14 October 2021

“Ooh, it’s the one with...”

Doctor Who classic series episode guide - It's the one with
Years ago, the BBC website for Doctor Who had a “memory jogger” to help viewers recall the title of some episode. (Still online, in fact!) After all, the original classic show had run over 25 years and had hundreds of stories. Easy to let a title slip.

I loved the prompt it gave people.

“It’s the one with...”

Because titles are good and all, but they aren’t always the things our memories glom on to.

Imagine that someone who saw your poster tells a friend they should see your poster, and tries to help their friend find it.

“Ooh, it’s the one with…”

How would they complete that sentence? What obvious feature could someone use to point out your poster?

“It’s the one with the shark.” 

“It’s the one with the kabuki mask.”

“It’s the one with the big red triangle.” 

Those could all work. Those are all specific, concrete nouns that are easy to recognize.

But “It’s the one with the bar graph” is unlikely to be helpful. “It’s the one with the analysis of history of Japanese theatre” is unlikely to be helpful.

30 September 2021

Link roundup for September 2021

Look, we’re scientists, not artists, and rats are hard to draw so you might just have to settle for a rat made out of ovals.

Figure showing scientific method in which rat is made entirely out of ovals.

This is the lead example in this great Twitter thread on scientists making figures as best they can.
• • • • •

Goodsett and colleagues have suggestions for creating online conferences, based on their experiences in conference planning for Association of Academic and Research Libraries. Here’s how they handled posters:

Each presenters recorded a short 1 to 3 min introduction about their poster. The overall format of the poster was left open to presenter creativity. Feedback, comments, and questions were submitted and answered asynchronously using a discussion board.

A notable addition to their planning was creating contact personnel that they called “shepards.”

The CPC adopted a “shepherd” support system for presenters... Shepherds served as the (programming committee) contact for each presenter, shared important details, and answered questions, especially any related to media creation and file formats, since pre-recorded videos and online poster presentations had not been required of previous... presenters.

Some participants asked for the online component to be kept when conferences move back to face-to-face:

“The online posters (especially those with recorded descriptions) were very helpful for me (it's hard for me to see physical posters at times, so we might want to keep this option when we move back to a physical conference).”
• • • • •

Marvel comics character or font? Take the quiz! See if you can beat my score of 17 out of 20. 😉 Hat tip to Melissa Vaught

• • • • •

 • • • • •

 That’s it for this month!

23 September 2021

Deliver more, not less

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A common thing people say about poster design is the old adage, “Less is more.”  

The phrase probably originated in Robert Browning’s poem, “Andrea del Sarto.”

Well, less is more, Lucrezia: I am judged. 

But it was popularized in architecture by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

I don’t like this expression as it applies to poster design.

I have this memory of watching an interview with songwriter Jim Steinman. I think it was for Bat Out of Hell II: Back into Hell.* I have never been able to find it again, but from memory, Steinman said something like:

Less can never be more. Less is always less. Only more can be more.

I suppose the problem I have with the “less is more” aphorism is that there’s too much emphasis on the “less” and not enough on the “more.” 

Just hacking away at poster content with no rhyme or reason so that there is “less” will not do anything. 

Rather than prioritizing “less content”, think about how to deliver:

More focus.

More efficiency.

More value for the reader.

* Maybe I associate this quote with Bat out of Hell II because it contains a song that so perfectly describes Steinman’s style, “Everything Louder Than Everything Else.”

16 September 2021

Critique: Soil ontologies

Today’s poster comes from Nicolas Le Guillarme. This was presented at the S4Biodiv workshop. As always, you can click to enlarge!

Soil ontologies poster.

My first reaction was, "Ooh, this is really nice.” The bold use of colours and moving the dividers a little off the horizontal give the poster a lot of energy. 

In fact, there is so much life here that I didn’t notice there is still quite a bit of text. I would like to see that edited back a little if possible.

My second reaction was to look at the title and headings. The typeface is open, so the colours of the background and the foreground of the text are the same. This can make it a little hard to read some of the letters, and I particularly worry about readability from a distance.

Here’s a quick and dirty attempt to fill some of the letters.

Soil ontologies poster with headings filled with colours instead of matching background.

The white fill in the “Introduction” heading works very well, but I didn’t find the right colours for the other headings. I do think that this revision shows that filling the letters increases the visibility, though, even though I didn’t take the time to optimize the colours.

Similarly, I would like to see a little more contrast in Figure 1. 

Figure 1 from soil ontologies poster.

The labels overlap parts of the figure, and makes some of the labels hard to see. In particular, I’m looking at the “Tropic assignment” label over the spiralling arrow. I might try to stick a semi-transparent box under the labels. You can see the technique in the graphic I made for this post:

Picture of Neil Gaiman with quote in the upper left saying, "When someone tells you there's a problem, they are usually right. When they tell you how to fix it, they are usually wrong."

Notice how the books are light and sharp by the elbow but darker and blurry where the quote is? That’s the kind of effect I’m thinking of. Something to make the text a little more distinct from what it sits on top of.

Some of the labels in the network diagram over on the right are also nearly impossible to read. The “Resources” label is almost the same colour as the background. While under most circumstances, having the text and dot be the same colour reinforces the connection, that should not come at the cost of readability.

Figure 1 excerpt from soil ontologies poster, with network labels tunred black.

So in the revision above, I just made all the labels black.

Nicholas wrote:

This is my first attempt to create a poster that is both informative and visually appealing. I am quite satisfied with this first draft, but I am pretty sure that there is plenty of room for improvement.

I think Nicholas is right on both counts. It is very satisfactory – more than satisfactory – but constant improvement is The Way!

09 September 2021

Same research, different presentation: Lessons from Nature

It’s instructive to look at how academics present their results compared to journalists. Compare!

