26 December 2019

Link roundup for December, 2019

Ford and colleagues analyzed presentations by under-represented minorities (URMs) at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall meeting (one of the biggest conferences, along side Neuroscience).

The AGU presentations fall into three categories. People can be invited to give a talk (“Invited” in the graph below). Researchers can submit abstracts, and session organizers decide whether it is a talk or poster (“Assigned” in the graph below). Or people can just decide to give a poster.

They found a strong and consistent pattern: under-represented groups were consistently giving more posters than other groups.

(S)cientists from under-represented racial and ethnic minority groups had the smallest chances of being selected and invited to speak, and opted for poster presentations more often than did their peers. ...

We did not investigate why URM geoscientists applied to give only a poster more often than did others overall, and at every career stage. There could be several reasons. People might be held back by psychological factors such as lower self-confidence. ... Or, some URM scientists might value poster presentations — this format could align with different goals, interests or lived experiences, for example by enabling researchers to communicate findings in one-on-one conversations.

I greatly appreciate that the authors mentioned that people might want to give posters! (See below.) But even I, a big advocate of poster sessions, know that most people consider talks more prestigious than posters. I personally think this should not be the case, but there it is.

The imbalance in the other categories can’t be easily explained by presenters’ personal choices, however. They are strong indicators of biases in conference organization that should be addressed.

Hat tip to Cailin Gallinger.

• • • • •

I missed this blog post from May about why poster sessions are the best part of conferences.

During the lecture session, attendees learn from the speakers, but since question time is almost limited, it is unclear what to do with unanswered questions. This is where the poster sessions come into play as a solution to this problem. Usually the lecturer is the lab head and lab members present posters. We can ask them in detail without time limit as long as the post presenter is happy and patient enough with us.

• • • • •

The notion of what to wear in an academic setting (including poster sessions) is a fraught one for many women, as by the reaction to Dr. Emma Beckett’s dress.

The Sydney Morning Herald has an excellent summary of the discussion raised by the “vegetable dress” here.

• • • • •

This journal article by Sousa and Clarke reinforces many points on this blog. Their six main points:

  1. Don’t copy most other posters
  2. Nail your key messages
  3. Hone your messages and context for the audience
  4. Conceptualize your poster design
  5. Create your poster, then get feedback
  6. Learn from every other poster

• • • • •

Andreas Müller won the award for “Best teaching project” poster at the MAXQDA International Conference. Click to enlarge!

Andreas helpfully has a substantial blog post describing some of the considerations that went into making his poster. For example:

No one will read your poster from beginning to end. No one. If we have accepted this fact, our posters will become much better. 

Some headings from the post:

  • “Don’t put too much text on your poster!”
  • Create several points of entrance
  • Use questions as headlines
  • Posters are a chance to connect
  • Give your poster a digital afterlife

• • • • •

The Atlantic magazine recently underwent a redesign.

Cover of The Atlantic magazine

The Atlantic’s design team turned to the magazine’s history for inspiration. The result is what feels like a deliberate step back from the norm of web-conscious print design, into an old-school aesthetic whose gravitas is buttressed by a print legacy of over 160 years.

It’s interesting to compare this redesign to the one Nature did recently, which I mentioned back in October. Both include completely custom typefaces, for example.

• • • • •

I love Amy Tabb’s notion that a conference is “scientific camping.” How to pack for a conference.

• • • • •

One of the items on James Heathers’ list of things that help make a conference great:

- local poster printing

This is a good point. Some conferences are in places with “business centers,” but large format printing is a little bit specialized and not available everywhere. Conference organizers would do well to try to find if emergency poster printing is available nearby.

• • • • •

I always love sharing fabric poster arts and crafts.

Couch with four cushions made from fabric conference poster

This fine example from Steve Royle.

• • • • •

Johannes Wirges argues that board games teach you how to visualize data.

Picture of War Chest board game by AEG

Board games tend to use easily readable encodings of data. Categorical data is usually encoded via color hue and shape. This goes, for example, for the different kinds of meeples controlled by each player. Numerical data is usually encoded via location among common axis, number of elements, and size of elements. Board games seldom include more difficult to discern encodings like shades of a color hue (light to dark) or orientation.

• • • • •

I will end with this from Spider Robinson:

The whole world turns upside down in ten years, but you turn upside down with it, so to you it’s right side up.
- The Time-Traveler, Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon

The world turned upside down for me, and it’s only with effort that I can realize it did.

