15 March 2018

Critique: Solid state hydrogen

Today’s poster comes to us courtesy of Mi Tian. Click to enlarge!

The individual blocks (like “Background” and “Research goals”) are good. I like the colour choices and the “pins” by the headings as graphic elements.

The arrangement of the blocks on the page is not as good. The reading order is confusing. The little lines to the pins, plus the height on the page (i.e., closest to title), suggest I’m supposed to start with “Research goals”. But normal reading order would suggest I start with “Background.” I’d try flipping “Summary” and “Acknowledgements”, which would place those two blocks in positions that are more typical of where those are usually placed.

The poster feels very crowded. Tons of elements are almost touching each other.

  1. The “Summary” heading is almost touching the edge of the blue box its in.
  2. The pin by “Introduction” is almost touching the graph above.
  3. All the logos down in the corner are almost touching each other.
  4. The “Applications” heading pokes up higher than the text in the section above it (“>86 kg/m3”), messing with the clear division of sections.

Everything below the title bar would benefit from being shrunk a bit -- maybe 95-90%, at a guess -- to make more space between the elements.

In the “Applications” section, it’s not clear why “Polymer” and “Composite” are capitalized, when nothing else is at that text level. Similarly, if “goals” (in “Research goals”) is not capitalized, “Solid” in “Investigation of Solid H2” shouldn’t be, either.

The red and blue in the title image might be worth tweaking. Red touching blue can cause chromostereopsis, which a lot of people find distracting. It’s not bad, because the blue is dark, but still.

08 March 2018

#RSCposter 2018

The hashtag #RSCposter is short for, “Royal Society of Chemistry poster,” and it blew up on science Twitter this week. This was a seriously organized event, with rules as comprehensive as I’ve seen for some in person conferences.

Organizer Edward Randviir explains (lightly edited):

The goal of this is to provide a new innovative conferencing format that takes advantage of modern social media... We also wanted to gives presenters a free platform to present and discuss their work, and encourage particularly young researchers to participate in academic discourse to build their confidence. Twitter was the most appropriate social media platform. Many professionals across a range of sectors use Twitter for professional purposes, unlike Facebook or other social media outlets. Twitter limits the discussion to 280 characters, which challenges participants to be concise while communicating key messages from their work.

This was the fourth time the Society had done this, but it was the first time I’d noticed. Edward explained that the first two years (2015, 2016) had about 80 people contributing (using the hashtag #RSCAnalyticalPoster). It expanded in 2017 to none areas of chemistry, and participation jumped to about 220 posters. “Following on from that success,” Edward continued, “we brought in chemical engineering this year. With help from several Royal Society of Chemistry journals, we have seen participation increase again by around 12%. We hope to grow the event further in the future.”

Tweeting posters presents its own particular problems. Twitter is a mobile phone app at heart (as much as Twitter tries to make it the “everything machine”), and mobile phones are small screens, not big poster boards. I was viewing posters on big desktop computer. Even with a fairly high resolution computer screen, I worried about whether people would dump posters meant to be printed 2 meters across into a tweet and that it would be too small to see.

Lucie Nurdin noticed one workaround:

Opening the poster into a new tab allows to zoom on it and have a high resolution image. Glad I figured that out!

To my surprise, most posters were readable. But alas, not all were. This poster by Jinchuan Yang, fell into the trap of not making the text big enough for a Tweet. Click to enlarge (or any subsequent poster).

Progyata Chakma mostly did okay on the right and middle columns, but some of the left hand text is too small to read.

This, from GKalqurashi, is another example of a poster that wasn’t readable on my desktop.

Most posters were readable on my desktop, although some were often barely so.

Another problem with tweeting a poster is that when you post an image on Twitter, it creates a preview image that is resized and cropped down. It used to be 440 × 220 pixels (a 2:1 aspect ratio) in landscape format (wider than tall). I’m not sure that’s still true, because I saw a lot of square preview images. And many people use clients other than Twitter.

Regardless, most posters I saw were not optimized for preview images. I saw lots of posters in portrait format (taller than wide), which no app I know uses for Twitter previews.

Because of the cropped previews, the poster’s title – the most important part of a poster – were often hidden. This problem was mitigated a little, because the tweet itself could serving the job the title usually does: to entice the passerby. (Or scrollerby, in this case).

Luke Wilkinson’s poster caught my eye by placing a cute robot right in the middle, where it will be seen despite how Twitter crops rectangular images. Placing it in a circle also helps break up the rectangle monotony that you get when faces with scrolling through lots of posters.

Yuanning Feng took advantage of the format to make an animated poster. This does not look as good here on the blog as the original tweet, because of the hoops I have to jump through to convert a *.gif posted to Twitter – which Twitter converts to a movie – back into a *.gif.

Feng’s animation seems to be getting him about three times as many “likes” as most posters.

But as of now, it seems one of the most popular posters was by Jo-Han Ng. (And once you visit that, check Errant Science’s riff on Ng’s poster!)

As I scrolled through #RSCposter, my overall impression was, “Oh, there are all the problems that I usually see on academic posters. Too much to read. Too many boxes, not enough white space. Photo backgrounds that make the main stuff hard to read. Colour overlead.”