Original article title:

“He who pays the piper calls the tune”: Researcher experiences of funder suppression of health behaviour intervention trial findings

Nineteen words, two part title divided by colon, containing a cultural reference that may not familiar to all.

Original data:

Researcher reports of funder efforts to suppress trial findings.

It’s presented in an 8×8 table in fine print.

Now see how Nature reported on it.

News article title:

Health researchers report funder pressure to suppress results

Eight words. It’s shorter than the article title, even if you took out the quote. It’s clearer than the article title.

Revised data:

Horizontal bar graph titled, "How trial findings were suppressed."

The table has been replaced by an easy to read bar graph. The graph has a clear and bold take-home message. Yes, there is less information. It’s effectively a 2×8 table, but it is easier to read and understand.

Too many conference posters look like the journal article. Posters will be better if they look more like the Nature article.

External links

McCrabbe et al. 2021. PLOS ONE 16(8): e0255704. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0255704

Watson C. 18 August 2021. Nature. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-02242-x

02 September 2021

YouTube data has lessons for poster creators, or: Too legit to click

In the Better Posters book, I wrote about how poster makers could learn lessons from advertising. Advertisers have clear metrics of whether a headline is effective or not: cold hard cash dollars. 💰

This Veritasium video tackles the same question: what makes an effective title? And there are a lot of takeaways for poster makers.

First, the more you are in this game, the more you realize how important titles are. Host Derek Muller says:

I always thought my job was to make great videos. And then a title and thumbnail that adequately represented what the video was about. But now I've realized that making the title and thumbnail is at least half the job.

This is not quite Randy Olson’s admonition that your title is 90% of your communication effort, but it’s pushing there.

YouTubers can now measure their success in ways that old school advertisers who worked in print could only have dreamt of. YouTube creators have an incredible array of real-time metrics at their fingertips. In short, they have data.

And data shows that titles make a huge difference in the attention videos get. “Asteroids: Earth's Biggest Threat,” (Muller estimates it might have gotten 1.5 million views) “Asteroid Impact: What Are Our Chances?”, and “Asteroid Impact: What Could We Do?” all underperformed compared to “These Are the Asteroids to Worry About” (now with 14 million views).

There are a few other things worth pulling out from Muller’s video.

First, there can be a big difference between what people say they want and what they actually do.

Now, there seems to be a paradox when it comes to clickbait. People almost universally claim to hate it, but you also see it everywhere. ... - So, why is clickbait everywhere? Well, because it works.

In conference posters, this crops up with people who insist they want to see all the data as though they were going to sit down and read it like a journal article. But people also say they want to be able to spend about 5 minutes at a poster.

Another complaint some academics make about posters is that some posters or other is “mere” advertising. Muller tackles this in his discussion of what people mean when they refer to video titles as “clickbait.” There are at least two mainings to the word.

(W)e don't all agree on the definition of clickbait.

When I google it, the top definition is, on the internet, content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular webpage. We could call this type I clickbait, and there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with it. I mean, if you didn't try to attract attention and get people to click on your links, then you wouldn't really be doing your job (Emphasis added. - ZF).

But there is a second definition. One that I think more people ascribe to, which is something such as a headline designed to make readers want to click on a hyperlink, especially when the link leads to content of dubious value or interest.

Muller later calls these two styles “legitbait” and “clicktraps.” Muller goes on to say that are good reasons to strive to create legitbait titles.

First, it opens up the work to more people. Second, Muller has found that his “legitbait” titles end up being more accurate descriptions of the video.

But then we come to the challenge. With all of these real time metrics at their disposal, YouTuber can treat the matter of “What title should I use?” as an empirical problem. Muller compares it to natural selection: you throw out a bunch of variations and see which perform the best.

Poster creators don’t have that luxury. You can’t release three versions of a poster at a conference on day one, see who visits, then leave up the best performinng poster for the rest of the week. It’s another factor that makes conference posters such a challenging format.

But the moral of the story remains: Put a lot of thought into your titles. Try them out on other people. And if someone calls your title “clickbait,” you might be on the right track – if you think it’s legitbait and not a clicktrap.

31 August 2021

What is the carbon footprint of a conference poster?

Single use.
The COVID-19 crisis delivered a shock to the academic conference scene from which it may never recover. We have seen conferences completely retooled and reformatted in a very short span of time, with varying degrees of success.

But we are also in a climate crisis. If the COVID-19 pandemic hadn’t arrived, the climate emergency would probably have forced a similar re-examination of how we hold academic conferences – although it probably would have happened over decades instead of years.

A forthcoming paper by Leochico and colleagues looks at how we should change conferences in light of the climate crisis. They have multiple recommendations, but this is the one that includes posters.

Avoid single-use items: Require electronic instead of physical posters; re-evaluate use of booklets, lanyards, plastic water bottles, coffee cups, and other conference items.

As a basis for this recommendation, they cite another very recent article by Milford and colleagues (2021). They make the same general statement about reducing single-use items at conferences.

These are good recommendations, but it’s worth digging deeper.

First, most of the time posters have at least one additional use. They can go on display at their institution, where they can have a role in showing work to students and colleagues.

Second, posters are not in the same category as coffee cups or lanyards. Posters are one of the reasons you hold a conference. Lanyards are not. So if you do not want to use paper posters, you must have some sort of substitute.

The substitute both articles recommend is to move from paper posters to electronic posters. But neither of them provide any attempt to show that the carbon footprint of an electronic poster is lower than that of a paper poster. They simply assert it.

Trying to come up with an estimate of carbon costs for these kinds of alternatives is mind-numbingly hard. I have noticed, however, is that people often tend to underestimate the carbon costs of electronics. 

