16 March 2023

Canva revisited

I reviewed Canva back in 2020. Canva has introduced many new features since then, so here are a few quick updates on the platform. 

Size seems to have increased, but is still limited. I still can’t make a poster that’s 6 feet wide by 4 feet tall. But now it seems to have a limit on total area. I think when I reviewed it before, it had a hard limit on height and width. I can now make a poster that’s 6 feet wide by 2 feet tall, which I don't think I could before.

There are now university research poster templates. (They may have been there before, but I don’t think so.) Search the templates for “Research Posters” and you get about 20 or so different templates. 

Poster template with large grey title bar and sans serif type.

 A couple are recognizably based on Mike Morrison’s billboard style posters.

Poster template with large central text and sans serif type.

 Many have the same boilerplate text that doubles as a guide.

How to make a research poster: A guide for students

Many technologies and breakthroughs would not be possible without research.
It is important to keep members of the community informed about the latest updates. One way to do that is through research posters.

Most of the templates are good on colour and typography. 

Poster template with light background and serif type.

But most have too much fine text. 

Poster template with half black, half light background and sans serif type.

Some have confusing layouts.

Poster template blue title bar and sans serif type.

Canva has certainly improved as a platform for making conference posters. It would still not be my “go to” for posters, because the size limitations bother me.

Related posts 

Canva review

09 March 2023

Don’t make your figures like journal figures

I’ve written about the importance of respecting reading order on this blog many times. English readers generally look at the top left of a page first, because that’s where we have learned that text starts.

Rectangle with "Start here" in upper left and "End here" in lower right.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how scientific journal articles break information apart. But I didn’t realize another shortcoming of typical journal figure layouts.

You are supposed to start reading in the middle. It’s not necessarily clear if you will end up at the last image in the figure or the end of the figure legend.

A figure from a scientific journal, showing "Start here" pointing at the start of the figure legend under the images.

Not only that, you have to look back and forth from the legend to the images. Your eyes are constantly travelling. 

Multi-panel journal figure with overlay showing reading pathway back and forth from text to figure and back to text.

But graphics from news organizations (like the New York Times, FiveThirtyEight, Nature or Science magazines, and so on) do things a different way. The title goes at the top.

A graph from news in Nature, with "Start here" pointing at the title above the figure..

Rather than having the description underneath, the graph is annotated. This makes the graph less compact, true, but reading it is more in line with our reading expectations.

The more I think about it, the more I think this format is a much better model for figures on posters..

Conference posters in movies: Awake

The opening minutes of the Netflix movie Awake (2021) take place in a secured research building. How do I know?


You can see them in the right side of all of these screen shots.

Screenshot from Awake 2021, showing hallway with posters on right.

There are a few posters in this tracking shot, but the one closest to the edge of screen is the only one where the components are visible. Solid two column layout. This is the only poster we see with any colour: some orange in the section headers.

Screenshot from Awake 2021, showing hallway with posters on right.

The two posters in the shot above drove me a little nuts. Typical academic poster, far too much tiny text. At least the one on the left has a good “hero” figure in the upper left. Two columns again, which is a little unusual, since three columns are more common.

Screenshot from Awake 2021, showing hallway with posters on right of Gina Rodriguez opening a door.

As star Gina Rodriguez enters the room, we see two more in the background. Two columns again, clearly with a lot of small text. Neither appears to have any graphics, although there are some shaded boxes in the right one, perhaps highlighting tables.


Screenshot from Awake 2021, showing room with posters on right, as Gina Rodriguez opens door.

While the shot is a bit dark, this is the only poster whose title can be seen.

Screenshot from Awake 2021, showing room with posters on right, as Gina Rodriguez opens door.

Appropriately enough for a movie about people not being able to sleep, the poster is “The impact of caffeine”!

Here’s a close-up, brightened up for visibility:

Poster titled "The impact of caffeine."

The only poster using the classic three column layout.

At first, I thought the posters must have just been there in the location they were filming in. But this is so on point with the movie that I am thinking that maybe the art director dressed the space with posters? At least this one? 

That the posters have such a consistent design and so little colour also make me think these are set decorations. You wouldn’t want brightly coloured posters in this dimly lit scene.

