11 July 2019

Critique: Artseed

Today’s poster is from contributor Chetan Keshav. Click to enlarge!


Chetan wrote, “ It’s not as scientific as most of the posters featured on your blog though.” That is a good thing! One of my biggest wishes for this blog is that I would get a lot more posters from the humanities and other disciplines. I will take all conference posters from any discipline! Love all, serve all.

This poster does something that everyone is familiar with: it compares the old and the new, side by side. It’s a classic “Before” and “After.” But it’s a little hard to tell that at a glance.

Normally, when you see a “Before” and “After” comparison, it’s pictures of the same person. Like these people who got new haircuts:


You don’t need to label these as “Before” and “After,” because it’s obviously the same person. The face, and in this case the clothes, are identical.

With a website makeover, there is no such continuity. Everything changed. It would be helpful to indicate that these two different looking images are, in fact, the same site at different times.

To do this, the poster could embrace its four column format more strongly. As it happens, everything on the whole left half is “Before” and everything on the whole right half is “After.” I would try dividing it exactly down the middle, and put big “Before” and “After” headings at top that span half the poster. Then, I would divide the poster into four equal columns, instead of the kinda sorta even-ish four columns it has now.

If the design went that route, the title bar might need a little reworking to give space to the “Before” and “After” headings that would go up at the top.

I would keep almost everything else almost the same. I like the coloured headings, which are a nice way to break up grayness simply and quickly. And the icons and typography in the main text boxes are very good and don’t need changing.

04 July 2019

Critique: ROMS comm

A poster about ROM? I remember ROM!


Oh? It’s ROMS, you say? An acronym for Regional Ocean Modelling System? Okay, that’s almost as good as old Marvel Comics. This acronym is part of this week’s contribution from Stefanie Mack:


Stefanie wrote:

I really like the background. It’s a photo I took myself, while on a research cruise, and I use it or part of it on everything from my twitter background to my CV.  It adds interest, isn’t overwhelming, and gently separates the title from the rest. 

I agree. This is one reason why I am often advocating people try to get more photos for their posters! She continues:

I’m mostly happy with the content.  The section on the bottom left, “Smoothing Criteria,” is one of those sections where I don’t actually talk about it unless someone is asking very specific, detailed questions, and then I have to have it to explain properly.  This was my first presentation on a new project that, unfortunately, had no results to show at this stage.  My objective was to lay out the problem and research direction.  It ended up feeling too negative, so I substituted “So, why ROMS?” section for a typical conclusion. 

Sometimes the presentations that you make early in a project are some of the best ones, because you can focus on the problem and aren’t burdened with all that data.

Finding what “ROMS” stood for took a little more effort than I would have liked. When approaching a poster like this, I almost inevitably scan the headings first, because those are visible from a distance. I could read, “So why ROMS?”, even though that heading was down in the lower left.

My first thought is to look for a definition in the first paragraph. Not there.

I finally noticed the ROMS acronym in “Goals,” just under the affiliations. This should be a good place to put that information. It’s at the top, when you first start reading, right?

But it’s easy to miss. First, you’re going to read the title – which is left aligned. Then you’ll read the authors’ names and affiliations – which are left aligned. Then you normally read the introduction (or “The Problem” in this case) – which is left aligned.

But here, there’s a “Goal” statement  – which is centered. Because the goal statement is not left aligned, there’s empty space between the affiliation and the introduction, making it easy to miss. You have to backtrack up to find it.

Make the goal statement left aligned, like everything else up at the top, and the problem is solved.

I’m also concerned about the backtracking between “The Models” diagram and “The Problem,” as indicated by the arrow. It feels like “The Models” diagram (which also defines ROMS) is supposed to be the entry point for the poster. If that’s the case, there needs to be more signposts to show that.

I would rather the trackback be boxes and right angled arrows instead of ovals and curves. Perhaps more like this:



The poster has some rather long text blocks, which makes for a lot of gray areas. I’m wondering if the diagrams in “Smoothing Criteria” and “Pine Island Glacier Example” could be coloured, or set against a coloured background to break up the grayness a little.

I’m not sure if there is any strong reason for the columns to be different widths, or for those top headings not be be aligned.

External links

Just Swimmingly
Developing a coupled ice sheet-ocean model: challenges and progress with terrain-following ocean coordinates (Preprint arising from this work)

27 June 2019

Link roundup for June 2019: National news edition

Did you know that this year may mark the fiftieth anniversary of the conference poster? The Federation of European Biochemical Societies boasts of having the first international conference poster session in 1969! (Mentioned in this short article on poster design. Hat tip to Ben Marwick.)

