05 October 2017

Critique: Crab parasites

Most of the time, I think my poster aesthetic might be described as Swiss style. That’s the period that saw the creation of Helvetica, for instance. It’s a style that is very spare and very organized, with lots of emphasis on grids. You can see it in this poster I made for the American Society for Parasitologists meeting in 2014. Click to enlarge!

This was a noble, but in my mind, failed experiment. I wanted someone to get the main point of the poster by reading across the top row. I wanted people to get the supporting details in each column.

It kind of works, kind of doesn’t.

The top row works best because it is all photos. The graphics in the rows below that are not consistent enough to make the idea work. The text block in the bottom right doesn’t follow through with the lines established in the two rows above, and the three images to the left of it.

I still like using huge numbers to bring home the main difference in infection rates between the two species instead of a graph. Simple numbers can be almost picture-like at that size.

But I’ve wanted, for a long time, to make an elegant poster. I wanted something warmer, artistic, maybe even a little romantic. And I think I’ve finally come close.

This poster started with an email I got from MyFonts, announcing a sale of a new typeface,  Montecatini. I was very inspired by this font sample for (among others).

The description said:

Montecatini takes its cues from the elegant Stile Liberty travel posters of Italy in the early 1900s. The font features distinctive ligatures typical of the time when Art Nouveau emerged as a worldwide phenomenon.

I wanted to make something like that sample. Evocative and graceful. But when I looked at the available characters in Montecatini, I realized it wasn’t going to do the job.

There were no lowercase letters. Montecatini might be great for a title, but with no lowercase letters, it wouldn’t do for an entire poster. There were no italics. And I had species names that needed to be in italics.
I kept looking, and I got lucky. Hitting the jackpot lucky. How could I know that a perfect font for my needs had been released just a day or two before I looked?

I bought Plusquam Sans just three days after it had been released. The main letterforms were clean sans serifs, but the swashes added the calligraphic look I wanted. (See this post for uses swashes.)

Here’s the poster I made for the 2017 meeting of the American Society for Parasitologists conference. Click to enlarge!

This is one of my favourite posters I’ve ever made. Here’s why.

Using Plusquam Sans gave the poster exactly what I wanted: a little humanistic flair. It was obviously not one of the default fonts that gets used over and over (Arial, Calibri, and so on). But it was still clean enough to read well from a distance.

The background is a light cream instead of pure white. I wanted the paper to look like a page from an old book. Book paper is often a bit off-white, not the bright white of the sort we see on computer screens. Again, that gave the poster some warmth.

I picked up on the light pinks and blues in the Montecatini sample that started this whole thing. This turned out to work well, because the light blue picks up on some of the colours in the left picture of the crab. The light pink (used in a couple of symbols in the graph) picks up on the pinks in my hand in the left top picture, and a bit of the warmth in the bottom row of pictures.

The poster is laid out on a six column grid. This lets you divide the poster in two thirds (the graph), halves (divided by the two pictures on top; sand crab data on left, mole crab on right), thirds (the top pictures), or sixths (text columns and small pictures at bottom). That variation in width of objects makes the poster more interesting, but the underlying grid gives the poster organization and structure.

Of those six columns, the central four are mostly graphics. Only about a third of the poster is devoted to text. Thus, the poster is very visual, and quick to understand at a glance.

Plotting the boxes of summary statistics and the raw data made the graph visually interesting enough to hold the space allocated to it. The poster would have looked boring if there were just two boxes in that big block in the middle. Plus, It helps the poster a lot that the difference between the two species is so stark. You can see what is going on easily.

I am not a 100% happy with this poster, though. I wish the two crab pictures were more similar. One is on my hand, one is on a benchtop. I fixed this in Figure 1 of the paper that arose from this.

The crustaceans definitely get pride of place in the layout, reflecting my interests. Considering that I presented this at a parasitology meeting, I may have been a little dumb to not have a close-up picture of the parasite species, even if it was relegated to the bottom row of images. I didn’t fix that for the paper, though: still no close-ups of baby tapeworms.