“New bottles for old wine,” as the saying goes.

External links

Take part in a truly global scientific conference
RSC Twitter Poster Conference 2018

01 March 2018

Critique: RNA capping

Today’s contribution comes from Melvin Noé González. It was presented at an RNA meeting at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories. Click to enlarge!

He writes:

Through the years I experimented with various templates for poster presentation, and I’m proud to say I’m really happy with how this one turned out. As you will find, I used a piece of advice you mentioned in one of your posts regarding a short summary section — and people loved it! I was approached by several people just because they thought the layout was cool, even though I wasn’t related to their research.

I’m always glad to have feedback that advice works!

The title bar works well, by presenting everything cleanly. The logo is sensibly over to one side, and blends into the background. The authors names are prominent, with institution and contact information legible, but low key.

This poster is well organized, which helps walk you though what is maybe a little too much material. The numbers by each heading ensure you don’t get lost.

Some of the layout would benefit from a little more tweaking. The spacing between the boxes is inconsistent. The margin above the “Graphical summary” are wider than the margins between the “Background” boxes and the data boxes on the right.

There’s one place where this poster goes off the rails. Fortunately, it’s down in the fine print section, in the acknowledgements and references. While I appreciate how beautiful that three-dimensional molecular structure is, and how much it adds visually to the poster, it does terrible things to the text around it.

It’s tearing that text apart.

When we read, we expect related text to be close together. When I look at the “Acknowledgements,” I see two blocks of text that I want to read separately.

But how you are supposed to read the acknowledgements is far more complicated. What I thought was the first sentence of the first text block is the third fragment of the entire acknowledgements section.

Just when I think I have gotten used to the lines broken into two pieces, the second to last line gets split into three pieces.

The same thing happens in the references, with a DOI number danging far from the “doi:” text identifying it.

Wrapping text around an object can look graceful and elegant. But you cannot just “set and forget” a setting in your layout software. You have to be willing to go in and adjust things by hand to avoid these kinds of problems.

Nine is fine!

Happy blogiversary to me!

It is a little bit crazy for me to think that this blog has been running for nine years straight. And still going (reasonably) strong!

It is mostly thanks to my readers and contributors – which is to say, you. I appreciate your attention, and hope this resource continues to help you.

Thank you for stopping by.

Picture from here.

22 February 2018

Lab posters are not conference posters

When I wander through department hallways and professor offices, I often see posters like this, from Rottner and colleagues (2017; tweeted by journal here). Click to enlarge!

These sort of posters often feature cellular processes or biochemical pathways. They are often professionally done, attractive, and valuable teaching tools. But they are not good examples that conference poster makers should be trying to imitate.

A poster like this is meant for experts, so presumes a high level of knowledge. It is intended to be something you can look at for days, weeks, months, sometimes even years. They can show lots of fiddly little details that you can discover over that long period of time.

In a conference poster session, you have a few minutes for someone to absorb the work, not months. You can’t stuff in the same level of detail in conference poster that you can in a lab poster.

Hat tip to Prachee Avasthi.


Rottner K, Faix J, Bogdan S, Linder S, Kerkhoff E. 2017.

Link roundup for February 2018

Neuroskeptic asks whether conferences are hostile environments.

I have never been the target of a harsh question at a conference but one of my colleagues was, a couple of years ago.

08 February 2018

Critique: Sudden stop

Last week, I talked about the difference between gaudy and bold. Stacy Shield provides two examples of going bold in poster design. Click to enlarge!

Red, black, and white. Talk about a striking choice of colours. The limited colour palette gives this poster an almost “duotone” look:

It wouldn’t look out of place at a White Stripes concert:

Another poster from Stacy again showcases her strong sense of colour.

Stacy’s posters are not based on the same template, but are recognizably by the same person. It shows that you can develop a distinctive personal style in creating posters.

The colours are so strong and vibrant that they leap out at you. But they are selected carefully. There are not many colours; just three carefully chosen ones. They don’t look like an“all over the place” clash that can make a poster look gaudy.

I would like to see that same discipline that is brought to the colour choices also brought to the content. These posters feature a lot of text and small graphics. The posters would be even stronger if they had fewer words and bigger images.

Stacy has two tricks that almost hide the amount of text, though.

  1. She interspersed the text with lots of small graphics throughout the poster, so the impression of “big intimidating text blocks” is reduced.
  2. She changes the colours and size of the text, particularly in the spider poster. For example, the title has two colours and three font sizes. In the second column, “Explaining the” is smaller than “Motion of the Spider.” The words become a graphic element instead of a purely textual element.

The posters are well structured to make it clear what order they are read in. The first poster has strong bands of colour, with white diving lines, that make it clear to read across in rows. The second poster is not as clear cut, because it switches from reading across (“Background”) to reading down (“Methodology & Testing”).

You would be hard pressed to walk by either of these in a conference hall and not notice these posters. They command that you take a second look, which is critical in a conference setting. I’m still not entirely convinced I that would read the whole thing if the presenter wasn’t there, though.

If the presenter is there, you’re in luck. Having met Stacy at the last Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting, I will say that she is definitely worth talking to!