So it is only appropriate that today, conference posters are having a moment.

• • • • •

Mike Morrison’s billboard style poster has done the seemingly impossible. It turned academic conference posters into national news.


First, it was on NPR. Excerpt on what problem this design is trying to solve:

“A poster session, ideally, is this incredibly fertile ground for creative insight,” says Morrison, who met me at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science in Washington, D.C. “You’re walking into a room, completely open-minded, and ready to hear and read findings around stuff that you didn’t even study before. If there are 50 posters here, it should transmit 50 new insights into your brain.”

Then the Matthew Effect kicked in, and more coverage ran in Forbes. Except:

(M)ost communication between scientists involves tedious levels of detail, to ensure that their colleagues have enough information to replicate the work. A conference presentation doesn’t have that same purpose.

Thanks, Forbes, for reminding us how boring we are.

Then EdSurge. Excerpt:

Rankyung Hong, a PhD student in computer science at the University of Minnestoa, said the new design is probably “more ideal” than the traditional template. But she admits she will probably continue to fill all the available space on her research posters with findings and detail about her research. “It’s very complicated material,” she says of her research. Plus, she says, presenting as much information as possible is “the norm in our department.”

And Inside Higher Education got in on the act, too. Excerpt:

Trauth said that he supports a movement toward better posters, "in principle." In his graduate course on science communication, for example, he asks students to review 10 posters and guess which won awards. There is a typically little consensus. In reality, all have won some kind of award and none, in Trauth's estimation, is really great. That's in part because awards tend to assess content, not design, he said.

Most of this month’s link round-up consists of reactions and discussions about Morrison’s format, largely prompted by the NPR coverage.

(Aside: Having run this poster blog for ten years, it feels weird to be suddenly documenting a controversy.)

• • • • •

Derek Crowe has a thorough post analyzing the billboard format and suggesting some alternatives.


Morrison called the billboard format the “better poster”, so Crowe calls his “butter poster.”

(“Better” is a hard name to top, so I went with Butter)

One of the key pieces of information that Derek provides is some data on how long people are willing to spend at a poster:

This is an important consideration that I hadn’t seen data on before. This was important enough that I ran my own poll, worded a little differently. Not the longest time, but the optimal time:

Poll results: 0-5 minutes, 65%. 6-10 minutes, 30%. More than 10 minutes, 5%. 289 votes.

About two thirds of people want to spend five minutes or less at a poster.

This sort of detail makes this not only one of the best weighing of the pros and cons of the billboard poster, but one of the best articles about conference posters I’ve read in a while. Derek is still working on this, and has a set of follow-up notes that are also good.

Recommended.

• • • • •

From Derek’s notes, I was led to this article by Echo Rivera about conference posters. This is another great post (some of which aligns with some of my own opinions). Excerpt:

3 things I LIKE about #BetterPosters

(1) It’s changing minds & waking people up about how bad conference posters are.

The #1 biggest struggle I face when trying to get academics and scientists to design better presentations is that most people think their slide design is much better than it actually is. And I’m not saying that as a judgmental snob. I’ve lost count of how many people have come to one of my presentation training workshops thinking they’ll just get a couple “quick tips” but walk away realizing their entire approach needs to change.

She also lists five things she doesn’t like about the billboard format. She also warns against any conference ever mandating any template.


This is another one of the best posts on conference posters I’ve read in a while. Also recommended.

• • • • •

Colin Purrington has one of the longest running resources on poster design out there (predating this blog), and he offers his thoughts in this Twitter thread. Excerpt:

The #betterposters push is in part a desperate plea for a reset. I also like that he’s pushing experimentation to see whether it’s actually better. Hopefully that will involve randomly assigning poster presenters to treatments. That would be, um, very entertaining.

Colin raises one important point that I haven’t seen explicitly stated elsewhere:

One technical matter that makes me cringe is that the #betterposter model encourages visitors to take photographs of posters (to activate QR code). Posters often have data that is not published and presenters don't want photographs taken. Some conferences even forbid it.

The Society for Neuroscience was one big holdout for years is forbidden poster session pictures. But nobody followed their rule, and they are repealing it this year.

• • • • •

Meanwhile, Lorna Quandt polled people to see what they thought of the billboard style poster.


