01 March 2021

One dozen years!

Birthday cake with candles for "12".

The Better Posters blog is now twelve years old! And with the Better Posters book coming out next month, I think I can safely say that this coming year will be big and bright for this blog!

Thank you for your attention!

Photo by Pewari on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

25 February 2021

Link roundup for February 2021

Today in, “Please don’t.”

Complex 3-D bar graph

Spotted by Ben Bolker. Hat tip to Dani Rabiotti.

• • • • •

Because so many people make their posters in PowerPiint, I see a lot of SmartArt on posters.

SmartArt button in PowerPoint

Echo Rivera picks apart the problems with the tool. Why use this...

Standard process development SmartArt

When you could have this?

Animated process development slide

• • • • •

New to me: the Everything Hertz podcast has an interview with Mike Morrison talking about the billboard poster design.

• • • • •

A new paper looks to reignite debate on where to start the Y axis on bar graphs. Excerpt:

(W)e investigate the practice of truncating the y-axis of bar graphs to start at a non-zero value. While this has been called one of “the worst of crimes in data visualization” by The Economist, it is surprisingly common in not just news and social media, but also in scientific conferences and publications. This might be because the injunction to “not truncate the axis!” may be seen as more dogmatic than data-driven.

Hat tip to Roger Giner-Sorolla.

• • • • •

You’re not an artist, so why not work with someone who is? Virginia Gewin at Nature looks at how to create a good scientist / artist collaboration. The takeaways?

  • Do your homework.
  • Define “success” and expectations.
  • Make research multi-sensory.
  • Create a two-way experience.
  • Take risks.
  • Add emotion to science.

Of course, graphic design is not art, but there may be some ideas here to use.

• • • • • 

How the New York Times visualizes the first half a million deaths in the United States from COVID-19. They showed every dead person in their plot. Every one.

Front page of New York Times for 21 February 2021, showing half a million deaths from COVID-19 in the US.

Hat tip to Alexandra Witze and Marc Abrahams.

• • • • •

A few weeks ago, I suggested you look at your design and ask, “What’s it for?” 

Krstel Petrevski in Melbourne AFLW indigenous jumper for 2021

This is Australian footballer Krstel Petrevski modelling a jumper she designed for the Melbourne Demons featuring indigenous art. The league has an indigenous round to celebrate Australian and Torres Strait Islander indigenous culture.

Here’s a close-up:

Indigenous art on Melbourne Demons AFLW jumper.

Krstel talks about the design in the YouTube video below. Her talk is a great lesson in, “What’s it for?” Everything you see in that design has meaning. The exact number of circles down the sides, the hand prints, everything.

(And by the way, can you imagine a professional sports league in North American having a week where every team in the league played in uniforms designed by Native American artists? I can’t. Alas.)

24 February 2021

Four critiques, on video

Last week, I gave a presentation online to the University of New Hampshire. They recorded it, and have generously made the recording not only available to their campus community, but to everyone.

Screenshot of Zoom call for University of New Hampshire poster workshop

You can find the workshop here. As of now, I don’t know if there is a way to embed the video.

Thanks to the four rugged individuals who agreed to let me review their posters. I gave each poster a nickname:

  • The kitchen drawer poster
  • The “Too much coffee” poster
  • The tombstone poster
  • The “Just a trim” poster

The video is extra convenient, because you can listen to it at one and a half or even double speed, pause, or rewind it – unlike me!

External links

2021 Research Communications Academy: Better Posters with Dr. Zen Faulkes

Coming to National Biotechnology Conference #NBC2021

National Biotechnology Conference 2021 logo

I’ll be talking about making conference posters (and other graphics!) at the National Biotechnology Conference in May! Specifically:

Better Posters: How to Design and Present a Conference Poster
9:00 AM - 10:00 AM
Thursday May 20, 2021

This is an online event. I look forward to presenting to all you drug scientists out there! 

I am available for other events, too. My email is in the sidebar at the right!

External links

American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists

18 February 2021

“What’s it for?” and other questions

What's it for?
Today, I am going to be a lazy blogger and mostly point to ideas in other people’s books.

In The Practice: Shipping Creative Work, Seth Godin returns to this question repeatedly:

“What’s it for?”

This is a great question to stop and ask yourself occasionally when designing something. It helps ensure that whatever you’re doing is deliberate (or intentional, as Godin puts it).

Those logos around the title? What are they for?

That abstract on the poster? What are they for?

