05 January 2018

The view from SICB 2018: "The effect of..."

I am in San Francisco for the annual Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting. At every meeting I go to, I am looking for trends in poster design, either good or bad. This year, I have noticed this on posters more than usual: poster titles that begin with some variant of "The effect of,,,"










And no, "Impacts on" is not better.


This is a bland, worthless phrasing for a title. Practically every scientific study is trying to find the effect of one variable on another. Surely you have some idea of what the likely effect is, either from your hypothesis or from your data, so why not tell us what the effect is? Do X increase Y? Does X decrease Y? Does X benefit Y or does X inhibit Y?

If I might ancitipate the excuse -- that the conference abstract deadline is so far in advance that we don't know what the results are yet -- my reply is, "Change the title of your poster." There is nobody checking to ensure that your abstract title and printed poster title match perfectly,

Comic Sans on posters census: one so far. Well done, SICB poster makers, for keeping that number so low!

28 December 2017

Link round-up for December 2017

One of the problems with free fonts is that they often don’t have special characters that are necessary for proper display of characters from other languages, or symbols.


Google Noto is a series of fonts meant to have almost every character (and emoji!) in as many languages as possible. When I scrolled down the list and saw, “Canadian aboriginal,” I knew they were serious.


I downloaded Noto Sans, and was impressed.

Not only are there over 30 variations of Noto Sans, including thin, bold, condensed, extended, and combinations thereof, going into “Insert symbol” to see the individual characters is eye-opening. You think you’re a typographic sophisticate for recognizing and using an interrobang? Noto has that, and an inverted interrobang. There are combinations of letters and accents and umlauts and currency symbols I have never seen before.

The range of options is, frankly, staggering. There is no font package that comes Windows standard with this many options. Buying a font package with this many options would usually cost you many hundreds of dollars.

And Noto fonts are all free.

You have no excuse to use a lower case letter x in place of a multiplication sign, or not put an accent in a co-author's name, ever again.

Hat tip to Robert J. Sawyer.

• • • • •

Asada and colleagues have a new paper reviewing effective graphs, particularly in the are of public health. They’re very big into dot charts. I’m not convinced by their representation of variation in dot charts, though.



Hat tip to Hilda Bastian.

• • • • •

Another hat tip to Hilda for spotting a timeline of data visualizations and graphs.

• • • • •

Tony Roepke has good advice:

Note to poster presenters...don’t go out for a cigarette break right before your poster session.

14 December 2017

Critique: Badger parasites

Today’s poster comes from Rachel Byrne. Click to enlarge!


Rachel was kind enough to respond to my request to share this, which I think is just a delightful work. It demonstrates the old adage that necessity is often the parent of invention. This wasn’t supposed to be a poster. Rachel explains (lightly edited):

To be completely honest I had applied for a talk at the 32nd Mustelid Colloquium held in Lyon, but they didn’t have space so offered me a poster. That’s when I began to panic. I am just one year into my project and did not have any real statistic analysis (which I think is often present on posters). Because my topic is very much about parasites, I also was a little worried that a bunch of behavioural ecologists and mustelid enthusiasts wouldn’t be that interested/familiar with parasitology jargon, so I might have to spend half my poster space on definitions etc.

As badgers live in underground burrow systems called setts, I wanted to use this as a way of laying out my poster. As I’m a keen (but not very good) artist I played around with the idea of drawing out my poster.

Author Dan Roam is often faced with people who say, “I can’t draw.” He replies, “Everyone can draw, even people who know they can’t.” I think Rachel undersells her skills. I’ve lettered comics by hand (Time City #5), and it’s not easy to get hand drawn text to look as as consistent and readable as Rachel did here.

Rachel continues:

I wanted it to be very clear and easy to read and, and very importantly, eye catching. I posted a preview on Twitter and it received a very positive response. I think at poster session the key is getting people over to talk to you and ask questions. I decided to include my twitter handle rather than my email address which I think demonstrates the move for a more social and communicative science community.


To quote Dan Roam relevant here is again, “Hand-drawn pictures make people smile, and smiling people think better.” And it’s hard not to look at Rachel’s poster and not smile. There is a charm to something so obviously personal.

In a time when computers are everywhere, and it’s easy to pop together a few pictures and text blocks in a computer file, something hand drawn is going to be remarkable. It will be worth talking about.