Maybe I’ve been at this too long when I’m paying more attention to the posters than the end-of-civilization plot...

External links

Awake on Netflix

Awake on IMDb

02 March 2023

Plastic octopus

This is not timely post. But join me and step into the Wayback Machine with me, to go back to 2017. I stumbled across this award winning poster from Stephanie Harris. This is from the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour Easter meeting from that year.

Stephanie Harris holding a certificate for her poster prize, with her poster in the background. A plastic octopus is attached to the poster.

I was looking at is, and thought... “Wait, what is that just to the right of her certificate?” I zoomed in.

Plastic octopus attached to poster.

It’s a plastic octopus. But not some plastic octopus randomly attached to the poster for no reason. It was actually used in the research project to test birds’ personalities.

So I just wanted to make this very short post to remind people that you can use your poster space to do more than just put up a sheet of paper.

01 March 2023

The annual tradition continues: the Better Posters blogiversary

We made it. Fourteen years, my friends! That’s a lot!Birthday cake with "14" cake topper.

Having been in a pandemic for a few years, I don’t take it for granted that a project will make it another year. So I’m glad this one has.

One of the reasons I started this blog was that I thought there was so much more to say about posters than was normally being said. And I think the fact that this has made it for 14 years shows that was something to that hunch.

Whether what I have to say about the topic is valuable or interesting is a decision I will leave to you. 😉

As always, I thank you for your attention.

23 February 2023

Link roundup for February 2023

Even though online conferences seem to have lost almost all momentum in 2022, papers describing online conferences from 2020 to 2021 keep coming.

Secpholand vitural poster session

The poster session was important to the planning of the conference. In part because of the poster session, the organizers picked a platform called Secpholand.

This type of 3D virtual environment has been selected mainly for the possibilities of interactivity with other attendees... What is especially attractive is how posters are presented, which for us was very important given the high number of poster contributions and considering that many of the presenters were early-career researchers, sometimes at their first conference participation. The poster room is configured like a real poster room(.) Moving your avatar around, you can see the posters, zoom on them to check them out and especially, when entering in the dedicated area next to the poster, a voice call with the other people in the area is started(.) Thus, the platform is able to reproduce a traditional poster session in an online platform reaching more than 2600 poster visualizations.
de las Heras A, Gómez-Varela AI, Tomás M-B, Perez-Herrera RA, Sánchez LA, Gallazzi F, Santamaría Fernández B, Garcia-Lechuga M, Vinas-Pena M, Delgado-Pinar M, González-Fernández V. 2023. Innovative approaches for organizing an inclusive optics and photonics conference in virtual format. Optics 4(1):156-170. https://doi.org/10.3390/opt4010012

• • • • •

This is a real figure published in a book chapter.

Three crudely drawn turtles with three different shell shapes

Spangler M. 2015. Amphibians and Reptiles at the Ometepe and La Suerte Field Sites: Toward an Overview of the Evolution, Diversity, and Natural History of Central America’s Herpetofauna. In: Huettmann F, ed. Central American Biodiversity. Springer, New York, NY. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4939-2208-6_12

Hat tip to Alexandra Phillips.

• • • • •


Apologies for this being a short link roundup. I deleted an earlier draft of the post and couldn’t recover it.

16 February 2023

Critique: Limpet or leave it

This week’s contribution comes from Louise Firth. It was presented at the International Tidal Reef Symposium (#ITRS2023) in January. Click to enlarge!

Poster titled, "Limpets in our lives."

I am a big fan of using the techniques of comics on academic posters. So when I spotted this comic-inspired poster (hat tip to J. E. Byrnes), I wanted to share it here on the blog.

Usually, posters are the first drafts of papers. But in this case, the poster arose out of a review paper that Louise wrote at the start of the pandemic.

The paper was my “Lock down project,” because I, like everyone else was struggling with work and this was a fun way to make me enjoy doing work in a bubble. As the paper was so long, I figured no one would read it so the poster was my way of summarising it and advertising it.

She also used the artwork in this poster in a summary of her limpet review paper on Twitter. I think this is another advantage of the comics format: it can be often broken apart into individual, sharable pieces for things like a Twitter thread.

