26 February 2015

Link roundup for February 2015

Miss Mola Mola has our latest contender for best poster title:

However, there was differences of opinion on this:

Apparently one judge scolded him and told author it was inappropriate.

I think the title is awesome and the judge is being a sourpuss. What do you think? Have your say in the comments!

And we have a second contender this month for best poster title! Paul Coxon wrote:

I learned if you want people to talk you about your conference poster, give it a bold/intriguing title.


When I ask someone with a beautiful poster at a conference how they made it, a high percentage of the time, the answer is, “Adobe Illustrator.” It’s powerful, but not easy to learn. Gary Poore has a guide to how to make line drawings in Illustrator here.

This is a fascinating discussion of sound effects in comics, where “catch” can be a word or a sound effect:

(S)ound effects are loaded with more information than just what a thing sounds like. ... they can often clarify the events in a panel by enhancing an action that is hard to capture in a still image. A sound might suggest degree or severity, for example, of an impact.

Emilio Bruna shared this interesting variation on a poster from grad student Christa Roberts:

It’s a good reminder that in a poster session, there are few rules!

A review of how decisions about typesetting can make text more readable, particularly for dyslexics. The two big take-aways: make the letters bigger and the lines shorter. Hat tip to Chris Atherton.

19 February 2015

Better Posters on the road: The MEOPAR workshop

I spent the first part of last week in beautiful Québec City giving a poster workshop for MEOPAR. I’d given presentations about making posters before, but this was the first time I’d tried to turn this into a half a day workshop, which was intimidating. The participants (dubbed “Meopeers”) were good sports about it all.

One of the things that made the job easier was that several of the Meopeers brought posters with them. As it happened, between the five there was a good mix of different features to talk about. These five posters gave me the chance to talk about logos, abstracts, eye levels, reading order, entry points, and much more.

This first was one of the cleanest, simplest posters. I would have put the right picture above the text, not below it, to bring the great picture closer to eye level. I also might have tried paragraphs instead of bullet points.

This second poster has a clean three column layout, but the amount of text is truly intimidating. The introduction – the whole right column, if we’re honest – is not welcoming to a casual passerby.

The poster above got caught in a lighting “dead zone" much of the first day. There were lights on to the right of it, to the left of it, but not above it, and it was noticeably dark. Compare the lighting of the middle poster to the two flanking it. 

This demonstrated that posters are not always displayed in good lighting conditions, and lots of conference poster sessions are in hotels like this one.

On poster number three, there are a few unnecessary boxes around the columns of this one. The logos here throw off the nice centering of the title, so I suggested left aligning the title and leaving the logos where they are.

The colours of the graphics are all over the map. This is a situation where I don’t know if the colours can be harmonized while keeping the scientific content intact, however.

This fourth one tries to provide skimming readers with a quick entry point, with a box that reads “Goal” in the upper right corner. The box is a bit dark and hard to read, though. Points for concept, but penalties for execution.

A couple of other issues here are that all the graphics are corralled at the bottom, and are rather small. The reading order switches around, with the central two columns reading across then down, instead of down, then across.

This fifth poster had the best title bar of all of the posters. The picture of the ferry is an excellent entry point, the title is big and clear and not crowded, and the logo is appropriately low key, tucked away in the lower right of the title bar.

Then, the bottom falls apart. The left column is okay, but... that right hand side. Oh dear. As soon as you hit the Methods and Results, you’re awash in a sea of small, intense graphs. Even after two straight days of looking at this poster on and off, I still haven’t been able to which way I am supposed to read the figures without going in and studying each one in detail, like these Meopeers were doing:

Some of the points that came up in discussion was the difference between the intended order of information, and how people actually looked at the poster. Even the first three posters, with a clear three column order, were not often read in that order.

Several Meopeers admitted to being “skimmers,” looking at the start and finish of the poster for the main points, and not bothering with with the stuff in the middle at all.

There was some contention about the use of logos. One participant said, “My university will insist that they be there.” I am still baffled by how an institution can stop you from doing whatever you want with a poster. Even then, like everything else, there are some ways to include logos that are better than others.

