16 May 2019

Critique: Child care

Today’s contribution comes from Mary Bratsch-Hines. Click to enlarge!


Mary writes:

I’ve realized that although I have removed the boxes, it still feels boxy. This is likely because it’s laid out like a manuscript.

The “boxy” style that Mary mentions is not necessarily a bad thing! Paper is rectangular, and lends itself to rectangular layouts. It is true that it can feel a little boring, particularly with repeated use, but it is better a little dull than something that jumps off the rails trying to be different.

If you are every faced with the choice between boredom and confusion, pick boredom!

Mary’s poster is an excellent example of why so often I end up recommending a three column layout to people. It just works. While there is room to improve on this poster (more on which in a moment), nobody would cringe looking at this poster or think it was an accident gone horribly wrong.

What stuck out at me was how little the poster stuck out at me. The overarching sense you get from this from a distance (or at small size) is greyness. And the few patches of colour are all stuck far away from eye level at the bottom of the poster.

A few things I’d try:
  • Put the picture in the right at the top of the column instead of burying it at the bottom (the Cosmo rule).
  • Crop said picture so that it’s column width. The tighter the grid, the close to God.
  • Put the “Results” heading in line with the headings of the other columns instead of under the figure.
  • Make the title and headings heavier and blacker.
  • Make the graph the width of the column.
Here’s a revision with those changes:

    There is more visual contrast and variety in this version of the poster. Even shrunk down, the title and headings are now bringing in some black to break up the greyness. The grey wall of text is broken up vertically instead of all being at the top.

    This is, as always, a quick and dirty revision. If you enlarge the image, you will see the text in the graph’s axes are distorted. To make the bottom center graph column width, I just grabbed is a stretched the whole thing. This is not the correct way to make the graph fit. It should be resized to the correct proportion in the original graphing software.

    The revision above is much better, but the left side still felt like it was fading away into nothing. So I broke up the greyness by colouring the flowchart boxes.


    I picked yellow because the map to the right of it had a little yellow. In fact, the map could stand to do with a little colour, although we’re probably reaching the point of diminishing returns in adding more colour to combat the greyness. A better step would be to do a ruthless edit to reduce the word count.

    If you think the difference between the first and last version is a big improvement (and I’m vain enough to think that it is), remember how easy it was.

    Six changes.

    That’s it. The poster became much visually punchy and attractive with just six changes. Remember that if you ever feel like, “I don’t have time to make this poster better!” You probably do have time: you just have to know enough to make the right ones. And those are not particularly tough things to remember. In this case, those guides are:
    • Line things up.
    • Put graphics at eye level.
    • Make important things bigger and bolder.

    09 May 2019

    More than just visual cheesecake

    I want academics to create objects with high quality graphic design. But I imagine there are people who might admit that a well designed conference poster (or what have you) may be nice and all, but it’s just visual cheesecake. Sure, you get some personal aesthetic pleasure out if it, but that’s about all. If the content is solid, some might say that good graphic design won't help you meet career goals like job offers, tenure, or promotion.

    I personally cannot think of any anecdotes or data supporting the contention that excellent graphics have significantly advanced or hindered individual researcher's careers (e.g., grants or papers rejected just because some aspects of typography or design were so bad). If anyone knows any examples, I would love to hear them!

    On a larger scale, some might argue that the quality of graphic design has neither significantly advances or substantially hurt science communication. Here, there may be some examples of the importance of strong graphics.

    Climate scientist Michael Mann’s graph of historical global temperatures might be an positive example where a technical graph helped the cause of science communication by breaking into public awareness and advanced political discussion.



    This visual made the point stick with people in a way that “unprecedented rapid change in earth’s temperature” never did. It was so memorable that even it got a nickname (the “hockey stick” graph).

    On the negative side, Edward Tufte’s short book, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint (later incorporated as part of Beautiful Evidence), provided a compelling case that the default design of PowerPoint slides may have contributed to the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.



    Tufte’s argument is that the design of the slides are so bad that they diverted attention from the deep problems facing the Challenger launch. While there were clearly a lot of management problems at NASA the contributed to the explosion of the Challenger and the death of her crew, the argument that this contributed isn’t easily brushed aside.

    External links

    PowerPoint does rocket science

    04 May 2019

    The Morrison billboard poster, part 2

    Since its debut on YouTube a few weeks ago, Mike Morrison’s suggested format has been getting a fair share of people trying it out. This one appeared in my feed via Hannah Hobson.


    I’m fascinated by this, because it shows how design can be like the whisper game. Things get changed with each repetition and you end up with something rather different (and sometimes incomprehensible) compared to the original.

    In Morrison’s original template, the entire content of the poster was contained on the left hand sidebar. The right hand sidebar is for extra supporting detail for superfans and ultraskeptics.

    This meant a presenter mainly has to help people on the left side of the poster. If the presenter is standing in front of it that right sidebar, it’s usually no big deal.

    In this version, the content is so much longer than the “structured abstract” that the content is split between the two sidebars.



     And to make matters worse, the break comes in the









    middle of the results section.

    As I have just demonstrated, unexpected breaks mess up your reading flow. Now you have to shift your physical location quite a bit to continue reading the results. You might have to dance back and forth between the start of the results on the left and the end of the results on the right to make sense of the whole thing.