Things that work on this poster:

The title. It reminds me of how many Sunday comic strips were laid out. The title of the strip would take up a good chunk of the upper left corner, and the action would usually start in the upper right corner.

Here’s an example from Dick Tracy, circa 1938:

Dick Tracy comic strip from Sunday edition.

A later example from Peanuts:

Peanuts comic strip from Sunday colour edition.

And an even later example from Bloom County:

Bloom County comic strip from Sunday edition.

That layout of the title very much enhances the comic feel of the poster.

The art. I think a lot of this was originally from a variety of sources, but I suspect that Louise did a little editing to harmonize the style of the artwork on most of the poster. The exception is the title, which stands out because of its dark background on a poster where most of the panels have a white background.

What works less well?

The lettering. Yup, it’s our friend Comic Sans, whose shortcomings have appeared in this blog many times before. If this used a professional level comic font like something from Comicraft or Blambot, it would just elevate the whole poster.

Here’s one original panel (snitched from the Twitter thread):

Poster panel reading, "Don't forget inspiration! In Canadian Haida culture, Raven first created two women from clam shells. He then turned one into a man by throwing a limpet shell at her – creating the Haida Gwaii people."

Here’s the panel using Ready for Anything, an outstanding general comic font from BlamBot:

Poster panel reading, "Don't forget inspiration! In Canadian Haida culture, Raven first created two women from clam shells. He then turned one into a man by throwing a limpet shell at her – creating the Haida Gwaii people."

And here is something a little more ambitious: using different type for the spoken words (Back Issues) and the captions (Manly Men).

Poster panel reading, "Don't forget inspiration! In Canadian Haida culture, Raven first created two women from clam shells. He then turned one into a man by throwing a limpet shell at her – creating the Haida Gwaii people."

Thought I like these revisions, I can’t so another element easily change...

Word balloons.The word balloons. These balloons are highly characteristic of Microsoft PowerPoint. Professional balloons in comics have pointers that are thinner and curved, and the proportions of the ovals are different. I didn’t think there was a simple solution at first, but then I found that Comicraft has word balloons for sale in Illustrator EPS format for a very reasonable price.

Blambot has word balloons for sale, too. 

Blambot Balloon Brushes v. 1 showing examples of balloons.

Blambot’s balloons are Adobe Illustrator paintbrushes, so maybe not quite as readily portable into other graphics packages.

Are these issues just me scratching my comic book nerd itch? Yeah, probably a little. But I think if you are going to use a form, it is worth leaning into it. The lettering, in particular, would not be hard to change. It would costs just a few bucks to buy a font, a few minutes to install it, and a few more minutes to change the text in the poster. 

Thanks to Louise for being this week’s contributor!


Firth L. 2021.What have limpets ever done for us?: On the past and present provisioning and cultural services of limpets International Review of Environmental History 7(2): 5-45 https://search.informit.org/doi/abs/10.3316/informit.190553729493929

09 February 2023

How fast do fingernails grow? A graphic makeover

Years ago on my general blog, NeuroDojo, I wrote a post about how fast my fingernails grew. As part of that post, I made this graph: 

Bar chart showing fingernail growth in nanometers per second.

I created this graph in OriginLab, and it is clear enough. It’s very much the sort of thing you expect to create for a technical journal article.

I recently looked at that post again, and got an idea for a more graphic way of showing the data. 

Graphic of hand showing growth in nanometers per second as a callout on each finger.

This does not have the same amount of detail as the bar graph, but is more more readily understood at a glance. It makes it more obvious what the numbers are showing: something related to each finger of a hand.

If I was more ambitious, I might have made the graphic even more personal by taking photographs of my own hand.

This approach (if not this particular quick and dirty graph) would be much better for a conference poster than the more traditional bar graph. 

Remember, graphs are anonymous. Photos and illustrations and icons have personalities.

Update, 12 February 2023: I should have mentioned I did this graph makeover and submitted as part of a Storytelling with Data challenge for January called “The quantified self.”

This then got featured on the Storytelling with Data podcast, episode #61: “AI, quantified self, and fingernails.” So yeah, those are my fingernails they’re talking about!

