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.
• • • • •

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”)

06 June 2021

Join me on IAmSciComm starting 7 June 2021!

I have just taken over the reigns of the @IAmSciComm rotating curator Twitter account! This is my second time hosting, and am gratified to be asked back.

Here is a rough schedule for the week.

Monday, 7 June: Show me a poster, graphic, or dataviz!   Tuesday, 8 June: Why streaks matter!  Wednesday, 9 June: From blog to book!   Thursday, 10 June: Posters for everyone!   Friday, 11 June: Posters reviewed!  Saturday, 12 June: The randomizer!

  • Monday, 7 June: Show me a poster, graphic, or dataviz! 
  • Tuesday, 8 June: Why streaks matter!
  • Wednesday, 9 June: From blog to book! 
  • Thursday, 10 June: Posters for everyone! 
  • Friday, 11 June: Posters reviewed!
  • Saturday, 12 June: The randomizer!

Join me, won’t you?

Related posts

The IAmSciComm threads

External links

IAmSciComm home page

03 June 2021

Poster sessions in street view: Review of Artsteps

Artsteps logo
TL;DR: Artsteps provides some nice features for virtual poster sessions, but it is hampered by clunky navigation and limited resolution to view posters.

• • • • •

When many conferences flipped to online events starting in 2020, I have been trying to track how academic conferences have tried to handle poster sessions. Not only is this an issue for large national and international conferences, but individual institutions are trying to deal with how to hold their own poster sessions.

Artsteps provides a service to host “virtual reality exhibitions.” It was used by the student research office at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley to host showcases of undergraduate student research.

Click any of the images below to enlarge!

The session takes place in a three-dimensional virtual environment.

Virtual room with student posters on walls.

You click and drag the window to look left, right, up, or down.

The navigation experience using the mouse reminds me most of the “Street view” in Google Maps. It’s not smooth scrolling through an environment, as with you might get with a first person video game like Doom or Metroid Prime (yep, going old school for those references).

Instead, if you look down at the floor, you can click to place “footprints” to indicate where your want to got next.

Virtual room with footprint icons in lower right corner of the virtual floor.

This is a somewhat frustrating way to navigate. It’s incredibly difficult to judge the placement of the feet so that you are a reasonable distance from a poster. It’s easy to come in way to close, and there isn’t (as far as I can see) an easy command to take a step back. You have to turn the room around, walk away, turn the room around again, and look at the poster.

(Edit: I discovered you can use the arrow keys on the keyboard to navigate, which is a significant improvement. It provides smoother movement through the environment. It’s just not immediately obvious that you can do that.)

I think this ability to see something from many angles would be awesome for something like a virtual sculpture. But for posters, you mostly want to see them dead on, not from an angle.

Poster in virtual room.

The photographs of the presenters are a nice touch.

The posters are clickable. Clicking a poster brings it to the foreground and “flattens” it so it’s facing the screen dead on. Clicking the poster also open a pop-up window that allows you to click to play narration recorded by the presenter.

Virtual poster showing media controls.

This media window initially overlaps the full screen poster. A little frustrating, because you probably want to see all of the poster while you’re hearing the presenter’s tour.

Virtual poster with smaller media window on top of it.
 You can enlarge the media window / narration window to “full screen”, but somewhat unexpectedly, the “full screen” view of the poster in the media window is smaller than the “full screen” in the virtual room.

Poster in media player window at fuill screen.

Once you have made the poster full screen, there is no option to zoom into a particular section. This was frustrating, because I found a lot of posters had detail that was difficult to see. I am viewing this session on a laptop, which may have a lower screen resolution than many people are using for desktops now. Even so, it’s not like I am viewing these through my phone. 

Not being able to resolve detail could be solved by good design for this specific platform, but a “zoom” or “magnify” tool would be super helpful.

Some presenters worked around this by presenting what appeared to be a slide deck of rotating images rather than a single static poster.

There are chat boxes and other features that you can presumably use during scheduled presentation times. Unfortunately, I did not see this during the scheduled presentation time. It suspect that it would work okay for small groups, but I don’t know if this experience would scale to, say, the hundreds or thousands of posters needed for a medium or large conference.

As the name implies, Artsteps seems geared to reproducing the small, intimate feeling of walking through a little art gallery with paintings, photographs, and scultures. I’m not sure that experience is quite what is needed for online poster sessions.

External links


UTRGV Engaged Scholar showcase November 2020

UTRGV Engaged Scholar showcase May 2021

Related posts

Link round-up for October, 2020

27 May 2021

Link roundup for May 2021

I’m increasingly convinced a major secret to making a good poster is editing – whether you edit yourself or are lucky enough to have someone else do it. Ian Dunt worked as an editor for years, hated it, but learned a lot. And he shared what he learned in this post.