Most people liked parts of it (45%), but at the edges, the haters (27%) outnumbered the supporters (17%).

• • • • •

Lorna’s results are echoed in a thread by Amy Cheu. Excerpt:

I really dislike the proposed new “conference posters”. From a #SciComm view, I think it’s ineffective. From a graphic design perspective, it’s incredibly ugly. Posters are supposed to be conversation starters, nothing to talk about when there’s nothing on the poster.

Cheu is also quoted in the Forbes article:

“Every example or use I have seen so far has continued the trend of text-heavy, graphic-poor posters. Only now, the text is smaller and smashed into the corners of the poster.”

Hat tip to Rachel French.

• • • • •

And another Twitter thread on the billboard format by Cecile Janssens. Excerpt:

I don’t want to consume a conclusion, but be given enough relevant details about methods, statistics, and results to invite a conversation.

Hat tip to Giulia Liberati.

• • • • •

Roger Giner-Sorolla makes a similar point:

New style poster, intellectually arrogant version: POGO STICK JUMPING INCREASES SELF-CONTROL.

Intellectually humble version: In 3 studies, N = 320 US undergraduates self-reported higher self-control after pogo stick jumping for 1 min.

• • • • •

And Mark Piefer writes:

It’s anti-scientific, asking you to boil things down to an over-simplified conclusion.

There’s good discussion in the thread arising from Mark’s initial post. It’s a good window into people’s assumptions and ideas about what poster sessions are and should be. There is a wide variety of opinions on display. For instance, Erin Williams made this counterpoint:

I find large poster sessions can be info overload & this format would help me quickly decide if I wanted to know more, in which case I’d find the abstract, talk to the presenter & scan the QR code for full details.

I also think Gregory RSL hits on something important:

This idea was designed to meet a goal that I don’t have: extract every conclusion from every poster in the room. I never have that goal and I’m not sure anyone should.

The key design point that Gregory makes is that how you design something depends on what you think the user’s goal is (or should be).

Some audience members want to read the abstracts in advance, pick a few posters to visit, then do a few deep dives on a couple of projects. If that is your goal, it doesn’t matter if your poster is a wall of text or not. The billboard format does not help you.

Some audience members want more of a “core dump” where they can get something quickly from many posters. Then, they might follow those up with more conversation. This is what the billboard poster style is explictly meant to do.

Different people are going to have different ideas about what they want to get out of a poster session. And that’s okay. But different designs are going to meet their viewing needs.

Hat tip to Milton Tan.

• • • • •

Garr Reynolds, author of the Presentation Zen blog and book (and a major source of inspiration for this blog), is positive about the billboard poster format:

Yes. First you want to get people’s attention, then bring them into your poster. Well done!

And:

Fantastic, Mike! Well done!

• • • • •

Matt Crump uses the billboard poster format for over 30 great jokes. Go to the Twitter thread for all of them! Here’s one:


Hat tip to Lorna Quandt.

• • • • •

Virginia Heinen also used the format for fun:


Hat tip to Dani Rabiotti.

• • • • •

Hilda Bastian asks why the visualization of our methods lags so far behind the visualization of our results. She uses this example of a clinical trial flowchart:


She notes:

Conference posters are a great place to experiment with diagrammatic representations, and there must be lots of great examples.

Having looked at lots of conference posters, I can say that there are not a lot of great examples. Alas. The problem is PowerPoint. Because PowerPoint is the default poster making program for many academics, that’s what people use to make flowcharts. And the PowerPoint flow charts aren’t very good.

• • • • •

Wendy Nather has a demonstration of the power of visual hierarchy.


Hat tip to William Gunn.

• • • • •

Free fonts! K-Type has some awesome free fonts for you. Seventy free fonts, to be exact.


They are meant to be samples for their wider font families, but you can get a lot of mileage out of their free samples.

• • • • •

Martin Kyzwinski has some suggestions on plotting data. Click to enlarge!


Martin’s Twitter feed is full of good tips. Hat tip to Damien C-C.

• • • • •

Graphic design. Play the game! This is an interesting game called “Can’t Unsee” that teaches design. You’re shown two comparable images and asked which is better.


It can be challenging! Hat tip to Garr Reynolds.

• • • • •

The Evolution meeting has some awesome guidelines for presenting a poster (PDF). Lots of conference have poster presentation guidelines, so what sets these apart? They specifically address how to present a poster in an inclusive way. They consider wheelchair users, people who have interpreters, people who may not be able to see well, and so on.