    For the presenter, this version clusters audience members at both edges of the poster. The middle “take home” message becomes something of a dead zone. If there were meaningful content in the middle, you would walk people through in a continuous loop. But here, people have to jump over several feet.

    A good general guideline in graphic design is keep related content together.

    If you have so much stuff that you need two columns to explain it, keep those columns together.




    I’m also baffled by the QR code which says, “Take a picture to download the full poster.” Surely I can eliminate the middleman by just... taking a picture of the poster?

    Related posts

    25 April 2019

    Link round-up for April, 2019

    We’ve had many nominees for best poster, but this is one of the first for “best poster presenter.” Spotted by ForsGroup.


    My favorite poster I’ve seen so far at #ACSOrlando. I hope he’s giving a talk later...

    • • • • •

    Another reason you should keep posters after the conference is over: it can double as an emergency ice pack.


    Hat tip to Rebecca Clement and Milton Tan.

    • • • • •

    Inspired by adorable tiny glassware (so much tinyness), Lauren Gonzalez created this mini lab, complete with mini posters.


    So, who will be the first to stage a mini conference? Magnifying glass included with attendance fee.

    • • • • •

    This is an excellent analysis of a an excellent graphic abstract (that could have been a poster):


    Structure - although the graphic has a nice informal feel too it, the structure is sound. The dotted line are subtle, but help the eye realise where the sections are.

    The title - I like this a lot, the type, the fact that it’s on a a silhouette of a tetrapod, it stands out really well (despite not being at the top of the graphic).

    The section headings - notice the creative font use is restricted to titles, the shapes fit the type nicely, see how they’re all slightly different too, both in shape and colour. The language is simple and direct.

    Emma has visualised the Paleobiology database nicely, but rightly chooses not to force “Statistical & phylogenetic methods to mitigate sampling biases” into a graphic. The text communicates better than any icon could.

    Visit the thread for a Q&A with creator Emma Dunne. Hat tip to Anne Hilborn.

    • • • • •

    Chris Gunter asked “How does one travel with a poster tube?” and got many helpful replies.

    • • • • •

    In an age of global climate change, it’s worth asking if you need to fly to conferences. New research suggests not.

    (T)his preliminary evidence suggests that there may be opportunities, especially for academics who study topics related to climate and sustainability, to reduce their emissions from air travel while maintaining productive careers.

    • • • • •

    Oh, this figure is shocking. Make sure your figures do not become the brunt of internet humour.

    • • • • •

    Criticism is an integral part of this blog, and design. With that in mind, I think this attitude from Neil Gaiman is useful:


    It’s one of Gaiman’s Laws of Art: “When anyone tells you that they had a problem with something, they are very probably right. When they tell you how to fix it, they are very probably wrong.”

    From io9.

    19 April 2019

    Critique: Chemistry comics

    This week’s contributor is Purav Patel. Click to enlarge!

    Poster: Machine teaching enhancesperceptual fluency in chemistry

    Purav writes:

    It combines some elements from Mike Morrison’s better poster, Bret Victor’s Seeing Spaces poster, and my own touches.

    If displayed in physical form, I would print a very large poster to see the smaller cells more easily. The Post-It notes are for viewers to write some comments/feedback after the presentation. A template and associated files are on the OSF website.

    It’s interesting that Mike Morrison’s YouTube video is influencing poster creation even though it’s only been out for a few weeks. And we haven’t even hit peak conference season yet.

    This poster is an interesting attempt to fulfill the needs of different readers simultaneously: the ones who are happy to read on their own and the ones who want “the tour” from the presenter.

    I like that this poster cleanly and clearly separates the columns. The wide margins signal that each column is serving a different purpose. The headings on the left and right spell out what each column is for.

    The downside of “two posters in one” is that there is a lot here, and it does not look like a quick read.

    Fortunately, Patel isn’t afraid to leave some white space down at the bottom, which provides a bit of lightness to the poster. All the logos and QR codes are sensibly placed down in the bottom corners, too, where they won’t distract from the main content.

    The left and right corners mirror each other, which is a nice touch. I don’t mind the redundancy, because it does mean that if someone is working on the left side of the poster, someone on the right is easily able to snap a QR code without disturbing the other reader.

    The downside of this style is that the central point, “Machine learning enhances perceptual fluency in chemistry,” gets a little lost. That title is in a bigger block than the headings on either side of it, but it’s short-changed by the diagram on the right taking up space. The diagram isn’t adding a lot of context or information.

    Extending the blue title bar and putting the diagram on top of it makes the title carry more visual weight, and solves an alignment problem at the same time. All the bars now align on the right.

    Revised poster: Machine teaching enhancesperceptual fluency in chemistry

    The low contrast between the purple on blue downplays the diagram and creates some unintended striping effects. Either a different diagram or a little colour change might help. I am tempted to removed the diagram entirely.

    The brush-style type is clearly taken from the “Seeing spaces” poster, referenced above. In the “Seeing spaces” poster, the brush font is paired with a more traditional “speedball” comic lettering for the main text. The comic font has no lowercase, but it does allow for emphasis.

    Lettering sample: "I think about seeing on THREE LEVELS -- three progressively more powerful ways of seeing."
    Notice how “three levels” is a little bolder and a little more slanty. (The “I” should have crossbars on top and bottom, though.)