For example, in a class I taught once on global change, students suggested that all students get tablets so that the university wouldn’t have to use so much paper. On the surface, it sounds great: less waste! 

But I started asking them if they considered factors like what it took to create a tablet. Consumer electronics like smart phones use almost every chemical element in the periodic table, and many are rare and hard to extract. But paper is from trees, so by definition, if you want paper, you are drawing down atmospheric carbon to grow trees.

There’s also an end-of-life question. Recycling components of electronics is a challenging engineering problem that people are actively trying to solve. One the other hand, recycling paper is so simple that kids in grade school can do it. (Though it gets more complicated if you have glossy photo paper.)

Then there is the power use involved in storing and displaying an electronic poster. Unless the power is sourced from renewable energy, there is going to be an ongoing carbon cost of storing an electronic poster so it can be viewed on demand during the conference and afterwards. Yes, paper costs energy, but the energy cost ends after it’s printed and transported.

I am not saying that paper posters are obviously more climate friendly than electronic ones. I don’t know, but I don’t think anyone else does, either. I would like to know.

Update, 1 September 2021: To be explicit, I am assuming a situation where people are traveling to the conference, regardless of poster format. Given the high carbon cost of flying, an entirely online conference probably has a lower carbon footprint than any in person conference, regardless of poster format.


Leochico CFD, Di Giusto ML, Mitre R. 2021. Impact of scientific conferences on climate change and how to make them eco-friendly and inclusive: A scoping review. The Journal of Climate Change and Health: in press. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.joclim.2021.100042

Milford K, Rickard M, Chua M, Tomczyk K, Gatley-Dewing A, Lorenzo AJ. 2021. Medical conferences in the era of environmental conscientiousness and a global health crisis: The carbon footprint of presenter flights to pre-COVID pediatric urology conferences and a consideration of future options. Practice Management/Training 56(8): P1312-1316. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpedsurg.2020.07.013

26 August 2021

Link roundup for August 2021

Congrats to all the winners of the Royal Astronomical Society poster competitions!

Poster titled, 'A sub-mm SDSS with the Atacama Large Aperture Submillimetre Telescope'

You can find the work in the linked thread above. But I’m featuring Jo Ramasawmy’s poster because she was super nice enough to give shout out to this blog! (Yes, I can be flattered. Sometimes.)

• • • • •

My Fonts has their latest primer on bullets and dingbats (PDF). Did you know there are em bullets and en bullets? I, for one, did not.

• • • • •

Helvetica Now sample showing weight, width, and optical size variation.

That type workhorse, Helvetica, now comes in a variable font. See my introduction to variable fonts here.

• • • • •

Pharmacy students think posters assignments help them learn, but they increasingly prefer digital posters over printed ones

• • • • • 

This article about virtual meetings suggests people prefer poster sessions online, but only supports it with a single quote from a single person.

With no cavernous exhibit hall to accommodate hundreds of posters, MSVirtual2020 replaced posters with brief presentations – 10 slides and, at the author’s option, a brief explanation of the findings – that meeting participants accessed at their convenience. Dr. Cohen, director of experimental therapeutics in the Cleveland Clinic’s Mellen Center for Multiple Sclerosis Treatment and Research, considered that approach to be a big improvement.

“I don’t personally enjoy trying to see 500 posters in a giant exhibit hall, walking up and down the aisles. I barely see the content because I end up just talking to my friends,” he said. “In essence, this was like a three-minute talk that presented the poster, and the audience could stop the presentation and look at something in more detail if they wanted.”

Presumably conferences have been surveying attendees about their experience, but I have yet to see any of that data shared.

• • • • •

Marie Seggar walks through an excellent graph makeover from The Economist. The starting point is this interpretable mess of lines:

Line graph with 50 lines, each a different colour, with large amounts of noise.

Because one of the major problems I see on many posters is “too much stuff,” this is a great example of how take a complex data set and make something that is more readable. Ultimately, you have to be selective and you have to emphasize some data over others.

The final version is much easier to read. Go check it out!

• • • • •

And that’s what I found on the internet this month!

19 August 2021

Critique: Bioremediation in the Philippines

Today’s poster comes from Vladamir William. It was presented at 2021 De La Salle University Research Congress in the Philippines back in July. Click to enlarge!

Poster titled, "Bioremidiation of nickel using microorganisms from an active mining site in Zambales, Philippines".

There is also a video presenting the poster here.

I appreciate that this summary is less that 3 minutes long!

Vladamir wrote: 

I wanted to highlight as much as possible the readability of the text when read on a screen, and put emphasis on the figures; opting to exclude any redundant design elements, and choosing a color scheme similar to my University's colors. I used Keynote for this poster, using the standard A0 size set by the guidelines.

 (Note to North Americans: A0 is a standard paper size in many nations It’s about 33 by 46 inches.)

The fundamentals of this poster are sound. It’s aiming for visuals and the layout is clear.

Vladamir described the colour scheme as following the institution’s colours. This makes for consistency, but the green is very saturated and intense. The bars for the headings carry a lot of visual weight. I worry that they are drawing too much attention to themselves.

Below, I try removing the boxes and making the heading text bold and green.

Background section as it originally appeared on left and revision on right. Original heading was white text in green box; revision has bolded green text for heading.
I took the liberty of revising the introductory paragraphs slightly. In particular, I added “But” to the second paragraph to make it clear what the problem to be solved it.

De-emphasizing the heading slightly would make the callouts, currently in boxes with dotted red lines, stand out a little more. 

The two callouts look a little different. The “Objectives” callout has rounded corners, while the one in the Results section has squared off corners. It would be nice to have both the same.

The results showcase one number: 587 ppm of nickel. Immediately below that, the callout provides context for that number, which is good. But putting the comparison in a callout disconnects the two numbers, which is less good. It makes it not obvious that the two are connected.