• • • • •

A paper on how to make better conference abstracts and presentations:

Foster C, Wager E, Marchington J, Patel M, Banner S, Kennard NC, Panayi A, Stacey R, The GPCAP Working Group. 2019. Good practice for conference abstracts and presentations: GPCAP. Research Integrity and Peer Review 4(1): 11. https://doi.org/10.1186/s41073-019-0070-x.

Section 3.2 discusses posters.

• • • • •

Speaking of how to make poster sessions better, Matt Garcia says, “Give people some space!”

The current paradigm among conference organizers for poster sessions is approaching broken. Too-small rooms, too- narrow aisles (certainly not accessible if you're on crutches or in a wheelchair), and way too loud. Lots of crowded communication, but only by shouting.

Hat tip to DrugMonkey.

• • • • •

Kylie Hutchinson did not have a good poster experience with this poster:


She describes what she learned here. (Aside: I like some of the elements here, but I’m not sure what the sticky note swarm in the upper right is supposed to convey.)

• • • • •

Speaking of bad experiences, Casey terHorst wrote:

I don’t know what your name is, but to whomever chewed out the undergrad in our lab giving her first poster last night and told her she didn’t belong here, please quit science #Evol2019

Do not be that person. Do. Not. Knock that shit off.

• • • • •

And that wasn’t an isolated incident. Catherine Sheard reminds everyone that conferences are sometimes attended by horrible people.

I have had a series of extremely negative conference interactions over the past few years.

And I’m not talking awkward misunderstandings or borderline slights; I’m talking the total stranger who came up to me at Evolution and told me I didn't deserve my PhD. ...

My colleagues of colour all have stories about how conferences are especially difficult for them. My trans and non-binary colleagues all have stories about how conferences are especially difficult for them.

I don’t want to explain my dietary requirements, thanks, because a surprising number of strangers seem to think that a biology degree makes them qualified to assert that my doctors must be wrong and/or I must be lying.

I get it. I really do. It’s small talk. People blurt out all sorts of strange things while trying to make small talk. But, uh, that food thing that you’re joking about could kill me, and getting even joking death threats from senior people in my field isn’t cool?

Your female colleagues, your colleagues of colour, your disabled colleagues, your LGBTQ+ colleagues, your colleagues who are any intersection of these categories thereof – they’re at conferences for the same reason you are. To present their research and to hear about yours.

So let's treat our colleagues with respect, okay?

And even better, let’s try to intervene when necessary (major kudos to the colleague who immediately defended me to the person who thought I didn’t deserve my PhD) and work to make conferences generally more inclusive.

I say again: knock that shit off, people.

• • • • •

Amelia Brookins, object handler, arranges a poster of Bella Abzug to be photographed at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

The Smithsonian Museum is in a quest to digitize a huge collection of political posters.

The Smithsonian said it hopes to have the new images available online by late summer and, with the help of Google’s Arts & Culture program, broaden the project’s reach and sophistication.

Hat tip to Merilee Proffitt and David Shiffman.

• • • • •

Some smaller conferences are letting people promote their posters in talk sessions. Colin J. Carlson showed someone who took a few seconds of poster promotion on stage and made it remarkable.

Hat tip to Milton Tan.

• • • • •

I respect the hell out of science journalist Elizabeth Pennisi, who regularly writes about biology for Science. One of her pieces of advice for scientists on how to get news coverage?

Have on hand a compelling set of visual media – videos, photographs, artwork – to accompany your research. In today’s visual news environment, not having eye-catching imagery can be the difference between coverage and no coverage of your work.

Notice that she did not say “graphs of data.”

Hat tip to Alex Wild.

• • • • •

This one is hard to summarize, because it’s a disparate group of tweets that revolve around this graph (this image from Dave Baltrus).


Posting that led to a lot of discussion about what test could show those two distributions were different. Kevin Mitchell does a longer thread about the paper (which apparently suggests autism is related to the microbiome), saying here that:

I know they have p-values attached to them, but they don’t pass the eyeball test...

Now, when I wrote a blog post about judging stats by eye, I got some pushback from people who harrumphed and said, “This is why we have statistics.”

Well, J.J. Emerson ran the stats.

Unsurprisingly, not significantly different with either Wilcoxon or t-test.

Thomas Lumley dug deeper, and seems to have found how they tested the data sets.