This is the last post of... the decade. When the decade started, this blog had been in play for less than a year. Now, going into 2020, a book based on the knowledge I’ve gained in 10 years of blogging is completed and will be out at the start of next year.

Having a book coming out next year is both wonderful and nerve-wracking. I am looking forward to you having the chance to read it sometime in the next decade.

19 December 2019

”Why did I lose?” Making poster competitions better

Many conferences have poster competitions. Lots of people like to compete, and it often brings out people’s best efforts. I have been pleased to show lots of competition winners here on the blog.

But often, neither winners or losers know why they are winners or losers.

Some conferences have the judges’ scoring rubrics available for the competitors before the conference. This is good practice, because it helps people know what targets they have to hit. Different people have different ideas about what makes a good poster, and that’s fine, but competitors  should be rewarded for reading instructions! (Including rubrics.)

But typically, the award winners are announced at the very end of the conference, after posters have come down. Nobody gets to go back and see the winning posters. And there is no feedback at all for any of the entrants. The scores and comments compiled by the judges usually just stay with the organizer of the contest. The contest winner is a fact in a vacuum, with no context and no opportunities for people to learn.

Here’s what could be better.

Announce the winner before the end of the conference. Put the winning posters somewhere prominent so people can easily find them and see them. Put a little note card explaining the judges’ summary assessment of the poster.

Give all presenters their score sheets (if they want them), so they can see their scores and comments. Let the presenters know who the judges are so they can follow up with questions if they so choose.

In the society newsletter and website — hell, the society’s journals if it had one — feature the first place poster, second place poster, and any runners up. Again, include commentary from the judges. Perhaps include commentary from the poster designer, too, explaining how they did what they did.

Over time, the society’s website should develop a gallery, easy to find, with each year’s “best of” conference posters and competition winners.

As I said last week, posters will stay horrible if we don’t develop a body of work that people can look at, learn from, and improve upon. Providing this sort of detailed commentary to people, showcasing the winning posters, and explaining why it won starts to develop that body of work in a field.

Hat tip to May Gun on Twitter (https://twitter.com/may_gun/status/1207006302074916871) for the prompt for this post.

12 December 2019

Posters will stay bad unless we start building continuity of work

In six pages, Richard McGuire changed comics.

In 1989, McGuire created a six page experimental comic called “Here.” The gimmick was that each panel showed a single place, but sub-panels showed that place at different times.

(McGuire later expanded on the idea with a longer graphic novel.)

McGuire did something that nobody else had done before. The avant garde effect expanded the vocabulary of comics. Cartoonist Chris Ware said it blew his mind.

(McGuire) took the X-Y vectors of comics and added a Z axis to it. And he was the first cartoonist to suggest that you could overlap panels of time over the same point in space. And that strip, for lack of a more effective vernacular expression, truly blew my mind and really changed the way I thought both about comics and the world itself.

I bring this up because I’ve been thinking about why poster design continues to be so bad after fifty years.

Other visual media, like comics or movies, become more sophisticated over time. Compare comics and movies from the 1930s to their 1980s descendants, fifty years on. The 1930s works look stilted and turgid. The 1980s efforts are more dynamic and interesting.

This can happen partly because there is continuity of work and practitioners. When one person innovated, others imitated. McGuire influenced Ware and who knows how many others.

Posters haven’t had the benefit of that continuity. They will always stay bad unless there starts to be a recognized body of work that people can see and build on. More posters need to be archived in simple, convenient format. And we need to start curating the “best of the best” posters so people can see what is possible in the format.

Related posts

External links

Chris Ware and Chip Kidd interview
Here 1989
Here 2014
Here ebook
Richard McGuire: Here

05 December 2019

Disposable design

One of the arguments I sometimes see is that nobody should care about conference poster design, because posters are “disposable.”


My friends, have you ever used cheap toilet paper?

Did the fact that it was “disposable” mean you didn’t care about the experience of using it?

Probably not. You probably cared about how easy it was to start the roll, and probably cared a lot about how it felt when you used it.

I would image that people have similar feelings about using poorly designed tampons or condoms.

Now, I know that the experience of a conference poster is not like using a product that is meant for close contact with body parts in the “swimsuit zone.”

But just because something is used once is no excuse for poor design. Nor is it a reason to mock people for caring about their experience with something.