One possible revision might be to put something like, “Microorganisms tolerated over 7× more nickel than typical soil concentrations” as the graphic representation. Then, fine print could give the detailed numbers. For example, “Nickel in soil: 4-80 ppm. Nickel tolerated: 587 ppm.”

Finally, the “Future directions” list strikes me as a little busier than it needs to be. Big green checks, and highlighted text, and a shadow box behind each list item.

Excerpt from poster that reads "Future directions." Text has checks, is highlighted, and has shadow box.

Let’s see what happens if we pull back on one of those three.

Excerpt from poster that reads "Future directions." Text has checks and is highlighted.

Or even two.

Excerpt from poster that reads "Future directions." Text has checks.

I like the checks and think those alone might do the job. But something that removing the other colours does make much more obvious is that the text is not aligned.

Here’s how those changes play out when you put that section back in context. Here’s no shadow boxes...

Poster titled, "Bioremidiation of nickel using microorganisms from an active mining site in Zambales, Philippines". Future directions box has checks and highlights.

And no highlights.

Future directions box has checks.

The checks alone do the job, but that might be a little sparse and uninteresting. Particularly because the tan highlights are used above, in other parts of the poster. The highlights in the “Future directions” helps bring some balance in colour, so that the tan isn’t all stuck up at the top.

Sometimes the posters that show preliminary data are the best posters because they are not burdened down by too much stuff.

12 August 2021

How is a conference poster like a joke?

It’s probably hard for people who grew up with pervasive Internet to understand that newspaper comics were important cultural touchstones for decades. In the 1980s and 1990s, one of the most successful was The Far Side, created by Gary Larson.

Academics got Gary Larson.

I lost count of how many Far Side cartoons I saw taped up on university doors and included in presentations. I once heard a presenter jokingly call him, “the official cartoonist of the Animal Behavior Society” (at the annual conference of the society, naturally).

But I suspect even academics went “Huh?” when newspapers ran, “Cow tools.”

A single panel cartoon that depicts a cow standing on its hind legs at a table, on which four oddly-shaped objects are placed. One object resembles a crude hand saw, while the others are more abstract. The caption simply reads "Cow tools."

People did not get it. 

They did not get it so much that this single cartoon now has its own Wikipedia page. Larson is lucky that this was published pre-Internet. He only had to deal with phone calls and not angry emails and Twitter notifications. If it was published today, it would have gone viral, been ratioed on Twitter, and been denounced by pundits on political panel shows.

Larson wrote in The History of the Far Side that he was trying to riff off how culture limits our ability to interpret artifacts:

(O)ne day I started thinking about an anthropology course I had in college and how we learned that man used to be defined as “the only animal that made and shaped tools.” Unfortunately, researchers discovered that certain primates and even some bird species did the same thing – so the definition had to be expanded somewhat to avoid awkward situations such as someone hiring a crew of chimpanzees to remodel their kitchen.

Inevitably, I began thinking about cows, and what if they, too, were discovered as toolmakers. What would they make? ... The “cow tools”were supposed to be just meaningless artifacts – only the cow or a cowthropologist is is supposed to know what they’re used for.

Larson was so far down the rabbit hole of his thought process that he lost the ability to judge his own work. 

This is a state that I know very well. Something about a project that I have been living with in my head for months or years that I might think is obvious is far from obvious to other people. It might not even be sensible to other people.

So to return to the question posed in the title of this post.

How is a conference poster like a joke?

If you have to explain it, you’ve failed.

As “Cow tools” shows, it’s easy for you to get in your own head and create something that makes perfect sense to you, but not to others.

If you have to explain something on a poster, you’ve failed.

Sticking with comics, here’s another example of the principle, this time more visual than conceptual:

SIngle page from Batman #30, using arrows to show reading order.

The reading order of the page is confusing, and the artist knows it. The artist has to explain the reading order using arrows.

If you have to explain it, you’ve failed.

External links

The Far Side

How to read Nancy review (features Batman page)

08 August 2021

Critique: Frog parasites

This week’s work comes from Anneke Schoemanan. This was created for British Society of Parasitology (BSP) Parasites Online 2021. Click to enlarge!

Poster titled, "The multiplex response of co-introduced parasites to the range expansion of their globally invasive frog host".

The influence of the billboard poster is evident here, with a bold as brass take-home message under the title. The title is practically unnecessary, because the take-home leaves nobody wondering what this poster is about. I personally think that if the title is right, it is the take-home message. 

The colour palette is extremely subdued. It almost looks like it’s been run through a “fade” filter compared to most posters I see on the blog. While neutral colours are useful and pastels are elegant, I found myself wishing for a little more brightness somewhere on the poster so that something would “pop” visually.

I asked Anneke to talk a little about what was asked for and how she went about creating the work. She wrote: 

 For this specific conference, the organisers asked for a static PDF of our posters. That was it. During the scheduled poster sessions, the presenters were supposed to be online to field questions and the attendees browsed all the posters in a virtual poster hall. (Below. - ZF).

Virtual poster hall.

Her supervisor challenged everyone to think visually and cut back on text. Anneke continued (lightly edited):

I approached my presentation from two angles. 

First, I wanted to rethink the traditional conference poster design in general. I relied on advice from Twitter and blogs. These resources are summarised in my tips and tricks blog post.

Second, I wanted to rethink the design for a virtual audience.

I asked, “What will attendees see before they zoom in?”, since they would be viewing it on a computer screen. I wanted design elements that conveyed my main message at this low level of magnification, so I added the main text box with the plain language explanation of my main finding.

I realised that after a viewer zoomed in, it might be difficult to navigate the page if there was no clear starting point that could “draw the eye in.” I visualised my results in a circular flow diagram and numbered the text boxes in the order that they should be read.