They fitted a model with no correlation structure but with different variances for each Donor. Which, in the phrase of a colleague of mine, is not international best practise.

Regardless, a lot of the commentary showed some interesting ideas about statistics. In particular, it’s important to know that real but small effects are detectable in large sample sizes with a lot of overlap.

My point (and I do have one) is that all of this re-analysis, commentary, and a little handwringing were all brought about because of a visual image. If these data were described in a summary table or text, it’s less likely that it would have gathered as much attention as it did.

Pictures are the best form of communication.

• • • • •

While trying to attend a conference, Jason Chow flew to the wrong place. The wrong city. In the wrong time zone.

Booked flights and hotels in a rush, both are Canadian cities I’ve never been to that sit nicely on the south side of a river and have similar looking night-time pictures of their respective Westins. In hindsight, I got Calgary and Carleton (the university where the conference is) mixed up in my head.

At least he got the country right. If he had just remembered “Carleton,” he could have ended up somewhere in England.

• • • • •

And let’s wind up this epic link round-up with Melissa Ingala:

When you’re preparing to give talks and posters on data you have yet to generate:

20 June 2019

Critique: Quantum circuits

 It’s time to descend into the quantum realm...


Today’s contribution comes from Adam Kelly. Click to enlarge!


When I first opened this up, I could see a few things. I liked the colour. I liked some elements of the type. The organization is a little unusual, but clear. And it sure looks like a lot of reading.

I don’t know how much all the good things weighs against that last one.

This reminds me of a “News and Views” article in Nature or an “In Depth” piece in Science. The poster is divided almost exactly in half, like a two page spread in magazine. The sidebars and blocks of text feel like they are from a magazine article. The summary under the title, with the byline under that, looks like Nature’s house style. Here’s an example:


And this example from Science is similar. Big title, then short summary, then the author.

This is so common in magazines that I hadn’t realized that I almost never see this style on a poster. And now that I think about it, it’s damn clever. People are going to look at the title more than anything else. So this provides a good way of providing a teaser or summary exactly where people will look the most.

And with apologies to your ego, that content is more important than your name and affiliation (which is usually what goes right under the title), so the summary deserves to be above your name.

The amount of text is perfect for an article that you might have in the faculty or grad student lunchroom, where you could spend a half an hour working through the bits, then pick it up and re-read the next day to make sure you understood it.

It would make a great poster in a department hallway or classroom or lab for the same reason. People could see it over and over, and pick it apart as over a few days.

But in a conference? I would probably ignore this, unless I was very interested in quantum circuits. Not only is there a lot, but the type is small and hard to read from a distance. I can see the title, summary, and headings fine, but all the regular text text would probably fail the “arm’s length” test. Even if I was way into quantum circuits, I probably wouldn’t invest the time to read it if the presenter wasn’t there. I would want to talk to Adam personally.

To borrow a turn of phrase from artist Sam Keith, this poster is like Jimi Hendrix in the Beatles. It’s brilliant, but it might be in the wrong place.

External links

Adam Kelly

13 June 2019

Critique or makeover? I forget

This week’s poster comes from Hanna Isotalus. Click to enlarge!


This is a project that might be better served by a talk than a poster. With over a dozen complex graphs and images, this poster does not advertise itself as a quick read.

Hanna wrote:

There are a couple of blips I’ve already noticed. Mainly that the result figures go from A to B to D (who needs C anyway!). I would have the top two figures in B the other way around as this would have made more sense when presenting.

As it happens, Hanna put the headings (like “Result A”) in such light colours that they are hard to see anyway. I think the idea was to make the summary statements for each result “pop” more and be easy to find. But headings are high in the poster’s text hierarchy (second after the title), and the light colours de-emphasize the headings so much that they are pushed way down the visual hierachy.

Graphically, the poster’s strongest suit is the sophisticated use of colour. The colours work together. They are subdued, but even when the poster is shrunk down, their are light and dark areas and colours visible. It doesn’t all dissolve in a mush.

Hanna uses colour coding to represent different concepts. “Encoding” is blue, and “consolidating” is green, for instance. But with four concepts, it’s hard to know if it’s a helpful mnemonic.

What makes me a little crazy is the inconsistency of the alignment.

Hanna has a two column format, and it looks great. I’ll even forgive that the column widths are not even. I’ll even forgive that there are a whole bunch of boxes, because the boxes are drawn in light dashed lines and don’t draw a lot of attention to themselves.