    In Purav’s poster, the brush-style is used throughout, and it hurts the poster’s readability. It’s a much narrower typeface, which tends to make sentences look more like grey lines a series of words. The font has no lowercase. The font has no emphasis or variation.

    Lettering sample: "We acuire perceptual fleuency via inductive, nonverbal processes. It's like learning your first language by trial and error."

    This poster is further from the comic style than the “Seeing spaces” poster, so there is no strong reason to use a typeface that emulates hand lettering here. A condensed font with lowercase letters might be a better choice.

    11 April 2019

    Critique: The Morrison billboard poster

    A couple of weeks ago in the link round-up, I featured a video from Mike Morrison. Mike’s year-in-the-making video attracted plenty of attention, and is at the bottom of this post in case you missed it. Eugene Ofofsu has already used this format on a prize-winning poster.

    Let’s have a look at Morrison’s template.

    Sample billboard style poster developed by Mike Morrison

    Morrison’s design has four components.

    1. An extremely large take away message in the middle. This is the biggest difference between Morrison’s design and most academic posters.
    2. A structured abstract in a sidebar on the left.
    3. Fiddly bits for superfans and aficionados in a sidebar on the right.
    4. A QR code in the bottom middle.

    While I don’t share his deep pessimism about poster sessions, particularly presenting (“nothing's worse than presenting a poster”), Morrison’s design is thoughtful.

    In particular, it takes the principle I have often espoused that “Nothing should compete with the title” and “The title is 90% of your communication effort” and runs with it. The central take home message acts as the title of the poster.

    Morrison does include space for “Title” on the left sidebar, but a title is superfluous with this massive take home message. Besides, most titles are not one word, and the space any typical poster title would use in that left sidebar would probably be significantly larger than shown here.

    I admire the push to summarize the work in a single sentence. But let’s be honest. Getting to that single sentence is... very hard. Many academics, trained in nuance and exceptions, struggle to cut words.

    The design does make a few assumptions that might not always hold.

    First, near the end of the video, Morrison simulates a “walkthrough” of a poster session with this billboard format.

    In the next screen, a few real academic posters are going to move past you at a walking pace. See how much information you can absorb. Now try these same posters you just saw translated to the new design. Now, this is gonna be a little unbelievable and jarring at first, because when people see this, they don’t believe that these clear findings came from the posters they just saw, but they did.

    Here’s a screenshot of this demo. Notice anything? Anything missing?


    People.

    There are no people. There are no presenters or audience members. This is an empty room. In most sessions, there will be people that can potentially block the view of the bulk of the poster, where Morrison recommends putting the take home message.

    Morrison’s portrait version of the poster fixes this.


    But it looks much more like a more familiar poster format.

    Second, Morrison proposes colour coding the backgrounds.


    I think it would be extra efficient to use colours that prime people’s expectations about what type of poster they're about to see, because they’ll notice the colour first. Like, we could use green for empirical studies, because they’re the most common; blue for theory; red for methods, and; yellow, the most attention-getting color, for that rare and wonderful intervention study.

    While colours do have things that they suggest, colour associations are usually derived from nature (reds and oranges and yellows are “hot” because they’re the colour of sunlight and fires; greens and blues “cool” because of plants, sky, and oceans) or associations drilled in from an early age (red for “stop” and green for “go”).

    I think you would get confused looks if you asked people, “What colour do you associate with ‘theory’?”

    The coding system suggested by Morrison would be arbitrary. The only way they would be meaningful is if the organizers set them out in advance, and aggressively enforced them. Most conference organizers are very “hands off” with posters.

    This sort of colour coding isn’t very friendly to people who are colour blind. (Hat tip to Alex Merz for the reminder.)

    Third, it assumes no audience member ever plans what posters to visit in advance. In Morrison’s description, the only way people find posters that interest them is by wandering the halls. There are no online lists of titles and abstracts ever mentioned.

    As an audience member, you have the power to make best use of your time by searching out what posters you want to visit before the conference. As a presenter, you have the responsibility to respect people’s time and be able to tell them what’s going on in a few minutes.

    Morrison wants someone to walk through a poster session and quickly get something meaningful from every poster. But there are meetings where the sheer number is still going to make that impossible (like the massive geology and neuroscience meetings). Preparing in advance is almost the only way you can get something meaningful from the meeting.

    Fourth, Morrison puts a lot of stock in QR codes. I have written about them often on this blog. I have seen far more people put QR codes on posters than I have ever seen people taking pictures of them. Whatever their value in theory, they seem to be little used in practice.

    In his PowerPoint template file, Morrison says of the “ammo bar” on the right hand side, “Keep it messy! This section is just for you.” If you truly want something that is “just for you,” keep it off the poster. Put it in a notebook or leave it on your tablet. Otherwise, people can see it, they will look at it, and they will be judgey about what is there.

    It’s like an artist who shows work they are not happy with in an exhibit or display. If you show bad work, people will think it’s because you can’t tell the difference between the good and the bad. It’s not a good strategy.

    Morrison, like many academics, is very focused on written content. Yes, there is a lot of paring down that written content to the essentials, but it’s still reading, and reading is hard. And when you see his walkthrough of a poster session, the overwhelming impression is sentences on blocks of colour. And all the type is the same basic sans serif. It is visually dull.