The flow diagram is a strong visual element. I might try some different directions for the components of the flow diagram so that the reader isn’t forced reading right to left (oval 3 to 4, and 4 to 5) or bottom up (oval 4 to 5) as often.

Anneke took advantage of the simple online format.

I also realised that the PDF could include hyperlinks in the virtual format (virtual version of the QR code). I thought it would be a nice personal touch. I added a link to a short video of what I would have said if someone walked up to my poster at an in-person conference and asked me what it was about. 

Besides her formal presentation, Anneke archived her poster in a nice blog post. It’s mobile friendly, too!

The accompanying blog post seemed like a good idea for a number of reasons:

First, the conference organisers did not require a narration or video but I wanted to introduce myself and explain my poster to attendees who wanted to know more without feeling obliged to send me an email and I had a platform to do it. In that sense, it was “bonus material” for conference goers.

Second, it gave me the opportunity to try my hand at my first “scicomm” video. I’ll definitely do some things differently next time but it was a fun exercise.

Third, I just finished my PhD and this was a way of advertising my blog and putting myself and my work out there.

Finally, the blog post and mainly jargon-free video are also targeted at the non-scientist audience that I am trying to reach. Now my conference poster and the information contained therein are accessible to everyone! – In theory. (I don’t think my blog has that many readers. 😉)

That may change, Anneke, that may change. Hey everyone, I suggest popping over to Anneke’s blog and checking out her poster!

External links

Some frogs carry more parasites than others – Why?

Less is more! Resources for an eye-catching conference poster

29 July 2021

Link roundup for July 2021

Animate Your Science has a gallery of four excellent conference posters. They even go so far as to call them the “best” posters! The post has a nice little evaluation checklist:

  1. First impression
  2. Title
  3. Colour scheme
  4. Layout
  5. Figures
  6. Other features of note
  7. What could be improved?

One of the posters, by René Campbell, was recently featured in one of the link round-ups on this blog. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen Caterina Funghi’s poster somewhere, too!

• • • • •

Mind the Graph has released a poster making app

Sample posters make with Mind the Graph poster maker.

 I hope to have a review in the near future.

• • • • •

Echo Rivera reviews the Animate Your Science poster design class and brings in a few ideas of her own on poster design. 

Echo specializes in slides, and her post talks a little about the similarities and differences of slide talks and posters.

Similarities: You need to storyboard that 💩! 

Differences: One big blank canvas instead of a bunch of little ones.

But there’s more good points in her post!

• • • • •

Baker and Philips have a short paper in the Journal of Perioperative Practice about how to make conference posters. Excerpt:

Sometimes scientists will be asked to present their research to members of the public in a poster.

Has anyone ever done this?

Hey, perioperative practice practitioners, send me your posters!

• • • • •

The last year, I’ve tried to get a handle on what people mean by “online posters,” “electronic posters,” and “digital posters.” But I think I would balk at calling an Instagram post a “poster.”

But maybe this paper about using Instagram to teach chemistry will change your mind.

• • • • •

Yet another study showing that conference talks are more likely to be published than conference posters. I don’t think I have ever seen a study (of which thee are many) where that has not been the case.

• • • • •

This graph purports to say something about crime, but the graph itself is a crime. Click to enlarge if you don’t see the problem.

CNN graph with time on X axis running from right to left instead of left to right.

Catch it yet?

Time on the X axis is running right to left, not left to right.

Hat tip to Oren Gur and Katie Mack.

• • • • •

A paper about automatic typesetting for “posters” (but really, short blocks of text). 

Eight posters with the quote, "How amazing! How many wonderful creatures are here! Mankind is so beautiful! Oh, what a wonderful new world, that has such people in it!"

The images above are found in the supplementary information. Interesting as proof of concept, maybe.

• • • • •

A PDF by Shanda Hunt about presenting research.  This appears to be supporting documents for a webinar, but it stands alone.

• • • • •

Students love posters! At least according to the title of this article by Lamar and Sheperis, who asked students in counseling to make a conference-style poster presentation. The text of this short paper describes the exercises students did. The evidence of students loving the assignment is brief:

According to follow up surveys of the classes, the Virtual Research Conference Presentation assignment is loved by students because they get to be creative and explore a topic of interest to them.

Maybe this paper could have been a little longer?

• • • • •

Posters as student assignments are also described in this article by Tarigan and Listyani. This has more assessment of the outcomes, but for only three students and three teachers.

• • • • •

Li and colleagues describe how they organized an online conference in 2020. It includes this description of  how they handled poster sessions.

The poster session provided an opportunity to experiment with GatherTown, which aims to approximate the experience of in-person interaction. GatherTown enables the building of 2D environments that can be designed to simulate a conference hall, complete with space to ‘hang’ posters. Delegates navigate around the space with an avatar [the happy default being a yellow-scarfed snowman] and can zoom in on posters they wish to see. A delegate’s video and mic are on at all times but only become visible and audible to other delegates when their avatars are physically near each other. Delegates could also search and message other delegates directly. The conference feedback suggested that delegates enjoyed this format of seeing posters.

Here is their figure for how that looked. Click to enlarge!

I tried a GatherTown demo. And oh my, but does it have some strong old school role-playing game vibes. It’s cute. But I’m not sure “cute” is the vibe I’d necessarily want for an academic conference.

• • • • •

Love this one-liner from Nancy Duarte:

We rely on data to tell us what has happened, and stories to tell us what it means.

The article she is linking out to, by Hanna Marcus, is also good examination of the relationship between data and empathy. 

When writing about conference posters, I am acutely aware that I am often giving advice that is not data driven. And my people, fellow scientists and other academics, have been trained to be extremely data driven. So much so that long established conventions tend to get dismissed until someone “rediscovers” the practice by some experiment or other.

