31 January 2013

Link roundup for January 2013

New Scientist has an article about typefaces that covers issues like readability and judgment. (Registration or payment may be required to read).

More on how to dress at conferences.

Sometimes, we need to call out the bad stuff. Here’s one for bad figures in research papers.

I’ve often drawn lessons from comics to make better posters. Someone took it to the next level (hat tip to Craig McLean at the International Biogeography Society meeting in Miami):

Here’s some excellent thoughts on what makes a conference work. Hint: it has to be more than just information.

SlideRocket did a survey is about what people like about slide presentations and how they prepare for them, but has good information that would also be relevant to posters, too. One of the things that come through is that people love examples and templates; I'll see what I can do about that in the near future.

The “It’s not in my backyard” groan always drags, notes PZ Myers:

So don’t belittle cons if you can’t go. These events matter. It’s where community is built, where volunteers grow to play a bigger role in the progression of our goals, where everyone gets enthusiastic about some shiny new aspect of the subject.

And that’s absolutely why we have to do a better job of opening doors for everyone at these events. It’s the faces in the audience at the convention that will someday be leading the movement. It’s those faces that will go home afterwards and share the stories and get more people interested. And if we don’t make opportunities for participation by everyone, we will be limiting our growth.

So please, don’t complain. Your concerns are legitimate: a con may be too expensive, too far away, too inconvenient for you. You should instead try to think of ways to get one near you that you can afford and attend…and there are more and more of these things emerging all over the place.

New Scientist has a story about an analysis of Higgs boson gossip. I mention this because:

Unsurprisingly, the official CERN Twitter account got the most retweets during the monitored period. Second place was less predictable, however, going to Colin Eberhardt, a software consultant who still has relatively few followers.

Eberhardt managed to strike a nerve with one of his tweets - winning the prize for the single most-shared tweet. It read: “Possibly the biggest scientific discovery of our time, the #Higgs Boson, announced in glorious MS Comic Sans Font”, making reference to the odd choice of font used in the presentation from ATLAS, one of the two LHC experiments that discovered the Higgs.

This next is a poster for a conference (as in advertising it), rather than a conference poster (as in given at a conference), but still, I think it’s fair game for comment.

T. rex riding a comet having an acid trip” was my reaction. Hat tip to Alex Witze and Brian Switek for bringing that to my attention.

Font nerds! There is a new version of the old reliable standby monospaced font, Courier. It’s called Courier Prime, and it’s free. You can download it here.

24 January 2013

Saving your voice

NeuroPolarbear wrote:

In the real story that inspired the movie, the little mermaid lost her voice because she presented a poster the day before.

It doesn’t take much for some people to lose their voice, or have it severely impaired. Minor infections or stress can do it. Look at this list of things the National Institutes of Health recommends for taking care of your voice, and think of some of these in the context of a research conference:

  • Limit your intake of drinks that include alcohol or caffeine.
  • Try not to overuse your voice. Avoid speaking or singing when your voice is hoarse.
  • Get enough rest. Physical fatigue has a negative effect on voice.
  • Avoid talking in noisy places. Trying to talk above noise causes strain on the voice.

A conference with no coffee, no booze, where everyone is well-rested and talks in quiet surroundings is not like any conference I have ever seen.

Academics are not necessarily the chattiest people on the planet. You might be in your lab or office, dealing with a few people. But you’re probably not in a non-stop conversation from morning ’til night. But that might be exactly what you do at a conference: talk, talk, talk. It’s kind of the point, right?

Now imagine if you lose your voice after the first day of a four or five day conference. It might be caused by doing a poster presentation, or come before your poster presentation. In any case, it’s a bigger worry with a poster than a talk, since a talk normally has a microphone, and, good or bad, usually only lasts about 15 minutes, whereas a poster can go on for hours.

This ABC News story on laryngitis lays out some common cures for losing your voice that don’t work.

  • Drink tea with lemon and honey? Busted.
  • Slippery elm? Busted.
  • Hot toddy? Busted.
  • Whispering? Busted.

The one thing they do recommend is drinking lots of water. However, many of the websites I’ve seen talking about laryngitis also repeat the “eight glasses of water of daymyth, which doesn’t inspire confidence. A lot of the stuff that turns up in a quick Google search for tips on how to regain your voice looks extremely iffy.

I did find a journal article on the subject by Hanson and Jiang in Medical Problems of Performing Artists (artists get their own journal about their medical issues?). This article talks more about the possible causes, and less about prevention. They do note that acid reflux that occurs at night can cause voice problems. This is apparently something that can happen more at night than the day, so even people who don’t suffer heartburn during the day can have problems with digestive acids if they eat late at night. Hanson and Jiang recommend not eating for two or three hours before bedtime to minimize the chance of voice problems.

If anyone has suggestions and references for how to keep your vocal cords in good shape at a conference, and particularly peer-reviewed articles, I’d love to hear them!


Hanson DG, Jiang JJ. 1998. Laryngitis from reflux: prevention for the performing singer. Medical Problems of Performing Artists 13(2): 51-55. https://www.sciandmed.com/mppa/journalviewer.aspx?issue=1100&article=1104

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

17 January 2013

Critique: How a pigeon went extinct

Jessica Stanton was kind enough to send this poster, which she presented at Student Conference on Conservation Science in New York this past fall. She wrote:

I got a ton of really positive feedback on my poster. In fact, I won a Best Poster award!

I can see why. She made some bold design decisions here. Click to enlarge:

I asked Jessie if she would share a bit of her design process.

Because this species went extinct in the wild around 1900, I thought it might be neat to go with that time-period as a theme. I looked at pictures of old theatre posters and public announcements to get an idea of the font, spacing, and other details like borders and other little embellishments. I selected sepia toned colors to give it an aged look.