08 February 2023

“The Value of Visuals in Science Communication” by Mark Belan

Poster for Mark Belan's talk on "The Value of Visuals in Science Communication"

On February 8, illustrator Mark Belan gave a talk at McMaster University for the Sherman Center for Digital Scholarship. It was a wide ranging talk on design, and even contained a few slides about poster design.

You will be able to find a recording of Mark’s talk on visuals in science communication soon. 

If you want a preview, here is my thread live tweeting Mark’s presentation.

Update, 13 February 2023: The video recording of Mark’s presentation is now available. The closed captions have not been corrected as of this writing.

External links

ArtSci Studios, Mark Belan’s studio

07 February 2023

Upcoming presentations, early 2023


If you’re part of the University of New Hampshire community, I’ll be giving the first of two presentations on 15 February 2023 on poster and presentation design. This event was rescheduled from January.

This month, I’m pleased to be talking to the American Society for Neurochemistry.

American Society for Neurochemistry workshop on 23 February 2023

The American Society Neurochemistry workshop is on on 23 February 2023. You can register for the event here.

02 February 2023

Arts and disease

I was scrolling through the #SICB2023 hashtag for the 2023 Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting. Among them was this gem from Kathleen Lu. Click to enlarge!

Kathleen is an undergraduate at The State University of New York Binghamton. I was struck by the unusual layout and topic. It’s a little rare to see a poster with the word “arts” featuring prominently in a biology conference.

I was more interested in how this poster came to be than critique it, so I had a few questions that Kathleen graciously answered.

Q: How did you arrive at the concept for the poster? Were there others you tried before settling on what you used?

A: When starting the design process, I knew I wanted it to be non-traditional. The topic is about how traditional science communication methods aren’t always the best, so I was trying to illustrate my point a little. I played around with a few ideas before settling on one. I sketched some out in pencil and showed them to my lab group and we decided on our favorite one. Another idea was a paintbrush and splotches of paint to divide each section.

Q: What software did you use? (People always ask.)

A: Text and figures were formatted in Google Slides. I used Krita (a free digital illustration program) to make the background.

Q: What response did you get at the meeting?

A: I was surprised at how positive the response was! I was surrounded by all these hardcore biology and chemistry posters so I was worried that people wouldn't really care about mine. But there were a ton of people interested in science communication and education. I had some teachers and artists approach me, and one was interested in writing an article about the project. Overall, it was a great experience and I had fun talking to all the researchers at the SICB conference.

Kathleen presenting her poster at the Society for Integrative and Comparative BiologyQ: Now that it’s done and you have a bit of perspective, is there anything you thought worked really well or things that you might want to change?

A: I thought the unconventional design worked out very well. The colours made it stand out. After going to a few poster conferences I’ve realized that being eye-catching really makes a difference. It was also a good idea to include photos of the art and exhibit in the QR code; I had a few interested people actually scan it.

If I could change something I’d probably try to make the text on the graphs bigger and in general make the graphs a little more aesthetically pleasing.

Thanks, Kathleen! (Kathleen also scores many points with me for presenting in a mask. Excellent public health practice!)

External links


01 February 2023

Please visit the gallery

After years of blogging, even I have a hard time tracking down some of the interesting posters that have appeared here.

So The Better Posters Gallery is now open.

This isn’t meant to be exhaustive compilation of all the great posters that have been on the blog or that I know about. Nor is it meant to be complete in any sense. It’s just meant to bring some cool posters into one place. 

Hat tip to Yorgles on Mastadon for this idea.

External links

The Better Posters Gallery

30 January 2023

Even award-winning posters don’t follow best practices

I have a short little project analyzing years of award winning posters from the American Geophysical Union (AGU), which hold some of the largest scientific conferences in the world.

Nothing against the science, but not a lot of posters followed commonly recommended “best practices” for graphic design.

The paper is open access, so free for all to read. And it’s short! Should only take you a few minutes to read.


Faulkes Z. 2023. The “wall of text” visual structure of academic conference posters. Frontiers in Communication 8. https://doi.org/10.3389/fcomm.2023.1063345

P.S.—Yes, I recognize a certain amount of irony in talking about the “wall of text” in a paper that has no graphics and is itself only text. But papers and posters are different formats, so leave me alone. 😉 

26 January 2023

Link roundup for January 2023

Michelle Francl asks why posters are second-class presentations. I could give many reasons to answer that question today, but Francl’s article finds some surprises about poster history.

