one meeting. The sample is tiny. This is barely even a preliminary study. The authors themselves admit:

It would have been ideal to have conducted this study during several poster sessions; however, funding limited us to one medical education conference, which had only one poster session.

Given the large number of people who go to multiple conferences a year, perhaps the authors could have rounded up some more volunteers rather than going it alone.

This paper has been cited three times according to Web of Knowledge, and eight times according to Google Scholar. But nobody ought to take this research too seriously yet. This needs replication and a more robust study design. If anyone wants to collaborate on replicating and extending this experiment, let me know.

In the meantime, remember that black goes with everything.


Changizi MA, Zhang Q, Shimojo S. 2006. Bare skin, blood and the evolution of primate colour vision. Biology Letters 2(2): 217-221. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2006.0440

Elliot AJ, Maier MA, Moller AC, Friedman R, Meinhardt J. 2007. Color and psychological functioning: The effect of red on performance attainment. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 136(1): 154-168.

Elliot AJ, Niesta D. 2008. Romantic red: Red enhances men’s attraction to women. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 95(5): 1150-1164.

Hill RA, Barton RA. 2005. Psychology: Red enhances human performance in contests. Nature 435(7040): 293-293. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/435293a

Keegan DA, Bannister SL. 2003. Effect of colour coordination of attire with poster presentation on poster popularity. Canadian Medical Association Journal 169(12): 1291-1292. PMID: 14662667. http://www.cmaj.ca/content/169/12/1291.full

Related links

Dress sense
Google Plus discussions here and here.

Hat tip to Liz Neeley for this lead.

Photo by Neal. on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

Link roundup, March 2012

Here are four lessons in networking from someone who was lucky enough to go to this year’s TED conference. But in truth, these apply to going to any conference.:

  1. Perfect your introduction.
  2. Have a purpose.
  3. Listen.
  4. Connect with people who aren’t aligned with your goals.
You should read the whole thing.

Jim Campbell advocates for simplicty in design. He’s talking about logos, but this is true for posters, too:

No amount of icing and sprinkles will disguise the fact that your cake isn't properly cooked; pretty much the same principle with logos.

You think you have pressure when you make a poster? Check out this article on Fergus Wessel, who makes stuff written in stone. Literally. I was amazed by this:

How do you achieve good letter spacing? Do you use a ruler?

By eye, I never use a ruler! With a ruler one is limited to set measurements and sometimes a letter needs to be moved “by a nothing.” I judge good letter-spacing by visualizing an equal volume between letters. This skill is achieved by having the patience to start drawing out an inscription all over again if it doesn’t look perfect. We call this “killing one’s darlings” and it takes a lot of self discipline.

22 March 2012

Poster session 2032


It was good that the restaurant wasn’t quiet, so the postdoc’s interrobang didn’t distract the other tables nearby.

“That’s right. When we first went to Neuroscience, you had to print your poster on this big sheet of paper.”

“Oh yeah,” the other researcher added. “The first year we went, there wasn’t even a smartphone app for the conference or anything.”

“A paper poster sound really inefficient, Dr. S,” another grad student said.

“It kind of was. We had this big plastic tube that our boss used to carry our posters on the plane.”

“We kept offering to carry it, but I don’t think he trusted us.”

“Well, you did miss the flight back home.”

The researcher didn’t take her colleague’s bait. “I think the first time they switched away from posterboards to the first eboards was about 2020.”

“A lot of people didn’t do that for the first few years, though. The first eboards were only black and white, like the early ebook readers, and couldn’t handle any animation. But it was soooo much better than hauling the poster tube around. Download the file, arrive at the meeting, and the poster got displayed in the right place during your session.”

A waiter arrived. “Who had the gluten-free pizza?”

“That’s hers,” the researcher said, pointing across the table. “A lot of people stuck with paper for a few years, for the colours. Remember that first year we actually saw someone who had tacked a bunch of eight and half by eleven pages up on a board?”