And people were definitely talking. Despite being started in a moment of slight desperation. Rachel’s efforts were rewarded with a first place prize poster!

Rachel may not go that route every time, though:

I definitely won’t be drawing every poster for conferences but I think if it’s a friendly and accepting group, it can be very fun!

07 December 2017

Critique: baby heads

Today’s poster comes to us courtesy of Laura Steinmann, presented at the 2018 American Nurses Association conference. Click to enlarge!


She writes:

I developed a 4 foot by 8 foot poster which is crammed with great info, and that’s the problem. ... The poster is less data and more instructional, based on two publications I wrote to teach providers how to recognize asymmetry.

Laura went on to say that she used a poster template provided on a commercial site. Coincidentally, the last talk I gave on posters, one of the questions from the end was about whether I knew any sites with good poster templates. This is a good example of why I try to steer people away from templates. People slap up templates that are... not necessarily very good.

Let’s look at just the template background, with the content removed:


The space alloted for the title and author is tiny. The space between the columns, and the margins around them, are also tiny. A poster maker would be better served if those areas were larger:


I’m still not crazy about this as a template for a poster, but I think it would have gotten someone off to a better start.

I agree with Laura’s self assessment: this poster is crammed. I often complain that people try to turn a manuscript into a poster, and in this case, there are two manuscripts residing on this poster. While I absolutely sympathize with the desire to tell a complete story, the complete story exists in the papers. They do not need to exist in the poster.

The first column is perhaps both the best. It is the best because it has a clear, wonderful diagram that Laura created (highlighted at right). Laura’s diagrams are very good, and I wish they were bigger and more prominent. They convey so much information.

The first column, unfortunately, also features some inconsistent typesetting. And it is crammed. For instance, several paragraphs in the first column might be cut down to a couple of sentences: “Infants’ skull growth is affected by internal factors, such as the normal malleability of the skull. Skull growth is also affected by external factors, such as the positioning of infants.”

There are about 1,800 words on this poster. While I personally never aim for some particular arbitrary target number, other people have had good success with posters containing a few hundred words.

Ruthless editing is hard. But that is what this poster needed.

Update: Laura sent me her revised version of the poster. Click to enlarge!


So. Much. Better.

Yes, it is still crammed. I would still want to cut down the number of words and resize some things. For instance, the references might be printed in a smaller point size. That would free up some space to make the takeaway messages in that column bigger and bolder for the viewer.

But the title is readable from a distance. The images are bigger. There’s less distracting background. The typography is consistent. It’s more inviting and interesting looking.

I particularly like the thin line running along the left side of the headings. It provides a little definition to the columns, but is subtle, and is a nice graphic touch.

30 November 2017

Link round-up for November 2017

The link roundup after the massive Neuroscience meeting is always fun. Just ask Shaena Montanari, “How big is that meeting?”

Was at the bar tonight in DC and saw poster tubes... I’m not even a neuroscientist and I knew. #SfN17

With tens of thousands of posters, I find classics like this, from Steve Ramirez:

Always check your dimensions before printing.


I have written before about how people incorporated video into their poster demonstrations (QR codes, iPdas, etc.). But this is the first time I have seen anyone do a virtual reality (VR) demo at a poster:


Advice from Caitlin Vanderweele:

Convince your labmate to carry the poster tube.

Justin Kiggins noted:

Incredible how many posters at #SfN17 have "Preprint available at @biorxivpreprint" & a DOI/QR #asapbio

Coffee & Science asked:

Poster session didn’t go well?


• • • • •

Everything old is new again. Fabric posters have been done since the 17th century:


The thesis of François Marescot, printed on silk, is on display at the British Musuem. Hat tip to Raychelle Burks.

• • • • •

A couple of weeks back, I wrote a bit the relative accessibility of posters. I am pleased to be directed to this preprint on making scientific presentations of all sorts, inclduing posters, more accessible.

Hat tip to Simon Goring and Toby (itatiVCS).

• • • • •

May Gun has been curating a list of unusual scientific graphics.

• • • • •

I don’t think I’ve mentioned this conference guide by Errant Science from late last year before .


Hat tip to Helena and Prachee Avasthi.

• • • • •

Today in type crimes:


Punctuation makes a difference. Hat tip to John Lopez and Mark Siddall.

• • • • •

23 November 2017

The shut out: when nobody visits your posters

A couple of weeks ago, I featured a poster that had no visitors. This, followed by having to defend poster sessions the next week got me wondering.