    Morrison’s approach underestimates the appeal of visuals. I suggest pairing the big take message with a big inviting picture.


    In this revision, I have moved the title up, so it’s always visible above people’s heads. The space saved is used for a big, bold picture that relates to the topic, so people can tell visually what the poster is about. The colour of the title bar is picked up from the picture with the eyedropper tool. The QR code is moved over to the “fine print” are in the lower left.

    And while we’re at it, let’s move the typography out of the 1980s and into the 21st century by replacing tired old Arial with Source Sans Pro.


    Both fonts are straightforward sans serifs. Source Sans Pro has the advantage of making the differences between some letter forms more distinct, notably lowercase “L” and capital “I”. You could certainly make bolder type choices that might give the poster more personality.

    Also note that in revising the poster’s take home message, I was able to shorten it from twelve to eight words, a 33% savings, with no loss of meaning. Being concise is hard, even when you are deeply focused on it.

    I suspect that some will argue that a poster should be all about the data.


    So why do I suggest a photo and not the all important data? Because data alone usually render a poster anonymous.


    Both this poster and the one before it might be about lobster size, but you can’t tell that at a glance from a scatter plot.

    Reading words is hard. Interpreting graphs is harder. A scatter plot can represent ten thousand things. Data doesn’t signal at a glance what the topic of the poster is. See the discussion of Scott McLeod’s “big triangle” for more.

    A wall of data points is not better than a wall of text.

    See also threads by Amy Burgain, Aresny Khakhalin, and Juliane Fenandes.

    Mike has provided templates here, and is working on a study validating this design. He is looking for grad students to participate. You can email him at Mike.A.Morrison@gmail.com.


    Update, 19 April 2019: I received reports of this poster “in the wild” from Jeremy Cain:


    Jeremy is not an academic, but his girlfriend is. He relayed her experience:

    She told me that for the whole time she was standing at her poster, presenting, she wished her graphs and plots were larger. ... Every one of those posters, she actually didn’t know what they were about right away because there was no title at the very top and people were standing in the way.

    Julie Shapiro’s experience was more positive.

    Emily Kane also shared another variation of the format in the wild.

    04 April 2019

    Better Posters Twitter account is back


    After a few days suspension, the automated Twitter feed for this blog is now back up and running! Please follow @Better_Posters if you want updates of new posts.

    Thanks to Twitter customer service for not taking too long in reviewing the appeal.

    Sigh. All because I was just trying to add a new header graphic to the Twitter account. Hat tip to Cecil Adams’s Straight Dope for the tagline.

    Critique: Stars with a bang

    Mia de los Reyes is today’s contributor, with a pair of posters for perusal. Since both have similar styles, I’m going to mostly talk about both in one go at the end. Click to enlarge the first one!


    Mia says of this poster:

    This was presented at a conference for a very specific subfield (“Stellar Archaeology as a Time Machine to the First Stars”), so I felt a bit more free to use jargon that I otherwise wouldn’t put on a poster. I was inspired by the format of Meredith Rawls’s poster, which you featured a while ago.
    She also notes there are some line artifacts caused by one of the images.

    Mia’s second poster is one of the things we love – an award winner! This won a grad student award at the American Astronomical Society’s 233rd meeting.


    Mia writes:

    This had a more general audience, hence the “take-away points” box. I know that boxes are sometimes overdone, but I personally like the way they help me organize the flow of the poster.

    Mia’s use of boxes works, I think, for a few reasons. One is that the lines making up the boxes aren’t black. When I see boxes on posters, the lines making them up are often black, and it creates a very strong visual impression because the lines are so high contrast. On both posters, the lines are in the same colour palette as the rest of the poster. That makes the box draw less attention to itself, and makes the division between spaces less abrupt.

    Mia also takes care to ensure the edges of the boxes align, and the spaces between the boxes are even.

    Mia’s use of the limited colour palette is intentional.

    (I also like the “paint chip” look of using a spectrum of colors from a single color palette. I got the color palettes in these posters here.)

    As with the first poster, Mia finds places to improve. In this second poster, an equation didn’t print as well as it might have.

    On both, she wrote:

    I wish I’d been a bit more creative with fonts! I used Avenir for everything but now wish I’d attempted a nice serif font for the headers.

    I like both these posters, but there is an effect that I can’t quite put my finger on. They look better to me at far away than up close. They closer I get, the more cluttered they feel. They may purely be a matter of adjusting the point size down a hair, and maybe widening the margins between graphs and text ever so slightly.

    Another thing that might help open up the space a little is to remove the top and left axes on the graphs, particularly on the second poster. They create a box where there is no need for a box, particularly since the graphs are all enclosed in boxes.

    External links


    8 Beautiful Flat Color Palettes For Your Next Design Project

    01 April 2019

    Better Posters Twitter account temporarily down

    The automated Twitter feed for this blog (@Better_Posters) is currently down.

    I had logged in to make a few cosmetic changes to the feed. When I did, I was prompted to add a birthday, so I picked the day the blog went live. Little did I know that since this was ten years ago, it didn’t meet Twitter’s minimum age requirement of 13. This instantly got the account locked.

