29 August 2011

Dr. Kiki’s Science Hour #110

Last week, I had a lovely live chat with Dr. Kirsten Sanford, a.k.a. Dr. Kiki, on Dr. Kiki’s Science Hour! Episode 110 was titled, “Invasion of the Marmorkrebs!” and is mostly about unusual crayfish I’ve been studying.

Near the end, though, we talk a little bit about this blog. Fast forward to the 44:00 minute mark.

Kiki asks what my top three poster tips would be. You can hear my live response in the video. Having thought about it, I would like to modify those top three to these.

  1. Write less, show more.
  2. Make it bigger.
  3. Line it up.

26 August 2011

A stunning, sleek, cool... syllabus?

Today, Twitter is a-buzzin’ with people retweetin’.



Coolest EVER!

Ans it’s a university class syllabus.

A syllabus is generating these comments? This is a first. Elsewhere, I’ve noted:

Things you rarely read on RateMyProfessors.com:

“This professor had a great syllabus.”

History professor Tona Hangen has accomplished what I thought was impossible. She describes on her post, Extreme Makeover, Syllbus Edition, why she turned this (which I think is fair to say is not too far off the mark from a lot of conference posters):

Into this:

And the moral of the story is: Beauty matters. Design matters. With them, you can take something that people overlook and make it fresh and appealing. It can invite people to stop and explore. You can make the mundane and forgettable into something that people will share and talk about.

External links

Extreme makeover, Syllabus Edition
Creative approaches to the syllabus

25 August 2011

Critique: Geese and swans

At the recent Ecological Society of America meeting (covered here and here), this was one of the posters that “popped” out at me. Click to enlarge:

This poster interests me greatly, because there are many things that I would normally pick at on other posters, but don’t bother me here. For instance, I normally tell people to limit themselves to two colours; there’s at least four on display here. But it works.

When speaking to the presenter, Dan Brooks, about it, I discovered something unusual: he had not made it. It was made by Marcia Hoang, a professional graphic artist who works with the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Marcia graciously agreed to answer some questions for me about this poster and design.

Q: Because you’re a designer, not a scientist, have you ever been to a scientific conference before and seen the posters?

A: I have never been to a scientific conference before, but I do work at the Houston Museum of Natural Science as a graphic designer for exhibits. I think that helped me a lot when designing this poster, knowing what points to emphasize and what points were less important for viewers to see at first glance.

Q: Could you describe the process of working with the researcher, Dan Brooks, on this? How much of the text and graphs does he give you, and how much do you create?

A: Dan Brooks was great, because he had all the information he wanted on the poster ready to go, as well as a resource of images and graphs. Although Dan provided me with graphs and pie charts, I wanted to redesign them so that they were more easily read and had the same look and colour scheme as the rest of the poster.

Q: What software did you use to put the poster together?

A: I used Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator.

Q: One of the things that is very striking about this poster is the use of colour. I often advise people to stay away from many colours on posters, because it seems easy to do more harm than good! Was there any sort of plan behind the choice and use of colours?

A: I think colour is very important to a poster if used correctly. I chose colours that came from the goose to inspire the rest of the poster. I then used these colours to separate sections of information from each other.

Q: I see on your website that you’ve done other science-based graphics, like “Biggest stars” and “Skull wall.” Is designing a scientific graphic any different than other projects?

A: Yes, both of the projects you named were for the Houston Museum of Natural Science at Sugar Land. Designing a scientific graphic, especially for education, has many restrictions. Often times, the type must be quite large for audiences of all ages to read it, and color schemes have already been set by the subject of the graphic, i.e., the stars in outer space already glow with certain colors. While certain design liberties are not accessible, it is part of a designers job to push these boundaries, to be creative, to be able to catch the viewer's eye.

Q: Do you have any advice to help a scientist making a poster? Putting it another way, what are the pitfalls that people not trained in design fall into over and over again?

A: I often see lack of hierarchy in text. Hierarchy is very important so that viewers may scan a large poster with an abundant amount of information and be able to know the general points it covers.

Another mistake many people make is putting photographs that are pixelated or are not well photographed onto their displays. We are very visual, so beautiful images tend to be the first thing to draw the eye.

Q: Straight graphic design geekery now: Do you have a favourite typeface?

A: I usually lean towards thinner typefaces. I am a big fan of Archer. And to add to the previous question: please stay away from Comic Sans, Papyrus, Courier, and the likes. Stick to something easy to read and you will be all right.

Thanks to Dan Brooks and Marcia Hoang for generously sharing this with me!

Related posts

Two rules of two

18 August 2011

Take me home tonight

What is the one thing you want people to remember a day after they’ve walked away from your poster?

Don’t have an answer?

I don’t do it regularly enough myself. I thought about my last talk, and I didn’t ask that question before hand. In retrospect, it was probably one of the reasons I thought I could have done better on the talk.

If you don’t know the answer to this question, how do you think someone unfamiliar with your work is going to remember anything about it?

You do have an answer? That’s great! But do you have anything on your poster that says it?

Why not make a section on your poster and label it, “Take home message”?

Many posters, because they are so heavily influenced by the standard scientific IMRAD manuscript format, end with a Discussion section. Discussion sections can include a lot of different things, including why this study advances our knowledge, limitations of the study, suggestions for future directions, and much more.

Too. Much. Stuff.

Why not replace the Discussion section entirely with a Take Home Message?