“Right! I’d forgotten about that one! But I think the first few years when they went to the colour eboards were worse than that, though, because you could add in the video and animation. The first time, if we wanted to show video, we had people scanning codes on our poster and they’d look at it on their smart phone. Or we’d show it on our netbook.”

“Netbook?” asked the postdoc.

“They were the small portable computers that were out just before the first tablets. But yeah, people went nuts with the animation and special effects. I kept expecting a someone to have an epileptic fit walking through the poster session. But most people eventually stopped that.”

“Most. Ugh, there are still some ugly posters out there.”

“Well, if people didn’t keep finishing their posters on the plane...” she said, looking pointedly at the postdoc, who looked sheepish.

“But,” said the student, trying to change the subject, “are the poster sessions better than they used to be?”

The two PIs looked at each other for a second. “Easier...” said the first, with the second finished the sentence, “...but not necessarily better.”

This post was inspired by Leon at B.A.N.T.E.R. After that, similar ideas were put forward by Jon Bardin and DrugMonkey (here and here).

15 March 2012

Critique: Scattering

Today’s poster comes from Chris Bennett Milojevich. This poster was created for ACS (which is the American Chemical Society, I think), and is shown here with his permission. Click to enlarge the original:

Nobody will be confused by the solid design of the poster. The three column layout is easy to follow. The black text on white backgrounds is easy to read, although it may be a hair on the small side.

The poster is readable, but can we make it more beautiful?

There are two major things I would like to change on this poster.

In the lower left, the references and acknowledgements are out of all proportion to their interest. Those are “fine print” sections that few readers care about, yet they take up almost a quarter of the entire poster! The huge amount of white space in the references gives the game away. The designer committed to three roughly equal boxes in the column for no pressing reason, and is left with space to fill.

I would like to see both the references and acknowledgements reduced to about half what they are now. They should all be able to fit into the box that golds just the acknowledgements. That way, the conclusions – which are the much more important “take home messages” of the poster – could be made bigger and so-in-your-face-that-you-can’t-miss-it.

Then, there’s those logo bookends. They are painful to look at right now. While the rest of the poster uses gently rounded boxes, the logos sit in hard white boxes that don’t blend at all with the rest of the design. The angles are sharp, not rounded. The logos don’t line up with the title or the other text boxes. And it’s compounded because they’re placed on the poster twice.

I suspect these are pasted *.jpg images. The white background needs to be removed from these logos, and then the file format needs to be converted to *.gif or *.png (which I described here). The result should look more like this.

I played around a little with some of the other minor nits I had for this revision. Besides tweaking the logos, I moved the text down a bit within their boxes, and removed some underlining. I couldn’t do much about the huge footprint of the lower right sections with the image I was working with.

Related posts

The epic logo post
I’m looking through you

08 March 2012

Small conference, big conference

Scientific meetings come in all shapes and sizes. There are the small regional conferences, with mostly students, and there are major international conferences, with scientists at all stages of their careers.

What are the differences between these conferences for poster presenters? Should you expect a different treatment at one event compared to the other, and should you prepare and think about them differently?

I’m at the stage where I’ve gone to enough conferences that maybe I’m... not jaded – I still love conferences – but I may not be as sensitive to how different those experiences are as someone going to them for the first time.

I asked two of my students, Nadia Carreon and Sakshi Puri, to write up their experiences of presenting at poster sessions. Both had been to conferences before. But could those experiences prepare them for last fall, when the three of us went to Neuroscience, the biggest scientific in the world?

Nadia’s view

Where should begin describing the difference between the Texas Academy of Science and Neuroscience poster sessions I participated in?...

Texas Academy of Science meeting

Neuroscience meeting

The difference may be obvious. Several thousand people obvious!

My experience presenting our poster at these two conferences can be best explained as taking a step and then a leap. I’m glad my first conference was at the Texas Academy of Science because it was smaller and allowed me to get a feel for what it’s like to be approached with questions and comments. In other words, it was a great warm up!