For comparison,  here’s a newspaper I found by searching for “nineteenth century American newspapers”:

Starting from a real “found” object is a good way to design something. It means you have a visual style that works, and that most other people will probably “get.” And it requires a little more active decision-making than a pre-set PowerPoint template.

I was a little nervous about it looking too kitschy and not professional so I tried to keep the more stylized fonts to the title and section headers so that the text would still be very readable.

If it had been me,  I would have gone much further in trying to match the nineteenth century style. I would have tried to go all the way. For instance, you don’t see sans serif typefaces very often in printing from that period. Jessie used the sans serifs for readability; I’d have used a serif typeface for more stylistic continuity. But the key thing is, she made a conscious decision about using those fonts, which is all I ever ask for.

Colour at the time was expensive and rare in printing. I might have tried going completely monochrome, besides the background.

The whole thing was done in PowerPoint.

I’ve always said you can get good results in PowerPoint, if you’re willing to be very slow and very meticulous about it. A few of the issues I often complain about with PowerPoint generated posters are there, though, notably a couple of places where things to not align:

The tables in the left hand column bother me, because they have lines that draw attention to themselves, and that they don’t line up with elements next to them. The title is less of an issue, though, I would have tried very hard to keep everything in that title box symmetrical somehow.

The poster session was in the hall of mammals at the American Museum of Natural History, and it seemed very appropriate to present this surrounded by mounted skeletons of extinct animals rather than in some conference centre ballroom.

A great example of how the venue affects the poster, in ways you might not expect.

There are lots of great choices on this poster, and I think it’s lovely and different and stands out from most that I see. I just wish I could see the flip book!

External links

What really killed the passenger pigeon

P.S.—I’d be lying if I wasn’t pleased by this part of Jessie’s email:

I spent quite a bit of time looking around your site before I made my last poster for the Student Conference on Conservation Science in NY this past fall. Your advice and examples really inspired me to try and make something memorable.

Thank you!

Sandusky Telegram from here.

10 January 2013

Review: Writing in the Biological Sciences

I was sent a copy of Angelika Hoffmann’s new book, Writing in the Biological Sciences, by the publisher, unbidden. It’s been long enough that I initially forgot I wrote almost the same thing a couple of years ago, almost to the day, when I got a book called Scientific Writing and Communication, by the same author. I reviewed that here.

I had forgotten the previous book when I first opened this one. So, as I often do, I looked for a whether there was chapter on posters – there was. I got about four lines in before I started arguing with the author in my head. And looking back at my review of the previous book, it’s the same point: putting abstracts on posters. And I don’t understand why she says that posters don’t have Discussion sections....

Based on the poster chapter, and the comparative thicknesses of the two books, Writing in the Biological Sciences seems to be a cut down and slightly revised version of Scientific Writing and Communication. The poster chapter is short, just 12 pages out of a 290 page book, which is shorter than the 16 devoted to posters in Scientific Writing and Communication. The artwork is black and white, and a few of the graphics have changed. The sample layout is not the same one I showed in my earlier review.

There is a “Useful resources” section with four links, with horrible long URLs, that were checked in... October 2011. Given that when I reviewed the previous book, many of the links were dead, so I checked again. After over a year of lead time, guess what? The first link is to Colin Purrington’s now-dead site at Swathmore College (but a new version is here). I’ve typed the links to the other three so you don’t have to:

Everything in my review of Scientific Writing and Communication, I will stand by for Writing in the Biological Sciences. There have been some changes, but no substantial improvements.


Hofmann, AH. 2013. Writing in the Biological Sciences. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 290 pages.

Related posts

Review: Scientific Writing and Communication
Review: A Short Guide to Writing About Biology (Seventh Edition)
Review: Scientist’s Guide to Poster Presentations

External links

Book website

Companion site to book (not active as of 8 January 2013)

03 January 2013

Critique: Privacy

Today’s contribution comes from Dave Wilson at the University of Arizona, and is used with his permission. It was presented at the International Conference on Information Systems in Orlando as a “research in progress” poster. This meeting has a quite good set of tips on presentation.

You can click to enlarge:

I love a lot about this poster. It’s got a sleek style, with a bit of an Apple aesthetic mixed with Colin Purrington’s style in this poster. Whether deliberately or no, it follows his recommendation of putting all the fine print in a band at the bottom

My main concern here is the choice of the grey steel background. Even in good light, on my computer screen, the contrast between the text (set in a beautiful, but thin, font) and the background is making this a bit difficult to read. This poster also has a substantial amount of text. Even light, well set blocks of text, as on this poster, tend to look grey from a distance, making this even darker.

I believe this conference was held in a Marriott hotel. Hotels often have dim lighting in their ballrooms where posters are set up. Regardless, any venue with low lighting will turn the text to mud, and make it hard to read. A lighter shade of grey would give a higher margin of safety for low light conditions.
 The use of a white background on the bottom also highlights the band at the bottom, though, which  contains the “fine print.” The metallic grey that covers most of the poster text above could have been brought down to cover the text below.

As a quick and dirty example of what I have in mind, here’s a revision done with a little mucking about in Corel Photo-Paint.

While I like some of what happens with that change, the downside is that the central figure does become less prominent. In the original, the grey background does mean the central figure pops out at you immediately. The handwritten look for the figure is appearing, and makes an attractive entry point for the passers-by. In the revision, the diagram doesn’t stand out anywhere near as much. That might be helped by a little shadowing around the figure.

Poster making, like life, is often about trade-offs. If you want to make people notice that central figure, and you are there to present the poster most of the time, you might want the original version of the poster. If you were not there to present your poster, and more of the story is in the text that people will have to read, the revision might be more appealing.