But inside those boxes, it’s anyone’s guess as to what’s going on

The text blocks are sometimes centered, sometimes left justified.

I could forgive graphs in different boxes being unaligned, but even when you look at graphs in the same box, the tops don’t align. The bottoms don’t align. The widths are not consistent. The side edges don’t align.

The overall effect is that the boxes’ interior look chaotic, in contrast to the obvious care taken to create the individual graphs within them.

Here’s the “Results B” section.


In the image below, I drew lines along the edges of elements to see if any of those lines intersected with edges of other elements.


Only the bottom axes of the top left and center graphs align along the horizontal. I literally cannot find any other edge that lines up with anything. The highest point of the Y axis comes close to aligning with the text block on the right, but because it misses, and has a misaligned graph between them, it’s frustrating rather than hopeful.

What I would like to see is something more like this. Now, this is a very ugly revamp if you click to enlarge, because this was done just by stretching individual parts of the image.


This could no doubt be better by revising the size and position of the axis labels. But the key point is that when you are placing graphs, line up the X and Y axes. Because the axes form lines, they automatically create a strong sense of a directional edge, much more do than the axes labels.

External links

Archived poster on Open Science Framework

06 June 2019

Critique and makeover: Something in the water

Today’s contribution is by Francesca Rubino. Click to enlarge!


Francesca writes:

I recently presented the attached poster at a public health conference, but it seemed to be a flop with the audience (mostly professors in public health).

“Boo!” to professors in public health. It’s always tough when a poster doesn’t connect with an audience.

This poster has a good amount of visual appeal. The backdrop is used to position text blocks on top of on circles. While this causes text blocks to flow from right to left, the background helps signal the processing in a logical way. The background is faded enough that it never obstructs the images on top or competes for attention.

But while the background creates opportunities for cool design, it also causes some issues, too. Because Francesca decided to let the circles in the background determine the position of most of the text, everything else has to revolve around them.


This poster could be improved by following a common graphic design principle: keep related things close together. Proximity is a critical organizing cue, and in some cases, related things are far apart.


In the second section, the numeral “2” is split up from the text by a question mark icon. The question is short and clearly a question, so the icon isn’t needed for clarity. It could be removed or moved outside of the “2.”

After you read “2”, you look for “3,” and it’s kind of missing in action. The number “3” isn’t in some of the places you would expect it to be.

The placement of the two main graphs both suffer from placement issues.
  • The survey data is a long way from the section describing it (4a). 
  • The microbe graph might have fared better because it is closer to the section describing it (4b), but its shape pushes the corner much closer to section 5.
I feel like Francesca might have realized there was a problem, because she has connector lines between the graph and the text, but it’s not enough. The visual weight of the graphs is stronger than the connecting lines.

The fast revision below tries to address some of these issues.

 
It’s not perfect, but it shows the direction I would like this poster to move in.

Besides the proximity issues, the data graphs themselves seem a little complex, particularly the microbe analysis. I wonder if that might have been better served as small multiple graphs instead of a double Y axis graph with stacked bars and multiple symbols.

30 May 2019

Link roundup for May 2019

In our semi-regular “Best poster I’ve seen” dredged from social media, Fabian Roger calls this “absolutely brilliant”:


Poster by Therese Karlsson, who said, “Never had as much fun making a poster as this one!”

A longer post analyzing this poster is coming!

• • • • •

Mike Morrison’s billboard format poster continues to generate discussion. My Cousin Amygdala wrote:

This whole Instagram-a-fication of scientific posters movement is my least favorite science trend right now. It misses the entire point of scientific posters, which is to facilitate networking and scientific discussion. Your poster isn’t a popularity contest or a memory test. You present a poster at a meeting to facilitate discussion with your peers. It isn’t a passive process. No one is going to “discover” your poster.

You are presenting at a scientific meeting, be proactive about using your poster as a networking tool. Tell interested parties about it beforehand, nicely, and that you would appreciate their input. If you are a student your mentors should assist you with this process.

I have attended countless poster sessions and thrown away enough poster handouts to cover the earth three times over.

I do not remember the contents of any single poster, but I absolutely remember & have benefited from the peer interactions that posters facilitate.

The conversation continues in retweet. Hat tip to Dr. Becca.

Here is a short thread from Kathryn Vaillancourt. Excerpt:

The #betterposter seems like an overstep in the right direction.