If you do include a take home message, remember that it is one take home message and not many take home messages. I saw a poster recently that has three paragraphs worth of take home message, which defeats the purpose of telling the viewer what you consider important.

Don’t make your viewer guess what they should remember. Tell them outright.

Related posts

Breaking the hourglass for headings that holler 

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

15 August 2011

The view from Austin, part 2: Ecological Society of America meeting, 2011

One thing I rather like about the Ecological Society of America meeting in theory was that it had a “late breaking” poster session. These are posters whose abstracts were submitted late, after the deadline for oral presentations.

A lot of people took advantage of this opportunity. The program book listed 201 poster titles for the late breaking poster session, whereas none of the regular poster sessions the previous four days cracked 200.

But people presenting posters that Friday morning kind of got screwed.

First, the conference lasts only a half day on Friday. Thanks to things like hotel check-out times and plane flights, a lot of people had already left. Sad, but perhaps unavoidable.

What might have been avoidable was that unlike the regular poster sessions Monday through Friday, which had about an hour and a half where there were no regular PowerPoint talks, there were a full slate of talks going on simultaneously with the late breaking poster session.

I know that the people who submitted the posters did so late, and should be thankful for the chance to present at all, but it seems needlessly cruel to put that poster session against competition from talks. It was disheartening to walk into the conference center to see those last few posters.

In my previous post from ESA, I bemoaned that many posters were too small for their space. One culprit behind this was recycling posters from a previous meeting. Another was the cost involved in making larger posters.

And continuing on from last time...

The Comic Sans name and shame campaign!

Liu and colleagues had Comic Sans on their poster, “Host-specific pathogens shape abundances of phylogenetically related tree species.” Luckily, it was only in the title.

In contrast, De Steven and Gramling set everything on their poster, “Diverse wetland restoration approaches under working-lands programs in the Southeastern U.S.: implications for ecosystem services” in Comic Sans.

There may have been less of the dreaded typeface at ESA than at other conferences. Maybe there will be none in Portland?

Related posts

The view from Austin: Ecological Society of America meeting, 2011

11 August 2011

The view from Austin: Ecological Society of America meeting, 2011

I have been attending the Ecological Society of America meeting this week. I’ve seen three days of posters, and have two to go. I may have some more to say next week, but with over 500 posters passing by my eyeballs so far, I have a few impressions about the state of conference posters at this meeting.

I was pleasantly surprised by what I’ve seen at this meeting. Normally, I see a substantial number of train wrecks in the poster sessions, but there have been very few at this meeting. Only one made me shudder. It was perhaps two feet wide and one foot tall, and written in tiny type.

While that poster was so small to be a problem, I noticed was that many of the posters could have been much larger. The poster boards at this meeting were standard cloth covered boards 4 feet high and 8 feet wide. Many posters were perhaps four or five feet wide.

I was often looking at posters thinking, “Make it bigger.” The posters looked timid.

At this meeting in particular, I was browsing much more than usual, because this is not a research field that I have followed closely. I was very aware that I was only giving each poster a few seconds to convince me to stop and look closer. It’s easy to breeze past a small poster because deciphering the subject matter is just that much trickier.

It is true that many people do not have the luxury of having their own printer, and bigger posters can run up a bigger print bill. But be aware that if you cut the cost of printing, you will pay the cost in audience attention.

Few people used the extra space to put up handouts with small versions of the posters. Much less common than other meetings I've been to.

And now, because I warned people on Twitter that I would do this...

The Comic Sans name and shame campaign!

Armstrong and Cooley, who used Comic Sans in the title of their poster, “Preparing diverse students in our Nations’ west to lead sustainable communities”. And you’re from the ESA! Set an example to others, guys!

YV Garcia from the University of Northern Colorado, who also used the dread typeface in the title of her poster, “Sci*Five: A promising model to enhance ecology research in an elementary school classroom.

On Tuesday, two posters from Auburn University took it to the next level and did their entire poster in Comic Sans. JS Kush and colleagues with “Miscommunication and confusion about longleaf pine growth” and Hermann and colleagues, “Effects of 25 years of different fire regimes on growth of young longleaf pine trees and encroaching hardwoods.”

Having no Comic Sans on 99% is a good average, and maybe a little more selection pressure can help make the font extinct at this meeting.

04 August 2011

Link roundup, August 2011

Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen various article that weren’t quite enough to trigger off my own post, so a linkfest is in order!


Jim Campbell discusses a comic page layout that doesn’t work.

Less relevant to posters, but also worth checking out, is the problems emerging from forgetting that people read left to right.


There are certain epic battles that just never end. Kirk versus Picard. Coke vs. Pepsi. Serif versus sans serif typefaces. This lengthy post, however, has more research ammunition to back it up than you usually find in this debate. I like this assessment of the problem near the end:

What initially seemed a neat dichotomous question of serif versus sans serif has resulted in a body of research consisting of weak claims and counter-claims, and study after study with findings of “no difference”.


For those looking for new ways to present numeric data, check out the


The new president of the Animal Behavior Society describes how to judge a poster competition. I am interested that she thinks the content should be the only thing posters should be judged for:

What should the criteria of excellence be? I think there is only one: the best, most creative, innovative science.

QR codes

At Museum 2.0, Nina Simon talks about how she used QR codes in museum displays. Many of the issues she describes are exactly those faced by people who want to enhance their posters. Her tip? Don’t just put the code: tell people what they’ll get!