I thank all the Meopeers for their willingness to listen. I thank the MEOPAR coordinating team for inviting me back home to Canada (first time home in seven years) and being most excellent hosts. I hope it helped!

12 February 2015

In search of simplicity, plus a makeover

In a blog post on The Conversation, Jordan Gaines Lewis extols the virtues of simplicity, both as a viewer and presenter:

Also, forget the wordy background information, paragraphs and long conclusions – when I look at your research poster, I’m only looking at the title and figures. ...

Nowadays, when I design posters or oral presentations, I aim to do the same thing regardless of whether I’m introducing my work to scientists or non-scientists. My research posters, in fact, are almost laughably simple. Well under 200 words, with large, blocky figures, at first glance they may resemble a high school science project – certainly not a typical graduate student’s work at an international conference.

But the human brain is attracted to simplicity. Since applying what I’ve learned from being a science communicator, my conference poster experience has completely changed. I’m frequently bombarded by a non-stop stream of scientists from all different fields, never having more than a free minute or two to sneak a swig of water. The best part is that because they understand what’s on the paper, our discussions can go deeper.

I was struck by Jordan’s description, and asked if we could see an example of her work. She was kind enough to send one of her examples. Click to enlarge!

Jordan’s poster is indeed simple: this poster has one result. It succeeds in that anyone looking at it will think they can get the main messages of the poster in a few minutes.

I asked Jordan to talk about this poster, and I was delighted she replied with much more than I could have reasonably expected:

A few years ago, when my first scientific conference was around the corner, I couldn’t wait to make a poster. I was awed by those with complex titles, long-winded methods, and tons of detailed graphs. To me, this style reeked of intelligence, complexity, and months of hard work. I wanted to show off, too.

…until I went to my first scientific conference, and I found myself avoiding these types of posters like the plague.

We humans like simple things. And especially in a hall filled with hundreds of posters (and ten times that many people milling about), our eyes want to focus on the least chaotic item in the room and find comfort there.

My style of designing posters changed dramatically after I participated in Penn State’s Graduate Exhibition last year—a school-wide celebration of graduate work in all disciplines, from theoretical physics to visual arts. Our posters are judged by professors, students, alumni, and volunteers from the Penn State community who come from all different backgrounds and areas of expertise. Our work must appeal to (and be understandable by) everybody.

Distilling a year’s worth of work into an easy-to-understand poster was not a cakewalk. Eventually, I settled on a single figure, a flow chart to visualize my methods, and an image to complement my background information. The text was large and the colors were simple.

As I spoke, I found it easy to carry my judge along the way while pointing out images and figures. This experience was a revelation to me: the poster is not the centerpiece. Rather, it’s the accessory to the story that comes out of the expert’s mouth.

Despite this positive experience, I was a bit nervous to re-use this simple poster a few months later at an international conference specific to my field of study. As I hung it up in the morning, it looked laughably simple next to the surrounding posters.

But when the poster session time rolled around, attendees were drawn to mine like flies to honey. To me, the best part was that since the methodology and results were so clear from the poster, I didn’t have to waste our time by answering clarification-type questions. Instead, our conversations could go deeper—about further experiments, implications for the work, and how my findings relate to the field at large.

The goal of your poster is to inform, not impress. Teach, not overwhelm. It’s harder to cut down words than it is to copy/paste from the Methods section of your latest publication.

Poster-making is truly an art form—some people are naturals, and others need assistance even after decades of presenting their work. I’ve still got a lot of learning to do myself, and I can’t wait to prepare for my next scientific conference.

Allot yourself a bit of extra time to design your next poster. Have a layperson take a look over it before you print it. Give simplicity a try. I have a feeling you’ll find yourself having more quality discussions with more scientists at your next meeting.

Because I am a tinkerer, though, I thought I would see if there were some things that might make things even better. Jordan described her style as “blocky,” so I start, as I often do, by removing boxes, first around the main text blocks:

Then I pulled out the boxes around the inner images:

Then I went in and tried to harmonize the text, by making a little more room around it, and making the sizes more consistent. I also removed the white fill in some text boxes to allow the pale blue background to come through.

