09 February 2017

Critique: Feather sections

The poster contributors from the last Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting have continued to be generous with sharing their work. I’m pleased to show off another beauty from that meeting. This one was designed by Christian Laurent, and printed by VividInk printing in New Orleans. Click to enlarge!


Christian wrote:

This poster took a long long time to become what you see now. The cross sections on the left are actually tiled synchrotron radiation computerized tomography (CT) scans, with 325 nm per pixel! That means this whole poster was ~34 GB! (RAM = Rarely Adequate Memory 😛)

We wanted to show them in this much detail is because this work is showcasing a new method to identify fibre orientation by imaging proxy voids. These are much more visible in the grey portion of the text, which is an enlarged one of said cross sections. Have a look for the small white feather scale car next to the middle cross section and it should be evident why this poster is 34 GB, and how much data you can see if you look hard enough.

The CT scans were stitched together in Fiji. The poster was mostly composed in the GIMP, but the vector curved text was made in Inkscape. We’re very happy with the overall look of the poster now!

Christian’s poster succeeds because it understands that a poster is a visual medium. I can’t say this enough. Everything here starts with the graphics, and text is clearly secondary. This is clearest on the right, as the text wraps and conforms to the images it sits on, respecting that beautiful arc of the feather scan on the one side, and the curve of the wing on the other, rather than taking the more typical right angles. To make that work, Christian was obviously more proficient in Inkscape than I became. (I also tried GIMP for a while, but got too frustrated with it.)

One downside of this poster is that it is mostly monochrome. This makes it a little drab, but with only three levels of grayscale – black, mid-level gray, and white – everything is distinct from each other, and thus visible. However, the lack of colour in the main poster body does mean that the small patches of colour in the small logos in the bottom end up drawing your eye more than they should.

Speaking of logos, the “University of Southampton” logo at the top has about the same visual weight as the title. The logo is placed above the title, signalling greater importance. I might have increase the title by abour 10-20% and reduced the logo by 20-30%. Remember, the title of your poster should be the undisputed king of the poster. Nothing should compete with the title.

In addition to the poster shown here, Christian also some cut outs on his poster board. They were the same cross sections in the poster, printed larger on foam board, laid on top of one another. These again helped to make the board more interesting, and set it apart from the others plain old pieces of paper on most boards.

Related posts

The eye loves the circle
No more slidesters, part 7: Inkscape

02 February 2017

Critique and makeover: Migrating birds

This is the third poster I was able to get submitted after I prowled through the halls of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting last month. This one is from Carolyn Buaer, and you can, as always, click to enlarge!


Carolyn’s poster is a winner because it has simplicity in spades. It has a simple two sentence introduction, and jumps straight to the graphs that have the answers. No muss, no fuss, no methods, no pontificating.

This was done in PowerPoint, and I was able to open it up and make a few tweaks. As usual, the changes I’ve made are minor ones: increasing the space between elements on the poster, removing lines, removing underlines, using bold instead of bold and italic.


The simplicity did not deter the SICB attendees, however. I had to go past Carolyn’s poster several times to get a chance to talk to her, because she always had a good flow of customers!

26 January 2017

Link roundup for January 2017

The Columbo rule vindicated again! Another research article has found that simple, declarative titles are the best. (The first was this.) Articles with such title were more likely to be highly rated by Altmetric scores, although the effects are small. Hat tip to Neuroskeptic.

Biogreography has a poster session guide:

How to poster session: 1. Grab a snack. 2. Wander until you see someone standing alone by their poster. 3. Say “Hi.” 4. Repeat.

Hat tip to Jacquelyn Gill.

19 January 2017

Critique: frog choices

The “Best of Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology” continues, with this contribution courtesy of Matthew Murphy! Click to enlarge!


This is a very successful poster on multiple counts. There is not a lot of text. The visuals are simple, with a strong but limited colour palette. The reading order is clear.

Matthew wrote:

Almost all of the elements of the poster were created using open-source graphic design software. Some preliminary work (especially editing the reference image of the frog icon) was done in GIMP. The vector images were developed in InkScape, and the whole thing was assembled in InkScape. I used an individual layer for each section.

The fonts used are Steve Matteson’s Open Sans and Open Sans Extrabold, both freely available through Google Fonts.

With open source materials, I have argued that you sometimes get what you pay for. When I saw this poster, I wondered if Open Sans had the chops necessary for the job, because I was struck by the dumb quotes (also called straight quotes) in the title. But a quick check revealed Open Sans had perfectly good smart quotes.


The problem is apparently that the open source material didn’t auto-correct the quotes, as some software (notably Microsoft’s Office products) have done for years. The solution is not difficult: you just need to know the commands for extended characters. In Windows, this is ALT + 0146 on the keypad. A more comprehensive list is here.

Speaking of typesetting, some paragraphs end in periods and some don’t. Consistency always helps.

The use of numbers in circles is a nice graphic tough and keeps the reading order clear. I personally would have started with one instead of zero, though.