    I have put in a service ticket, and will post here when the feed is back.

    28 March 2019

    Link round-up for March, 2019

    Mike Morrison has a 20 minute video describing what a poster session is and how to make a poster.


    Unlike Mike, however, I do not believe poster sessions are “holding the human race back in a non insignificant way.” The video, particularly the first half, is pessimistic about poster sessions. Around 13:25, good stuff starts to happen as Mike outlines a good poster design. I think he overestimates people’s willingness to snap pictures of QR codes, though.

    Mike has provided templates here, and is working on a study validating the design he has. He is looking for grad students to participate. You can email him at Mike.A.Morrison@gmail.com.

    Amy Burgain saw this video and offers this alternative:


    Amy writes:

    It achieves the clear simple message BUT emphasizes how that message is supported by the DATA. It keeps the goal of understanding how the conclusion is related to the data while also making it easier to glean main messages.

    I plan to have my own longer post about this in a couple of weeks.

    Hat tip to Chris McTeague.

    • • • • •

    Dan Raboksy talks about the difficulty of working in poster sessions with hearing issues.

    I have profound hearing loss and struggle in many conf situations. Plenary talks in ballrooms: usually bad to impossible. Poster sessions: terrible.

    Dan notes that someplace with background noise, like a poster session, makes it almost impossible to understand speech. Off the top of my head, I think there are a few things that organizer can do to help:

    1. Have posters go up and stay up when no poster presentations are scheduled, so people can view posters in a more quiet surroundings.
    2. Ensure there are “quiet rooms” where someone can go to. Some people just like to have “chill out” rooms, but these could double for quiet conversations. (Science Online used to have these.)
    3. Make posters available online before the poster session. (This idea from Goring et al., 2018.)

    • • • • •


    BBC journalists have written an explainer on how they generate their graphs in support of news. They are using R’s ggplot2 package and putting out some nice stuff.

    ggplot2 gives you far more control and creativity than a chart tool and allows you to go beyond a limited number of graphics. Working with scripts saves a huge amount of time and effort, in particular when working with data that needs updating regularly, with reproducibility a key requirement of our workflow.

    The team has generously shared what they have learned by putting out a reference “cookbook” for making graphs and a package to generate the BBC’s house style.

    Personal opinion: I’m glad it works for them, but I am never going back to command line.

    • • • • •

    Morgan Carter suggests a way to integrate posters and preprints:

    (I)f you are making a conference poster about work from a recent preprint, throw the QR code at the beginning or end to invite folks to “read the full story”. I did it at a major conference last year, and I got questions about #biorXiv and preprint posting.

    BiorXiv has a built in QR code generator. Hat tip to Tim Stearns.

    • • • • •

    Stacy Keith has a useful infographic to budgeting time for making anything, including posters.


    • • • • •

    Bryan Gaensler has a useful Twitter thread on how to deal with the stress of conferences. For example:

    Look through the attendee list in advance. If there’s someone coming who you know and trust, ask them beforehand to check in with you during the meeting to see if you’re OK, or to introduce you to the people they’re talking to

    Many more tips in the thread.

    • • • • •

    Speaking of tricks, here is a list of ten tips for making text more readable by Igor Ovsyannykov. A couple of years old, but new to me.

    • • • • •

    LeeAnn Tan has a wonderful gallery of her poster work at PosterFolk.com. I hope to have more from LeeAnn in the weeks to come!

    What seems obvious to you may not seem obvious to a new conference goer. Jesiqua Rapley wrote:

    My first conference was an international conference in another country in the first year of my MA. I was alone, incredibly introverted, and terrified. I had NO idea what I was supposed to do. I didnt even know how to properly hang my poster.

    Supervisors, don’t do this to students. Don’t leave them hanging. Either go with them or do extensive briefing beforehand.

    21 March 2019

    Critique: Dem bones dem bones, dem jaw bones...

    Today’s contribution comes from Ram Vaidhyanath! Click to enlarge:

    Radiology’s whol deal is taking pictures, which makes it a very visual field. This poster takes advantage of that, and uses lots of high quality images. Those are excellent.

    The title is big and extremely visible from a distance. Same with the headings. The bars under the title and heading is a nice visual touch, too. It helps break up the space a little. One possible issue is that the bar under the title is about the same length as the word “Pictorial,” making it look like a botched attempt at underlining the word. The bar might be a little better if it was either lengthened or shortened so that it didn’t “attach” itself to the word above it.

    The layout is clear in the order of expected reading, but there are a couple of things that are a little frustrating.

    That the three right columns align the pictures in them precisely makes the single picture in the left hand column stand out, and not in a good way. In a rather jarring way. The text of the top paragraphs in each column are the same length, six lines. The diagram of jaw anatomy could be lined up with the others by removing the “Anatomy” heading, which isn’t doing a lot of heavy lifting here anyway.

    The discussion section is the most problematic. The “top” of the heading sort of pokes up above the “bottom” of the three right columns.

    More bothersome is that the lines of text in the discussion are long. Very long. About 35 to 40 words long, which is about three times longer than we’re used to reading. And the slightly small point size, which is an issue throughout the poster, is even more noticeable in the section that is the hardest to read.