Then a few more text changes, notably to the title. And I got rid of that last box in the figure legend.

09 February 2015

Analyzing the Vaquero logo, or: Who was that tanned man?

The UTRGV mascot was unveiled... at 4:00 pm on Friday afternoon. I do not think the timing of this release was accidental. After the uproar that followed the announcement of the “Vaqueros” name, I think someone hoped that late Friday afternoon would provide a “soft launch” for the logo.


I like the look of the logo overall. The horse and rider look dynamic and distinctive. It reads well from a distance.

There is one thing I absolutely love about this logo. It’s a little Easter egg that shows a very sharp, professional graphic designer did this. There is a map of Texas hidden in the negative space of the horse's front and back legs. That is just a detail that delights.


In the full colour version of the logo, the rider looks like he’s had a spray on tanning mishap. Sort of like Ross in the Friends episode, “The One with Ross’s Tan.”

Our female athletes got ignored. We have dozens of alternate logos, and there are no Vaqueras. Not even a team name in any of the zillion logo variants.

Our friends at Brownsville got short changed. Again. Most seriously, several of the logo variants have the outline of the state of Texas, and a single star in the Valley... pretty much right on Edinburg, where UTPA is. Either there should be a star for each campus, or no stars.

On a minor note, the UTRGV colours are supposed to be orange, green (UTPA’s heritage colour) and blue (UTB’s heritage colour). But in the full colour logo, the navy blue it so dark that it doesn't read as blue.

Some people have said there are some similarities with the Texas Tech Mascot, the Red Raiders. Both have a man on horseback.

I personally don’t see this as a big problem. The colours, poses, letters... There is no way the two would ever be confused.

The lettering looks very similar to the type used for the current UTPA logo, and to other institutions.

Overall, the logo is sharp, but it’s a shame that it doesn’t show awareness of the criticisms of the Vaqueros name, and the regional tensions that have been brewing because of it.

External links

What the future holds

05 February 2015

There’s a poster session on Twitter now

Check out the hashtag #RSCAnalyticalPoster on 5-6 February 2015. It’s an online poster session on analytical chemistry, sponsored by Royal Society of Chemistry Analytical Science. Read more about the whys and wherefores here. I’ll try to update this post with some comments later.

Don’t get mad, get playful

Most people want to give talks at conferences instead of posters. David Schulz was denied the opportunity to give a talk, he was mad. His anger drove him to “go there” in poster design – and the result was a roaring success.

Let’s break it down and look at some of the elements that gave him such success.

First, he has balloons. Balloons! Not only does looking at them make you reflexively smile, they act like a highway sign for his poster. The balloons will be visible from almost anywhere in the poster hall, rising above the horizon. People will see them and wonder what they’re for, and might wander over to have a peek.

When they get there, the viewer is invited to play a little game:

You can get the answer by lifting the flaps. It’s very hard to resist interacting with the poster now, because it almost captures some of the feel of a pop-up book. I’ve shown a few examples of other “pop up” panels and flipbooks, and this falls into that category.

The answers are also written on the handouts that David has on the table. This encourages people to pick them up, and makes them more likely to take them away, which means more connections between David and the people who saw his poster.

Looking at David’s set-up, I would have liked his poster to be bigger and use more of the available space. I also might have gone for a more subdued colour scheme. But this poster is so good at saying, “Hey! You! Yes, you! Come over here and look at me!” that it clearly overcame some of the weaker elements of its design.

At the end, David said:

(I)t was one of the most engaging scientific activities I had ever done. Given that the average attendance at any given session was less than 100 people (and usually 30-50 people), I received more substantive feedback from people during the poster than the one or two polite questions I would have received had I given an oral presentation. I gave out nearly all my handouts, which meant that I directly interacted with at least as many as would have likely sat passively through an oral presentation.

Never lose sight of what a poster is for. It’s a conversation starter. And this poster did that job admirably.

David’s blog, Eloquent Science, has many other posts about conference posters that I’m just starting to dig into.

Related posts

How to show a dung beetle running
Critique: plague

External links

Rethinking Poster Sessions as Second-Class
Proof that a poster can be attractive to an audience