You might expect me to complain about the results being before the methods, but I am not going to. First, having seen Matthew present this work, the order on the poster reflects the order he presented the material verbally. Second, some journals have taken to putting results before methods. This practice has critics, but flipping the order isn’t absolutely crazy.

Some of the material you would expect to be at the bottom is up at the top: acknowledgements and a QR code. The word “Acknowledgements,” presented here in bold and all caps, is competing with the title. I would have suggested making it smaller and more innocuous, something closer in size to the author bylines under the title.

Also, when you put a QR code, it’s a good idea to tell people what they’re getting. The upper right one does (“Summary”), but the lower left one does not.

In the context of this poster, “green noise” might be more precise, but “noise” might more readily understood.

And, much like last week’s poster, Matthew isn’t just a contributor, he’s a reader!

I actually used your blog - especially your design critiques - to get design ideas for my poster.

I’m glad it’s useful!

Related posts

Anything free is worth what you pay for it
Scripting a poster

External links

Smart Quotes for Smart People

12 January 2017

Critique: Viper shapes

Today’s poster comes from Jessica Tingle, who I met at the recent Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting in New Orleans, where she presented this poster. Click to enlarge – if you need to!


I say, “If you need to,” because the reason I stopped at this poster, was just how visible this poster was from a distance. I could read the title and see the main outlines not only within the poster row, but from the next row back. Even if I shrink the image:


You might still be able to read the title and see some of the main shapes on the poster. That’s why I think this poster was one of the clear winners at a conference where I was frustrated by how small many of the posters were (more about which later).

The secrets to this poster’s success are not complicated. Jessica used most of the available space. SICB has big poster boards (8 feet long by 4 feet high, I think), and this one covered most of it. The title is in large point size, and has no colours or logos competing for attention. It has one big central graphic, with few colours that are clear and intuitive (green for snakes in trees, more earthy orange for snakes in deserts). The two colour-coded call out boxes explain the central plot of data well, using simple, icon-like outlines of the snakes.

The change I might have suggested are small. The title could have been more specific. I might have suggested something like, “Treeclimbing, but not sidewinding, snakes are morphologically specialized.” This would also have removed the need for the big question right above the data.

Similarly, underlining the headings adds nothing to their visibility. Bolding alone does the job.

The left paragraphs are in a box, but none of the other regular text paragraphs are. I don’s think anything is harmed by removing the box:




 The boxing of the three call-outs works, because the colour of the lines connects the explanation to the data. The boxes there also make it clear that the text and images are serving as labels to the data, instead of part of the main text.

The discussion is in a box, too, but it’s more subtle: very light gray with no outline. Indeed, the gray is so light that I am not sure anyone notices. And the discussion isn’t in the location you expect it to be (right), so feels like an awkward afterthought. I do appreciate that the discussion is split into two columns to prevent the line widths from getting unreasonably long, though the space between the columns might be widened to signal that there are two distinct columns.

This poster’s use of one data plot and visibility from a distance pays off.

 P.S.—Jessica is not only a contributor to this blog, she’s a customer! I swear I did not know this when I asked Jessica if she would be willing to share her poster on the blog. But she knew the blog! She was kind enough to write:

(I)t really is a precious resource in a field where graphic design is important but rarely (if ever) taught formally(.)

I’m glad it helps!

05 January 2017

Picking up the tab


I’m stepping a bit away from the poster board this week, so to speak, to talk about conference etiquette more generally. Conferences involve travel and eating out, usually in locations that cater to a lot of tourists (e.g., San Diego, New Orleans, Washington, DC) and partially hosted by hotels that are normally catering to business class. Since most conference attendees are usually early career stage scientists, cost is an issue.

Amy Lynch-Biniek wrote:

Tenured profs at conferences: adopt a “grad students and adjuncts don’t pay” rule at dinner/bar. Some did this for student-me and I never forgot.

Kate Washington added:

I was once in a grad-student dinner group that got stiffed by tenured profs who skipped out; I never forgot that either.

In fairness, that would be rude behaviour from anyone, regardless of career stage.

Drugmonkey, however, noted:

I never assume that just because (someone is a) tenured prof = moneybags that can pick up $$$ dinner checks. Should be voluntary.

Angela Vergara supports that:

I do it as much as I can, but as a prof in a state school in California, my conference budget is usually tied.

There are several issues at play here. For instance, how many people are at the conference with the professor? There’s a big difference in the cumulative tab for one trainee and half a dozen of them.

Many institutions support student travel to conferences. If a student has a per diem food allowance for a conference, it seems a little excessive for a professor to absorb all of those expenses when there are other sources of money dedicated to keeping the student fed.

I’m a little baffled that the original tweet singles out tenured professors. A tenure-track professor is still probably making significantly more than any trainee. Indeed, thanks to salary compression and inversion, tenure-track professors may be making more than tenured ones.