Data matters, but it is not the only thing. You need narrative. People need to know why your data matter.

• • • • •

That’s all for this month!

23 July 2021

Review: How Design Makes the World

Note: Author Scott Berkun recently announced to his email subscribers that he has had a medical event that has seriously affected his voice. This is a concerning set back for someone who makes a living in part by public speaking. I wish Scott well and hope he eventually return to public speaking. He has a list of ways you can help him at this difficult time.

• • • • •

How Design Makes the World delivers a big, serious subject in a short, breezy book.

Scott Berkun takes a very high level view of design. He is not interested so much in how to design in a nuts and bolts sense. This is more about general processes and, importantly, their impacts. Berkun asks early on, “Why are so many things seem to be badly designed?”

I appreciate that Berkun’s answer to that question acknowledges things like power dynamics and economics. People who might make good design decisions don’t necessarily get to make the decisions or get the resources they need to make them. 

For example, the borders of Middle East were drawn by mid-level bureaucrats who were not from the region. We have been living with the consequences of those decisions ever since.

That example is just one of many historical anecdotes in this book. Berkun has a good nose for finding these, and they are consistently interesting. And he casts a wide net. So while I have spent a lot of time thinking about graphic design on this blog, I learned a lot about other kinds of design. “Norman doors” are going to be part of my vocabulary forever now.

Is there anything here for a poster maker? Maybe. Scott includes four key questions to evaluate designs:

The four questions of design. 1. What are you trying to improve? 2. Who are you trying to improve it for? 3. How will you ensure you are successful? 4. Who might be hurt by your work? Now or in the future?

What are you trying to improve? Who for? How will you be successful? Who might be hurt by the work?

Let me take a stab at applying them to conference posters.

1. What are you trying to improve?

I see two things poster designers are often striving for. 

The first is efficient use off time spent making the poster. Berkun addresses that: “Efficiency is often taught to mean working in a straight line, but the trap is that efficiency is not the same as quality.“

The second is maximizing the information information content on the poster.

Why I think these are both dubious improvements lie in the answer to Berkun’s second question.

2. Who are you trying to improve it for?

People trying to minimize time on creating posters and maximizing information on posters are usually trying to improve those things for themselves, not other people.

3. How will you ensure you are successful?

I think a lot of poster makers don’t have an answer for that beyond having a supervisor say it’s okay. I don’t know how many people show off drafts of their poster or rehearse their poster presentation  to others before they head to a conference. 

4. Who might be hurt by your work? Now or in the future?

Luckily, posters are mostly harmless. The content of the posters might not be, but that’s another issue for a different blog. Perhaps a more helpful way to frame this question is, “Who might be left out?” Who might not be able to benefit from your data and insights because of how you have made your poster?

This book is not essential for poster makers. It’s not a “how to” and lacks the nitty gritty details that someone looking for concrete advice on graphic design might want. But if you are interested in stepping back and looking at that bigger picture, Berkun paints a rewarding view.

15 July 2021

Critique: Note-taking, or, “What did I just read?”

This poster is courtesy of Emily Goblirsch, presented at the Arizona Psychology Undergraduate Research conference (AZPURC). Click to enlarge!

Poster titled, "“What did I just read?”: Self-explaining and note-taking as different strategies for comprehension".

I like how the subject of the poster, writing and note-taking, is reflected in the design. But it does so subtly and never detracts from the main text. Some lines and circles recall looseleaf  paper, and a handwritten style typeface used for the title and headings (Ink Free). 

Ink Free is a little thin, and I might have looked for a typeface with a little more heft to it. The samples of handwritten fonts below show a couple that hold up a little better from a distance.

Samples of five handwritten fonts: Ink Free, Bradley Hand ITC, Ready for Anything BB, Letteromatic!, and Cavolini.

Because this meant to look handwritten, I’m not sure if the slightly off-center placement of the headings is intentional or not. The arrows is the except below are equal length.

"Results" heading off center in box.

When you are going for  a hand drawn look, it’s okay to have things imperfect. But if so, you want to do things to show that imprecise placement is clearly deliberate.

There are three main colours on the poster. There’s a tan for the heading and callouts, and red and blue in the diagrams. In both, red codes for “self-explain” and blue represents “note taking.” But despite representing the same things, the colours are not the same. The colours in the bar graph are notably brighter and more saturated than in the Venn diagram.

Here’s a remake with the colours made consistent.

Poster titled, "“What did I just read?”: Self-explaining and note-taking as different strategies for comprehension" with colours in figures made the same.

The fainter colours still hold up because the bars are large enough that they still read clearly from a distance.

The “Purpose” block might make more sense if it came before the “Methods” block. I think the main reason “Purpose” is where it is is because of how the the “Materials” blows out in a callout to the right, underneath “Purpose.”

Speaking of “Methods,” Emily wrote that she disliked the top of the methods section.

Except from poster showing "2 by 2 design".
Emily wrote:

I find it crowded, especially the “)” next to the blue line. It was unfortunate though, because the only way I could edit it to look less crunchy was a smaller font, which would stand different from the rest of the poster's font size and format.

Crowding is one space is often alleviated by editing someplace else. For instance, I might look to recover space in the “Background” section. The extensive use of bullets (circles, and greater than symbols, and numbers) chews up vertical space for little benefit.

Speaking of bullets, I’m not sure why text in Venn diagram needs bullets.

But to return to the problem of the “2×2” design (which should use a multiplication symbol instead of a lowercase letter “x,” by the way), the methods might parallel how the data are shown in the results. Show it’s a “two by two.”

Self explanation Note taking
Text based

Inference based

The empty cells could include a prediction, like “Highest score predicted.”