The original intent was not for posters to become a second-tier presentation, but rather for them to supplant talks almost entirely.

This is an informative two pages. Recommend!

Francl M. 2023. Poster children. Nature Chemistry. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41557-022-01118-5

• • • • •

I like this photo of a scientist ironing her poster, which I spotted on Nature’s Instagram account.

This picture by Michela Milani won a special prize in a photo comp called “Scientists at work.”

• • • • •

The Atkinson Hyperlegible typeface is designed to remain readable by people with low vision. It should be great for posters.

Hat tip to Hilda Bastian.

• • • • •

Sigh. I know I’ve seen these two posters by Nevin Lawrence and Andrew Kniss before, and I even think they have been somewhere on the blog before. But I can’t find them by searching my blog so I am sharing them, either for the first time or again.

Two posters making contradictory claims.

Hat tip to Andrea Telatin for reminding me of these.

• • • • •

Here is a guide for organizing inclusive scientific conferences. It’s excellent, although there is nothing about poster sessions specifically. It’s a little more about guiding principles than nitty gritty details.

Thanks for joining me again in 2023!

25 January 2023

New research on conference presentation accessibility

International Society for Medical Publication Professionals logo
Today at the 2023 European Meeting of International Society for Medical Publication Professionals (#ISMPPEurope2023 on Twitter), new research was presented on conference accessibility. (Disclaimer: I’m a co-author on this project.) 

The major finding was that conference accessibility has a long way to improve. But the survey results also suggest ways to accomplish that. 

An unexpected finding for me was how important online conference resources were for people trying to meet their various accessibility needs.

What we learned about posters was that people want fewer words in bigger text. Not a particularly big surprise to regular readers!

You can view the poster, watch a video summary (11 minutes), and read supplemental data on Figshare.

This information is just the start. My colleagues and I are working on a more detailed paper.

External links

Conference presentation accessibility https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.21892881

19 January 2023

Review: Academic Conference Presentations

Cover to book "Academic Conference Presentations"We have a new addition to the “academic advice” genre! Academic Conference Presentations has a 2022 publication date, but was released early January 2023.

This book is aimed at conference novices, and is short and breezy.

The text isn’t burdened by citations. Mark Freiermuth is giving personal advice based on his experience, not giving a data driven analysis of presentation effectiveness. He isn’t afraid of using an exclamation point or two once in a while. There are even occasional appearances of triple exclamation points!!!

Nanase Iwahori add to the fun with manga styled artwork for each chapter.

Two women fist bumping, drawn in manga style.

I suspect that most readers of this blog are in the sciences and allied fields, so it is refreshing to get an insight into practices from something more in the humanities. Freiermuth uses many examples from linguistics, particularly working with Japanese students.

Readers of this blog will know I read this looking for advice on posters, and I found it. Three pages worth (Chapter 4, pages 45-47) out of 156 pages in the main section of the book.

I tend to agree with his assessment:

(M)ost presenters’ posters look unprofessional—actually crappy—well in excess of 50%.

But Freiermuth admits that he never, ever opts to give posters. He describes his one time presenting a poster as his presentation being “semi-rejected.” This, unfortunately, indicates how many people see posters as a second rate form of presentation, even though Freiermuth goes on to say that he had a good time presenting his poster. 

His three point summary of poster advice:

  1. Make it look nice.
  2. Protect it when you’re traveling.
  3. Stand by your poster during you allotted time.

I wouldn’t recommend this book for someone looking for advice on posters, but it is worth a look if you are expecting to do oral presentations.


Freiermuth MR. 2022. Academic Conference Presentations: A Step-by-Step Guide. Palgrave Macmillan Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-21124-9

12 January 2023

Comedy is hard, especially for poster titles

I recently watched Vir Das’s comedy show “Landing” on Netflix. It was a real treat to discover such a sharp and funny comedian.

A good chunk of Das’s routine describes the outrage that was generated by a piece he performed called “Two Indias.” It was obvious that a lot of the audience knew about this. He tells a joke about the reaction on social media:

 “They start a hashtag, they’re like, ‘Vir Das is a slave!’”