There is also lots to consider in Julie Blommeart’s thread. Hat tip to Milton Tan.

• • • • •

Speaking of Mike Morrison, he is interviewed about conference posters here. Excerpt:

I’m very personally invested in improving the rate of discovery across many different fields. As for the poster, it’s something that I could take a swing at on my own. There are much more damaging bottlenecks, like the scientific article publishing system, peer review inefficiencies, etc. But those will take teams of well-funded people to fix. The poster was the lowest-hanging fruit.

• • • • •

Meanwhile, in the, “Don’t be that person who makes graphs like this” department:


This... seems like a lot of work to go through for two numbers. (I duplicated this in Excel, and it took a long frickin’ time.) Hat tip to Louisa Smith and Justin Kiggins.

• • • • •

I have been to India. The women are not as tiny as this graph makes them appear.


I have no such first hand knowledge of women in Latvia, however. Hat tip to Bill the Lizard.

• • • • •

Zombies are hot in popular culture, but should not be in research conferences. Nature has an article about how to avoid becoming a “conference zombie” ( person who has no energy and does not notice what is happening around them).

Plan. Take breaks. Sleep.

• • • • •

Nice article about using colour in data visualizations. Tips include colour coding for bad news:

For negative results red, orange, purple and generally darker and muted colors often feature in data visualizations.

Hat tip to Nancy Duarte.

• • • • •

Speaking of colour, if you organize or recognize books by colour, you are not alone. Helen Rosner wrote:

When I worked at a bookstore, the number of customers saying, “I don’t remember the title but it had a purple spine” points to color actually being a pretty good organizing principle. What my books look like is absolutely part of how I mentally catalog them. At home, I tend to organize by category and subcategory and then by size and color.

(V)irtually all books spend more time being looked at than being read. And the more books you have, the more likely it is. Spare me the wrath of the book snobs who believe any whisper of aesthetics undermines virtue.

I think this is a great reminder of how powerful the visual element of something is more than the words.

23 May 2019

Critique and makeover: Snap, the magic dragon

Today’s contributor is Mathilde Mousset. She sent along two posters and said I could use either, but I thought, “Why not both?” Click to enlarge!


Portrait style posters are often tricky beasts, and this one embraces the format well. It uses coloured bars and fine lines to signals that it is read across in rows. It uses a narrow typeface for headings to make best use of limited space. I like the lightweight type for the main text, which makes the bold emphasized words pop even more.

The take home message at the bottom essentially repeats the point the title makes. While repetition can sometimes be useful, I usually find that removing redundant elements reclaims space that I can use to make things larger, and that turns out to be more helpful.

While this poster is typeset and laid out very well, the most visual part of the poster is the methods section in the middle. This is a little less than ideal, because it is a bit below eye level. I’m surprised that a grayscale illustration of a snapdragon is used instead of a full colour image.

Many of those same features are found in the second version of this project.


Mathilde wrote about this second poster:

Because I had little time, the second heavily re-used stuff from the first, except I added some boxes because I felt it needed a stronger structure. Surprisingly, I kind of prefer the output with the boxes (usually boxes in posters make me feel as in a prison).

While I have complained about the overuse of boxes many times, Mathilde’s boxes work. First, they are not black. They are either light yellow, or a darker shade of the background colour (the blue in the bottom box). In either case, they aren’t drawing a lot of attention to themselves. Second, there is a good amount of white space between the boxes and the text, so nothing feels crowded.

The typesetting is perhaps a little less successful on the second poster than the first. Mathilde uses a modified bullet point list, only using a chevron instead of a bullet.


But the point of having a symbol is to be able to scan down a list in a column. So right justifying bullet lists kind of defeats the purpose of a bullet list.

Here’s a quick revamp keeping those bullets aligned.

At the top of the poster, the second level of bullet points also run into minor alignment issues. Again, if you want people to scan down from one symbol to the next, you want to keep the space between those symbols clear of interference.


Neither the first or second level are set with hanging indents. The first level has lines running back to the chevron symbol. The second level is worse, because the second line of text runs back not to the secondary symbol (a dash), but all the way back to the primary chevron symbol.

Here is how I would like to see those paragraphs set up:


Much easier to scan down the list!

None of these changes alters the number of lines of text. The revisions fit in the space, so they don’t require reworking the rest of the section around the changes.

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?

    Also, as noted before, the presence of a large take-home message in the body of the poster makes the title running across the top redundant. You only need one or the other, not both.

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