Those acknowledgements at the end? What are they for?

If you can’t answer that, why is it on the poster?

Scott Berkun has another book that I want to read, How Design Makes the World, but haven’t yet. However, he just shared a blog post about how to look at designed things more critically. And, like Godin, Berkun has questions. Here are a few questions that got my attention and that I think are relevant for posters.

  • Is it clear what it does? Is easy to learn? Does it work reliably?
  • What message is its style sending to you?
  • Who is included or excluded from participating in using it?
  • What systems is this design a part of? Are those systems working well?
  • Does this design create flow or conflict?
But there are more! Check the full post for more.

12 February 2021

The Cosmo rule is dead

For years, I’ve used covers of Cosmopolitan magazine to illustrate a point.

Cosompolitan magazine cover, featuring "sex" headline in the upper left.

Cosompolitan magazine cover, featuring "sex" headline in the upper left.

Cosompolitan magazine cover, featuring "sex" headline in the upper left.

Cosmo always had a sex story, and it was always featured in the upper left corner of the cover. That’s where people who read in English look first. Sex sells, so of course that’s where you want to put a sexy headline.

But I can’t use Cosmo as my example any more. I went looking for more recent examples and found the newest cover:

Cosompolitan magazine cover from February 2021, featuring "The acne issue" in the upper left.


A search through the magazine’s Twitter feed for the last year shows this is no aberration. The sexy headlines seem to have been mostly banished from the cover for a while. 

Clearly Cosmo is under the control of a new editorial staff or new graphic design staff. Can’t tell which. Or maybe it’s a reflection of more of its readers being online, so the “gotta compete for attention on the supermarket check-out rack” need is less pressing. 

If that’s so, that’s worth noting. Graphic design changes with time. Being viewed on the supermarket checkout is different than being seen on a screen. 

As conferences moved online in the last year, similar forces are at work today for conference posters. Many design principles are the same, but the design demands of choosing which physical piece of paper on a board in a hallway to view are not the same as navigating menus on screen.

The Cosmopolitan rule (put your sexiest stuff in the upper left) is DEAD.

Now I have to come up with a new, more au courant metaphor to describe the importance of that upper left part of the page.

Related posts

The Cosmo principle

04 February 2021

Pre-order Better Posters and get 30% off!

The Better Posters book continues to inch closer to reality! Today, Pelagic Publishing showed the first teaser images of the inside of the book:


Better Posters book cover and four sample pages.

And even better, they announced that you can pre-order the book for a generous 30% off! 

30% off!
That’s right, 30%! Enter the code POSTERS30 when you visit the page here!

I am a first time author, and everything I have heard from other people who have written books in the last couple of years is that pre-orders help a book tremendously. There has never been a better time to be one of the first to get this long awaited and long needed book.

Thank you for your support!

28 January 2021

Link roundup for January 2021

Let’s start the year with this awesome interview with Nadieh Bremer. Nadieh has created very intense, high data density visualizations. For example, check out her plot of astronomical 🌗 data. What started as an illustration turned out so well it has become a for sale poster.

Sky map of Hubble space telescope 30 year legacy

Nadia routinely works with huge datasets, and this article is a great look into her process. Excerpt:

“The reason I only create very rough outlines at the beginning is that data visualization stands and falls with the data itself,” Nadieh points out. “You can have a great idea but when you plug in the data it sometimes doesn’t work at all, because of outliers in the data or other quirks that you hadn’t considered during the design process. When you work with big datasets, you can only guess at the start.”

 Hat tip to Anneli Joplin,

• • • • •

Windows users, did you know pressing the “Windows” key and a period in combination brings up an emoji menu? Now you do. You’re welcome.

• • • • •

That’s all for now!

25 January 2021

Data isn’t math: Narrative stances matter

You have a survey that asks people, “Yes” or  “No.” 

These are two mutually exclusive categories. There is no third option, like “Unsure.” Therefore, if you know that 35% of people picked “No,” you know that 65% of people picked “Yes.”

The math is irrefutable. The math is trivial. So it doesn’t matter which value you report, right?

Well, no, as the American network ABC found out over the weekend. The network tweeted:

Tweet by ABC reading, "JUST IN: Roughly one third of the country opposes Pres. Biden's decision to recommit to the Paris Climate Accord and rejoin the World Health Organization, driven by steepened".

JUST IN: Roughly one third of the country opposes Pres. Biden's decision to recommit to the Paris Climate Accord and rejoin the World Health Organization(.)