Excerpt from his fifth point:

Your readers are busy. Your job is to make the process of accumulating knowledge about the world easy. They should not struggle to understand you. You are not a poet, writing for people to appreciate your words through introspection in the moonlight. You are a hack, writing for busy people on a bus who are late for work. Your job is to deliver this information into their brain effortlessly.

The post was targeted for political writers, but there are gems in there for anyone who wants to communicate.

• • • • •

Root Illustrations look to be a useful source of artwork. People are fairly tricky to draw, so “ready to go” illustrations of them are helpful. And to sweeten the deal, they are vector based images, which means they will scale to any size.

Illustration of a person searching for something

There is a modest charge for their use, but... buried down at the bottom of the page is a note that you can get 50% off if you are a student or teacher.

Hat tip to Echo Rivera.

• • • • •

Observable Plot is a tool for data exploration and visualization. It’s a JavaScript thing, if you’re into JavaScript things.

• • • • •

MyFonts offers always excellent advice in their primers. This time it’s about how to create emphasis in text (PDF file). 

Importantly, they have a list of “nevers.”

  1. Never underline.
  2. Never “highlight.”
  3. Never use bold and italic.
  4. Never use all capitals.

And here’s another primer on readability. (Again, PDF.)

• • • • •

Stock photos are sometimes rightfully mocked, but they have their uses. Matic Broz at Photutorial provides a resource comparing stock photo websites

Pros and cons list for stock phot website.

Compares 22 different commercial sites.

• • • • •

The Canadian 🇨🇦 research agency NSERC has a “Science Exposed” People’s Choice competition that features 20 outstanding scientific images. 

Vote vote vote! Voting continues until September 26, 2021.

• • • • •

A tutorial on making graphs in ggplot2

• • • • •

Typefaces often suggest concept and attributes like “feminine.” This article argues that we should avoid using such gendered descriptions of letters.

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A new to me Twitter thread (from last November) by Ian Brennan on how to make cartoon-style illustrations of animals.

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That’s all for this month!

24 May 2021

Critique: Mercury in peatlands

Yes, the Better Poster book launches today, but you know what? There’s no better way to celebrate than by doing the thing that, if I’m honest, has become the absolute heart and soul of this project: looking at the work of other people and trying to improve it.

Today’s contribution comes to us from Lauren Thompson. Click to enlarge!

Poster: Seasonal patterns of mercury from thawing permafrost catchments

This poster was given at Mer Bleue and Beyond virtual symposium this month. I noticed this poster in my Twitter feed because it had a strong colour scheme (attacking the Pokémon problem). Even shrunk down in my Twitter feed, I could see there was an emphasis on visuals over text. It was clear that this was a solid bit of design work.

Where the poster has a bit of a pain point is, unfortunately, at eye level right smack dab in the middle.

There’s just no way to get around it: The two scatter plots on the left are too close to the bar graphs on the right. The right axis labels for the scatter plots are bumping right up against the left axis labels for the bar graphs. It’s confusing, because the right axis labels almost look like they belong to the right graph.

The scatter plots have a couple of issues. The legend for both is in the bottom graph, not the top one, where one might expect to see it. I suppose this is because the Smith Creek data weren’t as flat as the Scotty Creek data, so there is no convenient space to put the legend inside the top graph. 

Not only does the position makes it easy to overlook the legend, the colours do, too. The colours of the symbols are different in the legend (open symbols) than in the graph themselves (green fill).

Moving over to the bar graphs on the right side, I always have a problem with duplicating information. The same information is shown in the length of the bar and the label. 

The visual noise gets worse because the unit for the data points (shown for all four bars) is long (ng MeHg km-2 d-1) and shown in bold.

The one other element is that the box has two arrows coming from it, which seems to indicate that there are two possible directions to read after reading the section. I do not like “choose your own adventures” on posters. But even then, the background grey is quite light and the arrows are a little hard to see.

Here is a quick and dirty revision.

I separated the two panels, and did quite a few changes to the bar graphs on the to get rid of the visual noise. Cutting the years to two digits was hard, but it helps the separation of the left and right so much. An x axis label is still missing, though.

The rest of the poster doesn’t need much tweaking. The other panels have some of the same issues, but they are not as severe as the section shown. The axis labels are a little heavy, and elements are a little too close. For instance, in the funding section:

Multiple logos of funding agencies.

The Weston Family Foundation logo is kissing the edge. The NSERC logo has no breathing room on either the top left or bottom right.

It turned out Lauren was a reader of the blog. Thanks, Lauren!

20 May 2021

Using poster assignments in courses

This post is for my fellow educators. How can you best use posters in a course?