“Which would be offensive to me except my last name is Das.”

And the crowd in the theatre laughed.

Vir Das with subtitles saying “Audience laughing.”

I was not laughing. Not because I was outraged, but because I was confused. There was clearly something I was missing. But I was not alone and Das knew it:

“I’ll translate. Don’t worry, non-Indians. Don’t worry. I got you.”

He explained that his surname, Das, means “slave” in Hindi.

That he was performing in English to an audience where a lot of people understood Hindi – but some did not know Hindi – became part of the act. Later, he did a routine describing Mumbaiker trash talk.

That line drew a huge roar of laughs from the crowd, who clearly got the reference.

Netflix translated the phrase as “Come and dare to battle me or else, fuck off!” But what was funnier was that Das – again aware that there were a lot of Anglos in the crowd – translated it as part of his set, and did so differently.

 “But in English, it literally translates into like...”

“‘Get on the field...’

“Or shove something up your ass.’”

The routine goes on from there, but by now you’re probably wondering what this has to do with posters.

Posters are a relaxed format. You can have more fun with them that in other academic communication. So people will often try to make their presentations more appealing by putting a joke in the title. 

But the risk is that the jokes exclude some viewers.

So much comedy refers to cultural touchstones that the comedian and the audience have in common. If you don’t have those shared references, the jokes don’t work.

Captain America saying, “I understood that reference.”

What kicked this off was seeing  poster that was partly titled, “The enemy of my anemone.” That made me smile. But then I thought, “Do other languages have a phrase like, ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’? Or that that just an English thing?” I didn’t know.

Trevor Noah talked about something similar. He described how much of his comedy came from his travels. (He described his comedy as a book report of what he learns when he travels.) Some jokes he only told in certain countries, because they just didn’t work anywhere else.

At a small local conference, this might not be that big a problem. But at a big international conference, it’s more likely that there will be someone who doesn’t get the pun because it only works in English, or who aren’t familiar with an English expression or idiom. Or a book title or whatever else you might want to riff off of.

Vir Das took the time to bring the Anglos along with him, but you know how it feels when you get a joke after someone has explained it to you. Sure, the joke might still be funny, but it’s not as funny as when you “get it” yourself.

These are just examples of an old truism: comedy is hard. While I hate to say it because I love having fun with conference presentations, I have landed on the side of generally advising people not to use wordplay and jokes in their poster titles. 

In the main body of the poster, there is more leeway for jokes. But the title is so critical and is the only thing seen by so many people, the need for clarity and concision is extraordinarily high.

05 January 2023

Critique: Smilin’ hydrozoans

Last year, I was putting out a call for conference posters in languages other than English. This week, I can thank Alexandra Vetrova for answering the call with this blog’s second poster in Russian, and another in our roster of award-winning posters! Click to enlarge!

Poster on hydrozoan development written in Russian.

Can I just say this poster made me smile? I can’t resist those little illustrations of smiling critters, showing once again that the visual can have a wider reach than the written word.

To translate a little, this poster is about FoxN4 expression in Sarsia lovenii. Alexandra wrote:

I was forced to use a PowerPoint template with the conference logo, blue header, and footer, so I played around a little. If only I had more time to do better typing... It still won an award though.

Usually awards are given on the basis of content, but this is a good poster in design terms, too. There’s a consistent colour scheme, a signposted two-column layout, and lots of images. 

Some small changes that might benefit the poster might include:

Flipping text and pictures. Because paragraphs are numbered, I would try making is so that the numbers were in the upper left corner of every one of their sections. In sections 1 and 3, the numbers is pushed to the right by the photos. In sections 2, 4, and 5, the numbers are pushed down below by the photos.

Consistent spacing between pictures. The pictures above section “2” have very thing dividers compared to the pictures in all other sections.

This is my quick and dirty revision:

Poster on hydrozoan development written in Russian, with numbered paragraphs having numbers in the upper left corner of section.

I had to cheat a little with section 5. I couldn’t just reposition the elements, but had to shrink some of the pictures (now in the upper right of the section) to be able to fit. I think it improves the “scannability” of the posters, but the difference is not huge. That’s a testament to Alexandra’s design.

Спасибо, Alexandra!