People from all science fields present at the TAS, so their questions were a bit more diverse; from environmental to behavioral. At the Society for Neuroscience, everybody is in the same field and the questions were solely on the nervous system, something that made me quite nervous at the beginning. It was a good nervous though, and what I enjoyed the best because this kept me on my toes.

I presented at the Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience (FUN) poster session (right), which wasn’t the main conference. [Over 700 people attended the FUN session, which is bigger than many international conferences! - ZF] The picture of the SfN above shows a section of the main poster session, and it’s apparent that it can be both a very scary and exciting experience. Not to mention those last four hours! I’m glad I presented with other undergrads and for half the time because it eased the neuroscience overload I had built up from all the posters I visited during the day. I got the chance to see what my neighboring posters were about and a look into what other undergrads were doing in different universities. This FUN poster session was a great way to take the first step into this vast conference I certainly hope will not be my last.

Nadia Carreon is co-author of this paper:

Carreon N, Faulkes Z, Fredensborg BL. 2011. Polypocephalus sp. infects the nervous system and increases activity of commercially harvested white shrimp (Litopenaeus setiferus). Journal of Parasitology 97(5): 755-759. http://dx.doi.org/10.1645/GE-2749.1

An earlier version of one of Nadia’s posters was featured here.

Sakshi’s view

That was my first impression of Society for Neuroscience. I had been warned many times that this meeting can be overwhelming, but there is really no way to anticipate the effect of a phenomenon that brings together thirty thousand people of the scientific community, all whom are interested in one common thing: neuroscience. You feel like a speck among those who are vastly accomplished and whose level knowledge far exceeds yours, and yet the geek in you is overjoyed to find companions who fully understand and share your enthusiasm for neuroscience.

One of my favorite moments at the conference was talking to a graduate student about electrophysiology. I mentioned to him that the sound I love the most is the one that a firing neuron makes from a perfect dissection. It’s my Nessun dorma, mostly because I’m not lucky enough to get that as often as I would like. He looked at me with an understanding I seldom find outside of my lab. I think it was in that moment that my inner neuroscience geek felt like she had reached home. This was feeling I would never forget.

I presented a poster at this conference. I should say this, this is not the first poster I have presented or the first conference that I been to, but it was much different, in terms of my interaction with people about my work. This might have been due to the fact that most people presenting their research are graduate students or post docs and I am neither, but I felt that the level of interaction about my work was a lot higher than I had anticipated.

Usually, when giving a talk, I am asked basic questions about my research, but at SfN, I felt that after I gave people a short tour of my poster, most were interested in talking about future potential research and discussing literature. I thanked my lucky stars that day because I obsessively read up on just about everything that has to do with invertebrate nociception and even nociception in general, but even so, I felt that I stumbled on some questions that people were asking.

But even so, I had a lot of people around my posters for four hours straight and had some very insightful conversations that have proven to be extremely helpful. I didn’t realize it at the time but adrenaline rush you get when people genuinely want to know about what you’re doing can make time seem to fly. By the end of it, I was exhausted, but excited at the same time. I celebrated it by eating the best gluten free pizza I have ever had in my life!

By the way, a tip to people who want to attract bodies at their poster: If you have a cool video that goes with your poster, use a QR code. I did, and it was a major hit. And it was extremely useful.

I think SfN is an extremely useful place to network and the fact that there are socials designed specifically for your interest really helps narrow down the people you may be most interested in meeting. And when you do meet them, you realize just how small the scientific community really is. Everyone seems to know everyone in their field and you realize that you are connected to more than more people that you would think. I believe that by going to the conference and meeting the people who do the things I am interested in, I finally feel like I am in the loop. For such a long time, I have been the only one in my lab working on invertebrate nociception, wondering who out there likes this stuff and what would it be like to hang out with them. I finally met them and had the time of my life. I know this will sound cheesy but for a small town girl, Society for Neuroscience opened some rather large doors and for that I am extremely grateful. It was truly an experience that I will cherish for a long time.