There are a few reasons you might want to have students make posters for a class. Probably the biggest one is practice for presenting a poster in a professional setting, like a conference. Same reason we ask students, even undergrads, write in journal format: to give them practice communicating like professionals.

I’m going to give an outline for how I integrate posters in a science communication course. 

The science communication course I teach is one semester class for advanced undergraduates.

The poster “officially” takes up only one week of the class, but several exercises before I give students the poster assignment build up and reinforce what I ask students to do in the poster module.

In the first few weeks of the course, I ask students to prepare standard application materials like a CV or résumé and a personal statement. This is usually fairly straightforward in terms of content, because students are writing about themselves. These modules give me a chance to talk about typography. I use these modules to emphasize the importance of good typography in the appearance of a professional document.

The learning objective within the applications module:

  • Describe key elements of typography that improve the appearance of documents.

A couple of weeks later, I ask them to create a few simple plots of data. I usually give them some raw weather data (say, a month of temperature data from two different cities) and ask them to make a few standard summary diagrams like bar graphs (with error bars!) and scatter plots. This module gives me a chance to talk about data visualization and introduce some basic concepts of graphic design.

The learning objectives for the graphing module:

  • Describe advantages of plotting data.
  • Describe and use best practices for creating tables for publication in scientific journals.
  • Describe and use best practices for creating graphs for publication in scientific journals.

In this particular course, I don’t ask students to make a poster about their own project. (They do have a project, but I ask them to do an oral presentation instead.) Instead, I tell them to base their poster on a recently published open access journal article. 

The advantage of asking students to modify a published article instead of making a poster of their own class project is that I want students to edit. It’s often easier to edit someone else’s work than your own.

I tell them:

Do not "dump" the paper into the poster and be done with it! That will get you a crummy score, guaranteed! The best posters are likely to be the ones that are the most different from the original paper. For an example, compare a paper I published here to a poster I made about the same project here (from this blog post). The paper has ten figures; the poster has only five. The difference in the number of words is obvious.

The learning objectives for the poster module:

  • Describe how posters are presented in academic conferences.
  • Create a design brief for a conference poster.
  • Describe basic concepts used in graphic design.
  • Describe and use several best principles for conference poster design.
  • Design a conference poster.
  • Use a checklist to evaluate your poster.

Of course, they also end up revisiting some of the learning objectives from the previous modules.

I direct students to a checklist here on this blog to assess their own posters. I use a modified version of the checklist as the scoring rubric.

After the students design and submit their poster, I ask them to do a round of peer review. In an online course, I do this using a discussion forum. Depending on how the semester is going, I might give students an opportunity to resubmit a poster for a revised grade. 

Later, I have students give an oral presentation of their class project, and that gives them another opportunity to revisit some of the graphic design and typography skills from the poster module.

18 May 2021

The Better Posters book has shipped!

Yesterday, a good friend of mine posted this on Facebook:

Better Poster book in a box

Proof of life!

That’s right, the book has shipped early!

You still have a few days to “pre-order” the book from the publisher at a 30% discount. Use the code “POSTERS30” at checkout.

Edit: And friend of the blog Melissa Vaught got hers!

Keep those pictures coming! I love them!

17 May 2021

Online posters at National Biotechnology Conference

Speaker, National Biotechnology Conference

This week, I am pleased to be speaking at the National Biotechnology Conference! I’ll be presenting on Thursday, 20 May, at 8:00 am Eastern Daylight Time on poster design.

Some of the conference content was available last week, so I went in and looked at how this meeting is handling posters.

As I’ve mentioned before, the concept of a “poster session” in an online space is an interesting thing. Different meetings have handled them in very different ways.

Below is a screenshot of one sample poster, just pulled by happenstance. I have blurred the title and authors, and at the preview scale, the rest is not really readable.

The conference provided a limited number of poster templates, so my focus is not on the poster design, but the viewer experience.

Sample online poster from National Biotechnology Conference 2021

How it works is that when you click “View eposter,” a preview screen pops up that shows you an overview of the entire poster. 

You can see controls for the poster – menu, forward and backward arrows – down in the lower left corner.

Media controls

If you read comics using an app like Comixology, the poster experience is rather like their “Guided view.” You step through each individual panel of the comic or poster, then advance to the next one.  In the poster situation, though, you have the option of playing narration.

The poster is scattered with little “sound” icons. These are obviously added in by the software, because the icons cover parts of text and graphs. There was clearly no consideration of where the icons would fit into the design.

Every section with an icon has a pre-recorded message.

Sound icons

When you click play, you can hear narration recorded by the presenter. There is no “autoplay” through the entire poster. You have to click to advance to each section.

Judging from a few posters picked haphazardly, if you just listen at normal presentation speed, it takes about six to eight minutes to listen to a presenter walk you through a poster.