Of course, if you show results in a table, what do you need the bar graph of the same data for? And vice versa. I would prefer to keep the bar graph and remove the table in the “Results” section. Not sure if the table in the methods would still work as well.

Emily also took advantage of the online format:

Since this was an online poster, I made it “interactive” by having the references hyperlinked to the actual paper I’m citing. You just have to click on the small numbers that represent the citations. I felt like it would be odd to have a whole section for references when it was an online presentation (and we had to do the poster format).

(The images of the poster here on the blog are not clickable.)

08 July 2021

Review: Better Data Visulizations

Cover to "Better Data Visualizations"
I ran across Jon Schwabish’s book, Better Data Visualizations, when my editor pointed out how uncomfortably close it looked to an unused cover design for Better Posters.

Once I finished smiling at the “separated at birth” similarities, I realized I should actually read Jon’s book because it was, as they say, “relevant to my interests.”

Better Data Visualizations is very useful.

The bulk of the book is a big ol’ list of different graph types. The charts range from the common (bar charts, scatter plots, and tables) to the more esoteric (Voronoi diagrams, Marimekko charts). It’s not quite an “encyclopedia of charts,” but it is thorough.

There are usually multiple illustrations (in full colour) of each type of chart so you can see them “in action,” as it were. Almost all the illustrations are in full colour.

Every entry has a series of tips of how to avoid pitfalls and maximize the effectiveness of that particular chart type. I particularly appreciated the concise guidelines for making tables presentable. 

Readers of this blog who work in the humanities occasionally ask about techniques for their fields. If that is an interest of yours, you’ll be pleased to know Schwabish has a section on qualitative visualizations. It is slimmer than the section on quantitative visualizations, but given that this is an area that is often ignored completely, this is an extremely welcome addition to this book.

There is a section showing “before and after” revisions of charts that is quite fun.

Lastly, there is a section on developing a style guide. While this is aimed at organizations that make a lot of charts, I realized that it could be extremely helpful for a poster maker to draw up a short style guide for their poster. One of the biggest problems I see on posters is inconsistency. This is usually because people use different software tools for different parts of the poster, and they don’t check to harmonize the graphs and the rest of the poster.

While I was reading, I was wondering, “But how could someone know how to make some of these non-standard charts?” While the appendices are often considered to be extra material that can be removed, the appendix on data visualization tools was extremely helpful for me. (“Microsoft has a graphing site called Charticulator? Cool.”)

Because data visualizations are often the heart of conference posters, there is definitely some overlap in Jon’s book and mine. But Better Data Visualization covers much more territory there than mine does.

External links


Related posts

Solving the Pokemon problem for posters

06 July 2021

The world’s best data visualizations are a team effort

I was recently listening to an older episode of Jon Schwabish’s PolicyViz podcast with Edward Tufte. Tufte’s books influenced a lot of my thinking about topics here on the blog. I cite some of his analyses in the Better Posters book.

In the interview, Tufte praises scientists for data visualizations. He specifically name drops the journal Nature and says something like, “Nature has the best data visualizations in the world.”

Now, in the course of writing this blog and seeing many data displays produced by scientists, I can say that my impression is that — even for researchers at the top of their game — scientists do not routinely make graphs that would be described as world leading. Many, if I may be blunt, are mediocre. (But not yours, my dear reader. Yours are great. 😉)

So as I am prone to do, I asked on Twitter. And several people confirmed that Nature journals do not necessarily take figures as submitted. Instead, they have an in house team that redraws figures to meet the journal’s house style.

This is important, because so many scientists are resistant to anyone changing their work. A significant derides this kind of polish as unnecessary. (The No Name design philosophy.) They disparage the claim that journals “add value.”

(Of course, when journals pull back on design and only deliver the content, someone will be grumpy about that, too.)

We should not pretend that the world leading graphics that many admire are a natural outcome of scientists grappling with intricacies and complexities presented by data. Will that help? Sure. But let’s give credit to the uncredited: the designers who quietly improve graphs without even asking for co-author credit.

To paraphrase a sports cliché, “There is no ‘I’ in ‘data.’”

P.S.—Tufte, I think it’s fair to say, has a reputation for being extremely self-confident and sometimes a little prickly. But if so, this interview finds him in a much more genial mood. 

External links

PolicyViz Episode #21: Edward Tufte 

Beautiful Evidence reviewed

02 July 2021

The 2021 #BlackInX poster winners

One of the good things that emerged in 2020 was a series of grassroots Twitter events highlighting the achievements of Black scientists. Recently, these combined forces for a #BlackInXConference online. And there was a poster competition on Twitter!

Here are the winners. Click any to enlarge! Click the Twitter handle for the thread describing the poster.

Cellas Hayes (@c3llas):


Poster titled, "Neuroendocrine modulation alters cellular function In the neurogliovascular unit and learning and memory in vivo"

Caprice Phillips (@CapricePhillips

Poster titled, "Detecting potential biosignatures in gas dwarf atmospheres with the James Webb Space Telescope"

Lashanda Williams (@DrCoolSci):

Poster titled, "Multidisciplinary support for yoga as a part of a sustainable self-care practice for academics"

 Congratulations to all!

01 July 2021

Put your favourite data in the spotlight

Recently, I talked about how data sets like this are very hard to turn into posters:

Series of many Western blots

Projects like this are usually better as a slide talk, where each panel can be on an individual slide.

But you don’t always get your preferred presentation slot. There are just not enough slide talks to go around in many conferences. 

As solution is to figure out which data are the most important, and highlight those.

I know, I know. We are supposed to be like parents to our data, and we are supposed to love all our data equally. Many researchers strive hard to “democratize” their data, whether it’s by refusing to show a bar graph and opting instead for some sort of scatterplot, or by thinking that it doesn’t matter which value you show in a binary choice. (These are both arguable positions.)