    14 March 2019

    Critique: Float like a butterfly, think like a bee

    This week’s poster comes from Jeremy Hemberger. I believe that this was presented at last year’s Entomological Society of America meeting. Click to enlarge!


    Jeremy writes that the graphic design parts were done in Illustrator. All the pieces were then assembled using inDesign.

    I love the relaxed feel of this poster. One of the things that helps tremendously is that it very consciously and deliberately shows how it is not trying to fill all the available space. The bottom quarter or so of the poster contains a couple of logos (appropriately tucked down in the corner) and some simple, inviting artwork. And even between the two of those, there is a big space in light blue that is comfortable just holding space and doing nothing else.

    It’s kind of a glorious signal of confidence. More stuff would look desperate.

    I like how the title is broken down in a a simple, highlighted phrase on the left, and a smaller subtitle over on the right.

    I haven’t seen author information handled this way before. Author photos are a tricky thing, but these are good pictures. Having them in a circle both minimizes their footprint and adds a little visual interest. There’s no affiliations here, just contact information, which is arguably the most important thing to a viewer. This approach might not work well with large numbers of authors, but this shows it works well with one or two.

    The poster’s headings also show confidence in not using the typical “IMRAD” format. Instead, the headings clearly divide the space into “Problem,” “Solution,” and “Visualization and outreach.” The heading parallel the title, using the same left / right divide to separate a short, simple heading and a smaller, slightly more complex subheading.

    The flow chart / infographic is concise, visually appealing, and well thought out.

    The one place that I might suggest some very mild revision is in the text. Some of the text suffers from classic academic wordiness. The first sentence and filler words like “Indeed”, “are known to be”, and ”As such” might be edited out.

    The type used for the paragraph text is condensed and a slightly heavy weight. It is a little small and difficult to read from a distance. But then, I say this as someone who has an optometrist appointment today. The older I get, the more I appreciate the need for things on posters to be big.

    Fine work all around.

    Related posts

    Mug shot

    07 March 2019

    Critique: Virus stamping

    Today’s poster comes from contributor Benjamin Wu. Click to enlarge!


    Ben and I talked about capitalization, particularly in the title. There are three styles: headline / title casing (on left below), sentence casing (right), and all capitals. (The example above is not a good example for a poster, because the title is the same size as the main text. You wouldn’t have on a poster title.)


    I see examples of all three on posters all the time. I’m not a fan of all capitals, because it looks shouty, like a Hulk or Dalek Twitter account.

    I lean towards sentence casing, because we read sentences all the time. It makes it easier to recognize proper nouns. But proper nouns (name of person, place, or thing) should always be capitalized in any case!

    The poster’s layout is clean, with consistent space between boxes both horizontally and vertically. 


    The left quarter of the poster is mostly taken up with an abstract, and it is killing me. Having any abstract is bad enough, but this one is worse than most. It’s a structured abstract. I love structured abstracts for journals, but they are horrible for posters, because breaking the abstract into sections makes it longer and even more redundant than usual. When I look at the poster and see that huge block of text, and my will to read the rest of the poster just shrivels. 

    In fairness, Ben informed me that the decision to include the abstract was not up to him.

    But if you can get past the abstract, the rest of the poster fares well. The introduction is short and snappy, and the central two columns contains lots of well constructed graphics to outline the methods.

    I like the discipline of the predominantly greyscale palette, but I worry a little about the contrast making the text difficult to read. I tried lightening the boxes, but not all the way to white:


    Lightening the fills in the boxes make the headings stand out a bit more. I like the use of bands to highlight the heading for each box. The headings are unusually consistent in their position for a poster made in PowerPoint.

    A fine poster, but it is kind of a shame about that abstract.

    01 March 2019

    A decade of Better Posters



    It has been a decade since I started this blog. It had a slow start, but it has turned into one of the most successful, and rewarding, projects of my career.

    Thank you.

    To readers who have shown me that this is helpful, thank you.

    To those who have recommended the blog to others, thank you.

    To contributors who have been generous enough to share your posters with me and blog readers, a big thank you.You have made it much easier for this blog to continue by always giving me new things to talk about.

    I suppose this is as good a time as any to mention that a book about poster design is coming. A book written by me, published by Pelagic Publishing.

    Before I committed to writing a poster book, I needed to be sure it would provide value above and beyond what the blog already does. I’ve always felt there needs to be a reason for writing a book for academics. I see a lot of books (particularly textbooks) that don’t provide much different than others in the field. I never wanted to write a book “just because.”  

    But I think there is a good reason for a book.

    Many colleagues have told me they recommend this blog to others, particularly to students doing their first poster. While I’m glad so many put trust the suggestions here, I’ve been very aware that this blog is not terribly helpful to a novice. It’s not fair to expect a new person to trawl through ten years of blog posts that have no organization beyond “What I happened to want to write about that week” to get a sense of how to put together a poster.

    A book can provide coherent “start to finish” advice that this blog can’t.

    In the meantime, the blog will continue with its weekly* schedule, with new posts on Thursdays.

    * Well, almost weekly. I’ve missed a few weeks here and there.

    Photo by Justin S. Campbell on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

    28 February 2019

    Top tips for Twitter posters


    More academic societies are hosting events on social media. One established example is the Royal Society of Chemistry Twitter Poster Conference 2019 (#RSCPoster), which is heading into its fifth year!