Luckily, the “speedometer” icon allows you to play it faster (unspecified, but I think it might be 1.5×, 1.75× and 2× regular speed). A nice touch.

I have not made a comprehensive review of all posters, but I will say that sometimes listening to the narration is an odd experience. On text blocks, many presenters start reading the text exactly as written on the poster, but then deviate from it at unpredictable points. The transition from following along to trying to parse the difference between what is written and what is said is jarring. 

It feels a lot like people reading PowerPoint slides. And we know what crushing experience that is. Most people read faster than presenters talk. 

Eposters mimic one aspect of some paper posters. Despite seeing only one panel at a time, it’s often hard to read the text because people write too much stuff that is too small. Even when I’m viewing a a single panel full screen, I see sections that I cannot hope to read without learning in uncomfortably close to my screen.

You can also download the poster as a PDF.

So while this is technically a kind of interesting way of presenting, I’m still unsure why this should even be called a “poster.” In practice, it feels like it would be much more natural either to have people record slide talks or upload a single static document, like a manuscript.

External links

National Biotechnology Conference

13 May 2021

Solving the Pokémon problem for posters

My editor on the Better Posters book forwarded the copy of Jon Schwabish’s book Better Data Visualizations. (I have not read it yet, but hope to soon!) If you remember of one the rejected cover designs I posted a while back, it’s fair to say we dodged a bullet by changing my book cover.

Covers of Better Data Visualization and Better Posters

Similar titles, concept, colour scheme, and layout? These covers would have had the Pokémon problem.

I play Pokémon Go. I have a dog and it gives me something to do while I walk. When you’re playing, you usually see a screen something like this:

Pokémon Go screen showing Clauncher

When I saw a screen like the one above, I thought, “Ooh. What’s that?” The game periodically introduces new Pokémon, and one of the newer ones (shown above) is a new snapping shrimp inspired Pokémon called Clauncher.


I study crustaceans, so obviously a lot of the crustacean inspired Pokémon are my favourites.

But what struck me when I was looking for those first few Claunchers was how obvious it was when the first one popped onto my screen that I had never seen it before

The more I thought about it, the more I realized how brilliant the Pokémon designers are. When you’re playing, you need to clearly distinguish different characters. Those characters are appearing as just a few pixels on the screen. 

Even though these are all nominally “cat Pokémon,” it’s easy to recognize them as different kinds of characters. 

Cat pokémon.

Conference posters suffer badly from the Pokémon problem. 

There is a lot of sameness on those poster boards. I remember someone saying that if you image search for “Good conference poster”...

Google image search for good conference poster

and then search for “Bad conference poster,” the results look... almost the same.

Google image results for bad conference poster

How do the Pokémon designers do it? Mostly they pay attention to colour and shape. Some Pokémon are light, some are dark, some are striped. They generally don’t have subtle differences (though some of the shiny ones are quite a bit like the normal ones). They colours and patterns are big and bold.

But even if you saw them in grayscale or in outline, each Pokémon cuts a different silhouette. 

As a poster maker, you’re probably going to have a rectangular poster. But you can pay a lot of attention to the shapes within your poster. Things that are not rectangular are going to make a strong impression and distinguish your poster from the crowd.

Having a strong colour scheme is even better. You can see the colour of something from a long way away, long before you can see any detail. When I walk through poster sessions, many posters are black text on a white background. 

Magazine cover and black text on white background

In big sessions, though, there is often someone who has a black poster with white text, and it just pops out. 

Magazine cover and white text on black background

But that is still monochrome. When I have images, I like to use the eyedropper tool to take something from the image and make it the dominant colour for the poster.

In this example, I sampled the yellow in the glowing ball.

Magazine cover and black text on yellow background

But I could have easily pulled from the dark blues in the background.

Magazine cover and white text on blue background

Even though all four have the identical content, nobody would mistake one for any of the others if they were hanging up in the poster hall.

This is one of the reasons conference templates create problems for presenters. For a local student conference, I once provided  all the student with a template of black text on white background. It’s the most readable, right? It was bad, because it was so monotonous to look at.

So to get back to the cover of my book and Jon’s book... it would have been a disaster for both of us if my cover had stayed the same. It’s enough that the topics and title are similar, but if those covers had been so much alike?

I think there would have been a lot of readers who would have confused our books. People would have thought, “Well, I am going to show data, but where’s the stuff on posters?” Or “Man, I’m show slogging through a lot of poster stuff to learn a little about data visualizations.”

And the moral of the story is: Look for ways to make your poster as distinct as a Pokémon!

Related posts

Sunday scraps: Second book cover draft

Sunday scraps: Third book cover draft

External links

Pokécrustacea: the crustacean-inspired Pokémon