Sakshi Puri is co-author of this paper:

Puri S, Faulkes Z. 2010. Do decapod crustaceans have nociceptors for extreme pH? PLoS ONE 5(4): e10244. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0010244

Earlier versions of Sakshi’s posters are featured here.

What was the experience of giving a poster like at your first big conference?

06 March 2012


“This is so ugly.”

I was preparing for a talk. I wanted to include some graphs from other, previously published papers as well as my own stuff. There were two problems.

First, the quality of the graphs I wanted to use wasn’t always there. Many were old, pixelated images. Some graphs had unlabelled error bars, and some had text overlapping with error bars. Some bar graphs had hatching to distinguish the bars that was not very pleasing to look at.

Second, the style of the images I wanted to use varied wildly. Some were monochrome, some used colour. Some used serif types, some used sans serif type. The shape of the graphs sometimes didn’t come anywhere near the shape of the slide.

Even with my own material, I was pulling together images from several years and projects – manuscripts, conference posters, unpublished stuff – and I was painfully aware that it didn’t fit together very well. Consistency matters.

So I redrew everything.

With my own material, this was tedious but straightforward. I just had to locate a lot of archived files on my hard drive, opened them up, and started changing fonts, colours, and proportions.

Making other people’s stuff consistent can be trickier. First, I typically had to grab images. For PDF files, there is a snapshot tool in Adobe Reader that lets you do grabs of anything on the screen. It isn’t turned on in the toolbar by default, though. Click at right to enlarge.

Once I have a grab of the graphic, I can then put it into a full graphics editor (I’m a Corel Photo-Paint user myself; other software packages are available). For instance, I can get rid of text that I don’t need or remove the background. But even PowerPoint can do some basic manipulations quite well.

For some graphs, I need to go right back to ground zero and redraw the graph in my own software. There is a shareware program called Datathief that I’ve used to get extract information from published graphs so I can replot it. It’s fairly simple to use for distinct data points, like scatter plots or bar charts. I haven’t tried to extract a curve yet.

In the end, almost every image in my presentation has been altered, tweaked, cropped, redrawn, recoloured, resized, or revised. It took a few solid days to do it. I am convinced it’s worth it, though. The level of harmony in the talk is so much higher, and the overall effect of the presentation is so much stronger, than if I had just left it looking like a scrappy quilt.

Crossposted from NeuroDojo.

01 March 2012

Third anniversary

Some cake to celebrate that the Better Posters blog has been going for three years solid now!

The last year has seen traffic almost double (again!), with just the last month being the busiest yet; a new champion for most popular post (The epic logo post); and cameos in The Scientist and Nature – the latter just in time for the anniversary!

For your continued kind words and feedback and promotion, I thank you.

Photo by soapylovedeb on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

Link roundup, February 2012

Nature has a good sized feature article on conference posters called “Billboard science”. Even better, it’s available for free at the Nature Jobs website. Warning! Contains me. Also features a poster regular readers will recognize from here last year.

The Nature article also features the work of Colin Purrington, who had just weeks earlier puts in his candidate for the worst conference poster ever.

I think I’ve seen worse, though I don’t have any photographic evidence. This at least tries to be a poster. I have seen manuscript pages tacked up on poster board. To me, that’s worse.

On the other end of the spectrum, this might be a candidate for the best conference poster ever. Or at least the people’s choice favourite.

That one should have made it into the Nature article.

Ooh, there’s a Tumblr for silly, impractical, and inane QR codes.

Finally, Cracked takes a look at typefaces. I particularly like this quote:
Mixing (serif and sans serif fonts) in a document is akin to dressing as RoboCop at a Renaissance fair. It looks dumb and makes no fucking sense.