    If you want to participate, here are my top tips.

    Design within size limits.

    Twitter will only post images 5 megabytes (MB) or smaller. As a designer, I usually want to know the height and width of my image in pixels, not the size. There isn’t a simple relationship between image size in pixels and file size. Greyscale images can take up less space than colour. Different file formats use different numbers of bytes.

    It’s worth briefly comparing the three image formats Twitter accepts.
    • GIF: Small file size because of its low colour resolution (8 bit colour). The only one of the three that supports animation. If you use a limited colour palette, GIF is a good option for making a large image with a small file size.
    • JPG: Small file size because of image compression. The amount of compression varies, and it is often unnoticeable if compression levels are low. But the nature of the format is that it always causes slightly lower image resolution. The advantage is the format (why it was created in the first place) is its high colour resolution (24 bit colour).
    • PNG: High colour resolution (24 bit colour) and uncompressed.

    Update, 4 March 2019: I found a web page to estimate file size from number of pixels. Using it, an GIF image (8 bit colour) could be about 3,000 × 1,500 pixels in size and come in under Twitter’s 5 MB limit. But a PNG image (24 bit colour) is more likely to be in the 1,800 × 900 pixels big.

    (Yes, I know this is a bit of an eleventh hour update. Sorry.)

    Keep crops in mind.


    If something important or attractive is sitting outside the preview window, people are less likely to click the whole thing.

    According to sites like this and this, Twitter shows sizes anywhere from 440 × 220 pixels to 1,024 × 512 pixels, and these sites recommend using images with a 2:1 ratio in landscape. Looking at Twitter on my desktop now, I see lots of preview images that are not in that ratio.

    But there are many other apps that people may use to view tweets, and their preview images are different sizes. Tweetdeck seems to use a preview image that is close to a 16:9 ratio. The Android app Talon seems to use a 3:2 preview image. Because different apps will crop your image to fit their own preview window, there is no optimal image shape.

    But there is something consistent: all these apps crop the edges of images. Make sure your most recognizable image, the one that tells a viewer what your poster is about, is in the middle of your poster. You might consider even working your title into the middle so that it is always visible.

    Use animation if appropriate.

    Animation is hard on paper, but easy on Twitter. And animation is more engaging that still images. Twitter supports GIF uploads, although again, there are file size limits (5 megabytes on mobile, 15 megabytes on web).

    There are lots of ways to make GIFs. I recently found the gifmaker.org website to be quicker and more efficient than my graphics program.

    Edit yourself ruthlessly.

    This is Twitter. A forum that built itself on being short, sharp, and to the point. Some of use remember those hard honed skills when there were only 140 characters, including retweets and pictures. It took real skill to craft good tweets, especially retweets.

    Be like old school Twitter.

    Make a single point.

    2016 RSCPoster presenter Helen Casey puts it this way:

    My advice to participants is to make your poster as simple and effective as possible. Really get the take-home message across.

    Editing yourself is hard, as I’ve talked about before. This is why it’s good to show your work to other people.

    Related posts

    #RSCposter 2018
    Four simple tips for shortening your poster

    External links

    How to post photos or GIFs on Twitter (Twitter document)
    Always Up-to-Date Guide to Social Media Image Sizes

    Twitter image from here.

    07 February 2019

    It’s dangerous to go alone! Getting help from campus offices and staff

    Sometimes, we academics believe that we have to do everything ourselves. We have to write, teach, research, analyze, manage, lead, critique, and design.

    Consequently, people are far too likely to take “do it yourself” (DIY) approach to poster design. This leads to people searching the web and grabbing crummy, low resolution images instead of figuring out better alternatives.

    We forget that our campuses have professionals who can help us with some tasks. It’s easy to forget because often those staffers have more contact with administration than faculty and students.

    For example, lots of campuses have offices and staff that can help with:

    Oversized printing. As the cost of plotter printers has come down, more campuses have one somewhere on that can be used for printing posters instead of sending them to professional printers and having to ship them back to campus.

    Graphics. Who do you think makes all those campus fliers and promotional material? These offices are sometimes in university relations or news or some other place, but most universities are going to have staff tucked away somewhere who are busy creating the look of documents the university puts out. And let’s admit that universities put out a lot of documents.

    Some bigger campuses have their own campus press, with people who are experienced in technical printing and design (though perhaps not large format documents).

    Photography. Again, universities are always needing photos of events for news and promotion, and and have photographers on staff. They are often looking for shots of faculty and students doing stuff. Contacting a staff photographer might be a great way to get a compelling visual for your poster.

    I would love to have a photograph as striking as this one on my poster. Click to enlarge (it’s big)!

    Photograph of researchers on dried, cracked mud

    This photo was taken by David Pike, a photographer on my university. I don’t think this is the sort of image that a professor or grad student taking a few snapshots with their smartphone would be able to make very often.

    I could easily see this sort of dramatic image as the centerpiece for a big conference poster.

    Admittedly, offices and staff vary. I’ve been in some universities where there were dedicated staff photographers in the department, while at others, you have to go to another office some where across campus. Some are easy to collaborate with. Some are a little more reluctant, since they have their own work to do. And some get in the way more than help, more interested in maintaining the university’s branding than design that is suited for the task.