This generated a huge amount of pushback, and the tweet was deleted. There is still a news story on the main website, but the “one third oppose” made its way to the UK newspaper The Daily Mail.

Daily Mail article reading, "President receives high approval ratings for his first few days in office - but one in three oppose him rejoining Paris Climate Accord and WHO"

President receives high approval ratings for his first few days in office - but one in three oppose him rejoining Paris Climate Accord and WHO

So even though it’s simple math – if one third opposes, then two thirds support – putting the nos in the headline treats the opposition as though it were the important thing.

But a bloody awful lot of people online looked at that and said, “Two thirds support is huge, especially considering that there is so much polarization in America that the country just narrowly avoided an armed insurrection n January 6, 2021.”

Maybe the one third opposition is the right thing to emphasize. But then again, maybe not. Is it high? Is it low? Is it likely to go up or down?

I often see scientists who work with data trying to treat every single data point as though it were no more or less important than any other data point. (I think of this as trying to “democratize” data. Maybe not the perfect analogy, but I like the alliteration.) I think that they are so used to transforming and analyzing it that they think of data as math.

But this example shows how choices about presentation dramatically shift the emphasis, and therefore, the implications that people take away from it. Data are supposed to help be a way to understand the world, and we are always looking for how they fit in cause and effect relationships.

17 January 2021

Critique: Chromatic numbers

Today’s contribution is from Tássio Naia. It was recently presented at the 14th Latin American Theoretical Informatics Symposium. Click to enlarge!

"Chromatic number and oriented trees" poster

I’m pleased to have a poster than leans more towards the math side of research, because I don’t see a lot of contributions from that field!

For equations, careful typesetting matters. The alignment of the central symbols is well done here. 

The banding to emphasize the different equations also works. It seems the idea is to distinguish “Theorem,” “Conjecture,” and “Corollary.” I do wish the “Corollary” didn’t share a colour with a “Theorem” band (two above it). Presumably the idea was to prevent three rows of the same colour.

Tássio was nice enough to not only send the poster, but a little explanation of how it came to be.

There was little information about how the poster was going to be viewed (other than “it will be read on a screen”). Because of this, I did not worry about using a darker background color, or about using small margins.

I also considered that it would be easy to reach me even outside of poster presentation time-slots, since you can search for people by their name and open a chat window.

I went for very little text, even though that meant that statements were more on the symbol-heavy end of the spectrum (hopefully not too much).

For online posters, a portrait format works well because scrolling down is easier than scrolling sideways. Similarly, a single column works better than multiple columns because you don’t have to scroll back up to the top.

Because downward flow is expected, the arrows in the sidebar threw me.

Three sequential text blocks connected by upward pointing arrows
We expect arrows to lead us in a sequence, but both break the expected reading conventions. I think they would make much more sense if the arrowheads were on the other end of the arrow.

I like the feel of the main column being the formal presentation. The smaller lefthand column feels like marginalia. In particular, the slant on “maybe true” gives the side text an informal feeling I like. I would have been tempted to set the lefthand column in a good handwritten font to push that feeling a little farther.

Something that the image file here on the blog can’t show is the use of links in the poster. There is a link to the conference website, to references, and Tássio’s home page. Because there are clickable links, and the poster is viewed online, it’s not clear to me if there is any benefit to using a QR code in addition to a standard hyperlink to lead to references.

I would also like “References” to appear closer to the QR code so that it’s more obvious what the QR code is supposed to lead you to. The dot leader is meant to connect the two, but distance breaks the visual link between the two. There is an advantage of using dot leaders when you have lists with varying item widths. Maybe less useful for single items.

You can see more posters from this conference here.

More submissions from mathematicians would be most welcome!

05 January 2021

Better Posters book delayed again

Waiting area in airport
Due to everything that is going on in the world, not least of which is a global pandemic, the Better Posters book release has been delayed again. This time, the delay is probably not going to be as long. The target release date is now April.

April 2021, that is. I hope. 

The blogging binge is suspended until April. But I will say that I will have some nice posts for you then!

Workshops, parties, anything: Bring Better Posters to your campus

University of New Hampshire
Next month, hot on the heels of the release of the Better Posters book (available for pre-order now!), I will be giving a workshop at the University of New Hampshire.

I’m looking forward to this workshop, because several brave souls have said they are willing to send me their work in advance so we can look it over and actually work out how to improve it. It’s nice to have specific examples to look at so that people can see the process.