But in many cases, when you run many experiments, there are going to be some results that are clearer than others. Or that are clinching experiments that demonstrate cause. Or is closer to a predicted value. If you have one of those, don’t treat it like all the other data.

This is one of favourite posters of mine (I’ve shown it before). Click to enlarge!

Poster titled, "More larval tapeworms in sand crabs than mole crabs" with large box plot in center.

Right in the middle is a box plot comparing numbers of parasite in two difference host crab species. One species is almost always infected, and the other is almost never infected. 

Those are not the only results on the poster. There are more graphs in the right column. But the size and placement is absolutely intentional, because the data were just so clear. You don’t get such sharp, clear, clean differences all that often. 

So I made it big. Size is an easy way to signal importance.

(In retrospect, I might have made that box plot higher contrast.)

Here’s a quick mock-up of what the poster might have looked like if I just decided to treat every bit of information equally.

Poster titled, "More larval tapeworms in sand crabs than mole crabs" with all plots the same size.

I don’t think the poster is anywhere near as strong visually. I’ve ended up with more gray blocks of text and less imagery.

Moreover, it’s arguably less helpful to a reader. Even though the text and data are the same, the information presented in the poster is different. 

Layout contains information. The size you make something on a poster contains information. By making everything the same size, a reader has to do much more work to extract what on the poster is important.

Make that hard editorial decision. Decide which experiment, which data, which plot, matters the most. Then make it clear visually that it matters the most.

Happy Canada Day! 🇨🇦

24 June 2021

Link roundup for June 2021

Posters are a visual medium, but I am always looking for ways that people with visual impairments can get data in a poster session. This paper describes a technique for creating structures that can be felt in the mouth. And people’s recognition is about on par with visual structures.

17 June 2021

Poster or talk? Decide based on your content

If I was going to present this research by Francisco Guerrero at an academic conference, I would never want to give it as a slide talk.

Click to enlarge!

What happens when you insert yourself into a (TED) story?

This single image along would make a great poster with very little change. And that’s because of the type of data visualization that is shown.

Here you have a single image that is quite rich. There are well over 100 data points in this grid, and to get the most out of it, you really have to look at it for a while. It helps to be able to come in to see some of the fine details, like the labels.

I just don’t think this graphic would work as well on a slide. There’s too much detail to absorb in the typical minute that a slide is on screen. I suppose you could try to break this down into a series of slides – one for each category on the Y axis, maybe – but that makes it hard to compare categories.

A poster would be the superior format for this kind of data. It would communicate more effectively. 

Here’s an example of a data set that would be better broken down on a series of slides.

Series of Western blots.

These eleven panels are probably much better presented as a series of eleven individual slides, where you can quickly address each one in isolation. Each one individually makes a complete point.

Too often, though, the decision whether to try to present a project as a talk or a poster is not based on the type of data shown. It’s based on criteria like:

  1. The career stage of the presenter. People earlier in their careers get posters, people later get the talks. I think there are many questionable assumptions about why this should be.
  2. The ego of the presenter. Some people just want to be on the stage. It’s fun to be the center of attention for a few moments. But it’s not focused on the needs of the audience.

Taron Egerton as flamboyant Elton John with caption "Slide talks" with subdued man looking on with caption "Posters".

If your project has a series of many experiments, each with its own results, push to give a talk even if this is your first academic conference.

If your project generates a single, high resolution visualization that contains a rich set of data, swallow your pride and do the right thing by your data. Give a poster.

Hat tip to Liz Neely for sharing the top graphic.

08 June 2021

Better Posters book reviews

"Every lab should have a copy of Better Posters." - Stephen Heard, Scientists Sees Squirrel

 In this post, I’ll be compiling reviews of the Better Posters book.

Reviews are extremely helpful to get the word out on books. I thank everyone who takes a few moments to review or rate the book.

June 2021

Better Posters: Zen Faulkes on ways to rescue the poster session by Stephen B. Heard at the Scientist Sees Squirrel blog. Excerpt:

I’ll cut to the chase here: this book is great.

Good Reads reviews for Better Posters. (As of this writing, there is only one review. But it’s early days yet!)
July 2021

Book review: Better Posters by Kristen Birney at the Data Ab Initio blog. Excerpt:
Better Posters aims to be a definitive reference on the academic conference poster... and I think it succeeds.
• • • • •

August 2021

Book Authority Best New Academic Research Books
Better Posters is featured as “7 Best New Academic Research Books To Read In 2021.”

• • • • •

If you spot a review to include here, please email me the link at BetterPosters@gmail.com!

07 June 2021

About that frontispiece...

I want to explain something about the frontispiece to the Better Posters book.

Presenter, Zen Faulkes, in front of a poster.

 The poster shown there is bad. 

Poster about shrimp motor neurons.

I’ve said as much in this blog post.

Poster of shrimp motor neurons with criticisms written on it.

So why, in a book about improving posters, is the very first one a reader is likely to lay eyes on, a bad example of the format?

I included that picture not because of the poster, but because of the presenter, which is to say me.

The picture is not a recent one, so I suppose some people might think I picked it because of ego: that I wanted to show myself younger than I am today. (Maybe there is a little of that. I do like how I look in that picture! And it’s got a favourite nerdy T-shirt that I don’t have any more.)

But I chose that picture as the frontispiece because that photo captured how I feel in a poster session. Happy, excited but not tense, and just... in my element. (And was even before I started blogging about conference posters!)

For many people, presenting posters is not a happy experience. For one reason or another, hey are stressed, they are tense, they are frowning. 

I chose that photo because it shows the feeling I want anyone to have during a poster session. It’s the enthusiasm for the poster session that I wanted to share in the book.

Related posts

Critique and makeover: Shrimp MoGs (rhymes with “rogues”)