    They may be other offices and staffer who can lend a hand if you poke your nose around and ask.

    Related posts

    Finding photos
    Misplaced priorities on institutional templates

    Photo by UTRGV photograph David Pike. Hat tip to him for prompting this post.

    31 January 2019

    Link round-up for January 2019

    Very helpful article about how to pick two typefaces that complement each other,


    Almost every text-based layout will benefit from more than one typeface. ... With the right pairing, your typography will instantly appear more professional, polished, and attractive.

    • • • • •

    Kaoru Sakabe discusses best practices in figure assembly.


    Hat tip to ASBMB.

    • • • • •

    Brent Thorne has help for R users:

    Do you like #RMarkdown but also need to make a conference poster? Well, the posterdown 📦 has been updated to include: fully customised colour options, sizing of your #PDF conference poster, and automated citation generation🙃🎉 Check it out here.

    • • • • •

    A listicle on the eight most popular types of posters says this about conference style posters:


    What makes educational or research posters different is that most posters are very visually pleasing to the eye and rely on composition and aesthetic qualities while educational ones often rely on information and presenting a resumed version of the research. Notice that the entire scientific process of the research seems to be resumed in the academic poster above.

    This is a very round about way of saying, “Damn, you ugly!”

    Sigh. Just another reason this blog won’t be going out of business any time soon.

    24 January 2019

    Poster sessions for wheelchair users

    Amy-Charlotte Devitz and service dog Fisher in front of a “Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology" sign.

    I’ve visited the issue of poster accessibility on this blog, but mainly in the context of visual issues, like colour blindness and dyslexia. Of course, these are not the only challenges the people might face attending a scientific conference. Amy-Charlotte Devitz, a.k.a. The Bendy Biologist on Twitter, has a great blog post talking about navigating a scientific conference in a wheelchair with a service dog. The conference at hand is the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB) meeting this month in Tampa, Florida.

    Here’s an excerpt, focusing in on what she says about poster sessions (emphasis added).

    100+ posters were on display and you had a chance to interact with those who had made them. These were admittedly a bit of a challenge to navigate in a chair. It was crowded, meaning it was very hard to move around, and with so many people around I wasn’t able to get a proper look at many of the posters. The alternative was to come and look at the posters before the official sessions started, a time when very few people were present, so I did this often. The downside of this was that one, the presenters weren’t there to speak with and two, it meant skipping other events to come look at the posters. Improvements in accessibility could be made by the increasing the space between rows of posters as well as the posters themselves to open things up a bit. This may be limited by the space available in the venue, but it something to consider.

    As I said in the beginning, my focus in this post would be on accessibility for individuals for mobility impairments, but I have a few points left to make. For one, almost every talk I saw used color-blind friendly color palettes in making their slides, and most used large fonts that were easy to read even from the back of the room. Encouraging these in all talks and posters would assure someone colorblind or visually impaired could view any material.

    Full disclosure: I was the chair of the Student and Post-Doctoral Affairs Committee during this meeting, so I have a professional interest here above and beyond the usual. I was supposed to attend this meeting, but could not due to unexpected events.

    It’s worth noting that SICB’s poster sessions used to allow people to have eight foot posters. Here’s one from 2017. In 2018, this was reduced to less than four feet of space for a poster. I do not know how far apart the poster boards were placed in those years, but it seems likely that the square footage of poster viewing space was probably about halved by this move.

    That square footage of viewing space is extremely important for wheelchair users. Whatever reasons there are for shrinking the poster size (and there are probably reasonable ones), this does not change the fact that it virtually guarantees that the poster session is a worse experience for everyone, even if wheelchair users are a little more affected than most.

    There is a lot more in Charlotte’s post, and I recommend it highly to you.

    External links

    SICB 2019 – An accessibility perspective

    17 January 2019

    Critique: Lending low tech tools

    Today’s poster contributor is Scott Johnson. Click to enlarge!


    This is a great marriage of content and form. The content is about something that is unabashedly “low tech,” so the hand-written, slightly lo-fi (okay, low tech) look is completely right here. It adds character and interest.

    Regular readers know that I personally am anti-underlining, and try to remove it in almost every instance I see it. But here, because it’s hand written, I can see the case for it. When people write by hand, they do underline for emphasis. I would experiment a bit with removing the underline, but I don’t know if removing the the underlines for headings and making the headinga a bit bolder would lose the look.

    I appreciate the purity of the monochrome greyscale, but it does wash out from a distance.

    I would like to see a little colour – even if subdued, and not everywhere. To keep the “low tech” look, I would suggest referencing some old photos, like daguerreotypes. They often weren’t pure shades of grey – certainly not as pure as here. Old pictures often have creamy or brownish overtones to them, as you can see in this picture of American write Edgar Allen Poe.

    Edgar Allen Poe daguerreotype


    Making the background of the page a subtle shade off-white or something might help.

    Alternately, the poster might use a single colour to highlight a few elements, like duotone printing.
    I'm thinking of maybe a very light yellow for the “sunburst” behind the building.

    If the poster stays pure monochrome, it could use a little more contrast to make some portions stand out. I like how the lines around the house and title are heavier to make them stand out at distance. But the text, as mentioned, is fading a little.

    Very charming work!

    Picture from here.