I not only wanted to say how much I am looking forward to talking to everyone at University of New Hampshire, I also wanted to say:

Book me!

I am available to talk to your students! I am available to talk on your podcast! I will answer interview questions that are emailed to me!


External links 

Research Communications Academy: Communicating Visually: Making Your Posters and Powerpoints Pop

04 January 2021

The loss of posters is a loss for science

Late last year, it became know that two of Charles Darwin’s notebooks are missing, presumed stolen.

One contains what has become an iconic scientific image. It’s sometimes called the “I think” sketch, which is the first in all of Darwin’s writing to show branching relationships of organisms.

Sketch of phylogeny by Charles Darwin

It’s a critical piece in understanding Darwin’s thinking about his ideas of evolution. We rightly mourn the loss and hope they are one day found.

Darwin’s notebooks were meant to be for himself only. But now they are part of the history of science, and scholarship on Darwin is rich and nuanced because he kept things. We have notebooks. We have letters. We have so much more than his published books (which themselves are a substantial record of achievement).

And yet... this sort of wholesale loss of scientific knowledge has largely gone on, unnoticed, after every scientific conference, when presenters throw away posters.

Imagine how much richer future histories of science would be if historians would have the posters from poster sessions. I can’t help but wonder how much seminar, prize winning scientific works started out as just another poster in a poster session.

03 January 2021

Sunday scraps: Scale diagrams

In the Better Posters book, I wanted to show the value of using a relatable objects for scale. Because it’s one thing to say “an animal was 4 meters long” and another thing to understand viscerally what that means. It usually means comparing that to something you interact with all the time.

I was inspired by the convention in paleontological drawings of showing reconstructions next to the silhouette of a human figure.(Can’t remember what artist pioneered that as a convention, although it has a long history.)

So I made these. First, showing that an ankylosaur was about the size of a compact car.


Scale drawing comparing a Mini Cooper, Captain Marvel, and ankylosaur


I created these images in 2019, which partly explains my use of Captain Marvel. I liked the idea of using a woman for scale, because too often male figures are the default.

Scale drawing comparing a Mini Cooper, Captain Marvel, and brachiosaur

I think I thought that a poor placid plant-eating brachiosaur didn’t deserved to be punched by a super hero, so I made this alternate.


Scale drawing comparing Captain Marvel and tyrannosaur

Unfortunately, all of these figure were nixed from the book. The site that provided the scale drawings, Dimensions.com, allows for their work on things like blogs but not for things like books.

I was pleased with these, because I thought dinosaurs and superheroes made the point in a fun way.

02 January 2021

Lessons from jigsaw puzzles

 For the holiday season, this showed up under the Christmas tree:

500 piece jigsaw puzzle, "Winter Friends," with wolf lying in snowy forest looking at red cardinal on tree

It’s going as well as can be expected.

Jigsaw puzzle pieces laid out on table

It occurred to me that puzzles have lessons for posters. Because puzzles tell us about how we make sense of images.

Here’s a slightly cleaner look at the image.

Wolf lying in snowy forest looking at red cardinal on tree

As soon as I saw the image on the box, I joked, “The bird will be the first thing done.” It was the only thing red, and I knew the bright red pieces would stand out in the box. And, as predicted, it was pretty much the first thing done.

Jogsaw puzzle pieces laid out on table

But it’s clear what else got done early on.

The classic way to solve a jigsaw is to start with the edges, because they have the only straight edges.

What do these things tell us? That we are good at detecting and paying attention to contrast. The bird is a contrasting colour. The edges have a contrasting shape.

The next thing that was done was the wolf’s face. This is probably because humans are very attuned to looking for faces. That the eyes are contrasting colours also help.

And after that, the legs got done. I searched for pieces with clear colour splits (that is, half white snow, half fur coloured).

And the moral of the story is: If you want people to pay attention to one particular part of a poster, us contrast – especially colour.

01 January 2021

The Better Posters advent calendar

This is the month.

If all goes well...

This is the month the Better Posters book should finally see the light of day! Publication is scheduled for 25 January 2021. So, just like last month, which has an advent calendar for an important date falling on the 25th,  I plan to count down the book release with a month of blogging! Takin’ it back to the roots, yo!

I’ll be blogging about lots of things. Some of my experience with graphic design before I started the blog, rejected content from the book, and some new material.

I am available for podcasts, workshops, and more! If you want to talk about the book, email me at BetterPosters@gmail.com.