A professor – regardless of career stage – is expected to be a team leader. A conference is a good opportunity for leaders to say, “Thanks for a job well done,” and a good meal or a few drinks at the pub are a welcome gift. Generosity is a good feature of team leaders.

External links

Tenured profs should pick up the check?

29 December 2016

Link roundup for December 2016

Who else got a Christmas present delivered in poster-styled gift wrapping?


Hat tip to Shit Academics Say.

Sometimes we have a best poster of the month, but this is probably the first nominee for best poster tube (click to enlarge):


Hat tip to Ashley Cambell for discovering the whiskey tube scientist. From a geology meeting. Naturally.

Post of the month for December goes to Scott Cole, who analyzed the attendance at 2,579 posters at Neuroscience.


It is disappointing to learn 17% of posters had nobody at them. But if you ever have more than two people at your poster, you’re in the top half! Hat tip to Adam Calhoun.

Your title is the headline for your poster. This article looks at how headlines matter like never before, particularly online.

(E)ven with the best-crafted headline in the world, for every person who clicks on it, there are hundreds, if not thousands, who see it, digest it, and simply move on. People get their news from headlines now in a way they never did in the past, just because they see so many of those headlines on Twitter and Facebook.

People are used to getting news from headlines. Pay attention to your title. Your title is 90% of your poster.

Julie Lee has several poster viewing tips she learned from her first Neuroscience meeting.

Posters > Talks

I was repeatedly told this by SfN veterans and I’m glad I listened. The few talks I went to (that were directly incredibly relevant) were fairly useful but I definitely got more out of interacting with poster presenters. Also, for presenting, I would almost unreservedly give a poster for the longer interaction it offers with attendees (five minute Q&A vs. Four. Whole. Hours.).
  • Keep your eyes open. Due to the aforementioned advice, I ended up getting more free time than anticipated, and was able to randomly wander around quite a few times. The most interesting things I saw at the conference were often not planned. A few times I ended up double-taking because the poster I just walked past was being presented by authors of papers I’ve used as inspiration for my work or read because they were doing very similar things. Additionally I ended up walking past some very interesting work that may not be relevant but were still cool to learn about.
  • Budget for only a few posters per session. For me, 3-5 posters per session was the sweet spot for really getting the time to engage with posters (15-30 minutes each). However …
  • Keep a back-up list. In case the posters are busy or withdrawn, or maybe turn out to be less interesting than you anticipated, save a list of 5-10 others of secondary interests or friends if you get the time (which I did, frequently).
  • Priority label your itinerary. With the above said, it’s super useful (if you’re over-organised like me) to label your posters by priority (you can export your itinerary to google calendar!). Sounds like overkill but this gave me a quick way to see how many posters were essential per session and ration my time accordingly. Perhaps most importantly, it also let me (once) see which morning I could give a miss after a late night..

Head scratch of the month goes to Magda Havas, who convinced editors to use this figure as a graphic abstract to a journal article:


Hat tip to Neuroskeptic.

In the last few weeks, “fake news” has been the topic of much discussion. Part of the issue is that design decisions are taken away:

Over centuries, print media developed a visual language of credibility that became second nature to most readers: crisp type and clean, uninterrupted columns communicate integrity, while exaggerated images, messy layouts, and goofy text inspire doubt. On a physical newsstand, it’s still easy to tell the National Enquirer from, say, The Atlantic Online, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between the two. ...

Over the last several years, upscale publishers that don’t draw a large percentage of revenue from banner display advertising, like Medium and Vice News, have embraced an extreme minimalist style that features text and blank white space above all else — the better to differentiate themselves from the noise of fake news and chum boxes. This visual austerity is the new mark of an upscale publisher.

Yet questionable outlets are starting to adopt these very same aesthetics of reliability, albeit on a delay of several years. Sites like Civic Tribune and the satirical National Report look no worse than The Huffington Post or Drudge Report, which are seen as legitimate publishers, more or less. Some, like the semi-satirical Real News Right Now, have even echoed the clean, gridded layout and decisive typography of sites like Digg and the defunct Atlantic Wire, an aesthetic that once suggested value-added aggregation.

Hat tip to Ellen Lupton.

This segues nicely into a look at the importance of the low design of the Trump campaign hat. Designer Matt Ipcar is quoted:

It was easy for me, as a Brooklyn-born creative director, to describe the hat as bad design. But the hat was worn. It was simple, unisex, familiar, and practical during a summer of hot crowded rallies throughout the South. Design-wise, it was lazy and loud, but also deceptively brand-aware and unmistakably Trump—a brash and calculated brand extension for a house whose luxury properties are awash in Gotham, understated bling, and lots of white space.

Another thank you to Ellen Lupton.

Ann Emery shares six ideas for displaying quantitative data in a more visual way, including putting faces with quotes and icons with text. Hat tip to Katy Kennedy.

And that, my friends, is that for 2016. Here’s a picture that reflects what many of us think of 2016:

 Hat tip to Hilda Bastian.