Just how many people put in the time and effort to give a poster and talk to nobody?

I ran a Twitter poll. I even ran it during the Neuroscience meeting, one of the biggest venues for poster presentations in the world. I was surprised.


Almost half of respondents have put in a good faith effort and got shut out, with no one talking to them.

This might explain why people have such differing reactions to poster sessions. I have given 38 posters at conferences. I have never lacked an audience. And I don’t think that’s because I’m particularly charming or do the hottest science or make the most visually interesting posters. (Of those 38, I’ve made maybe two or three posters I’ve been very happy with). I think I’m just another presenter in the session.

My experience has been consistently positive, but now I know I’m in the lucky half. I can see how the experience of having nobody talk to you could turn someone off poster sessions right quick. Many would probably never want to do a poster after even a single experience like that.

This points out how important it is for those who are not presenting posters – often the senior academics – to get out into the poster sessions and be the most active audience members, not hanging around in the “zone of intimidation” (which I dubbed the PIZI).

Madison Fletcher wrote:

During undergrad poster sessions especially, I actively seek out students who have people walk right by even if I don’t know anything about their topic. Invariably, I learn something!

Be like Madison!

16 November 2017

Posters teach visual science communication skills


The National Academy of Sciences of the US regularly sponsors the Sackler symposium on science communication. I’ve had gripes with them in the past. I have another this year:

Increase of poster sessions, at the expense of actual speaking opportunities, has a negative effect on #scicomm training of young scientists. – John Burris (Tweeted by Kat Bradford)

“We’ve moved away from encouraging graduate students to speak as part of their training – poster sessions instead of seminars etc. Creates an oral skills gap.” (Tweeted by Lou Woodley)

Burris: Our educational system has moved away from #scicomm (ex. grad talks have been replaced by poster sessions). (Tweeted by Sarah Mojarad)

This sounds a lot like a “Back in my day...” opinion that is not provable. Are presentation skills worse than they used to be? Maybe, but maybe not.

Poster sessions are the domain of academic conferences. Presentations at conferences, whether oral or poster presentations, are not the sort of broad science communication. Giving a lot of academic conference talks to peers does not in and of itself does not make someone an effective science communicator.

Similarly, it’s weird to worry about an “oral skills gap” when most scientists are never going to get to speak in front of large audiences. Successful science communication isn’t about going on a lecture circuit now. Science communication that reaches a lot of people is about television and the internet. (Smaller scale science communication is important too, but those are niche audiences, not broad.)

I appreciate Mammody coming to defence:

I mean okay, yes, getting up in front of people is important, but “audience” is not always literally an audience in a theater or conference room – poster sessions do provide great opportunities to talk about your research and actually engage in dialogue.

Exactly. Burris seems to think that people giving a poster don’t talk. In contrast, someone at a poster session may be talking for hours instead of 12 minutes.

I’m going to flip the script. We should not chastise conference organizers and poster sessions for taking away students’ opportunities to talk (which I doubt). Instead, we should praise posters for introducing visual skills to students that would otherwise not be taught at all.

Look, it seems that one of the most effective communication campaigns last year was carried out by Russia. It appears Russia successfully influenced the 2016 US election. What was one of their methods of choice? Tweets, Facebook posts, and memes, like this one:


This is visual communication.

This is what thinking and working with posters can teach you.

And for all its problems, there is no denying the success of I Fucking Love Science, which has something in the neighbourhood of 25 million followers. It got to that number the same way as Russia: with pictures. As this critique of IFLS notes:

What you actually “love” is photography, not science.

As I noted elsewhere:

There is a lot to learn from the successful formula of I Fucking Love Science. Pictures get shared; see the data from Google Plus below:


People interested in spreading their science shouldn’t just work on their sound bites. They should work on their social media meme images.

Visual communication is powerful communication. Making posters should teach scientists how to focus on creating fewer, more focused, more powerful images.

Update: Close to the end of the day, someone finally remembered imagery:

What picture do you use to illustrate your point? What is this picture conveying to the audience? Finally the importance of #visualcomm mentioned at the #SacklerSciComm – Tweeted by Dominique Brossard

External links

Self-defeating prophecy (2012)
Sackler symposium still doesn’t practice what it preaches (2013)
Sackler improves (2013)

Visual communication image from here.