I felt I met my goals in making this poster: something warm and human that was reminiscent of old European posters. I think it was successful because I didn’t make a straight copy of the Montecatini font sample that started this. I didn’t copy the colour using the eyedropper, or buy the Montecatini font. Instead of stealing the specifics, I stole the sentiment.

Having had the success with doing something a little more adventurous with type in this poster, I have a goal for my next poster. I want to push the typography even further. I want my next poster to push the envelope with typefaces even further.

That is one of the joys of a successful project: it makes you excited about the next one!

Related posts

How to swash: using a font’s alternate glyphs, text styles, and numbers
Critique: Protein biosynthesis

External links

When two lines of research collide


Faulkes Z. 2017. Filtering out parasites: Sand crabs (Lepidopa benedicti) are infected by more parasites than sympatric mole crabs (Emerita benedicti). PeerJ 5: e3852. https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.3852

28 September 2017

Link roundup for September 2017

Best repurposing of a conference poster for the month goes to Wendy Yoder:

(For something on this Internet, this blog has not had enough cats.) Hat tip to Colin Purrington.

A collection of awesome seminar posters at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. I may have featured these on the blog before... but there have been more since then, so it’s worth revisting.

Dan Rokhsar

Yun Tao (via Holly Bik) observed:

Our current crappy seminar posters (word doc, comic sans) trivialize the gravitas/seriousness of seminars.

Hat tip to Jenny Merritt and Dr. Becca.

Quote of the month from Benjamin Mazer:

“So you have to make a poster for the science fair? Didn’t you do that in elementary school?” – my mother, clearly not an academic.

Sparklines are mini graphs inserted into text, created by Edward Tufte. Now it’s easier than ever to create them with a special typeface. It’s called ATF Spark. Hat tip to Dr. Becca.

Typography jokes:

Hat tip to Janet Stemwedel.

If you have anxiety about attending conferences, try this post from the Where There Is Light blog:

This is a really difficult thing for anxious people, because new things are scary and we love to overthink and play out every worst-case scenario in our head beforehand. However, I know from experience that it is highly unlikely that any of these scenarios will ever become reality and what also helped me is to approach anxiety as excitement and chances for bravery.

Graphic design appears in a New Scientist feature, of all places. It’s a review of a Wellcome Collection exhibition, “Can Graphic Design Save Your Life?” The exhibition is feature on the Wellcome Collection website.

This is a tribute to the joy of using something well designed and well made. In this case, nail clippers.

This nail clipper was forged, not stamped out of cheap sheet metal. It wasn’t just forged, it was forged well, with machines without any rattles or squeaks, and probably inline measurement of temperature to keep the steel exactly hot enough. I don't know how to explain the shock of seeing such a skillfully forged nail clipper to someone not in the metalworking industry.  It was like seeing a dog with six legs, or opening up a lawnmower and seeing the jet engine from a 747. Nail clippers simply aren’t forged, nobody puts that much thought and quality into tools for trimming nails. ...

I took off my other shoe and sock, and trimmed those nails unnecessarily, just for an excuse to keep using this wonderful tool, all the while wondering “What is wrong with me? Why am I enjoying this chore of trimming my nails, when I could be out skiing?” That’s how amazing those clippers were.

Rounding out the month with this quote from Sophia Wassermann:

Posters: my favourite part of a conference cause of all the people & research you can see.

Me too, Sophia. Me too.

21 September 2017

Critique: Sand crab summer

Some projects show up as posters at conferences, and then are neatly converted and are published as journal papers soon after. My newest paper (Faulkes 2017)... did not happen that way. The bulk of the paper never got presented at a conference.

I featured bits and pieces of my new paper on an Ecological Society of America poster, way back in 2012. I wasn’t even there for that meeting; I had my co-author put it up. Now that I have some distance between that meeting, it’s a good time to review how it’s held up. Click to enlarge!

This was a big poster; seven and a half feet wide!

The graphs in this paper shows up as Figure 4 in Faulkes (2017). But one bit, the crab at the bottom of the third column, made it into a separate paper earlier (Faulkes 2014). Looking back, that picture was a bad choice. One thing I think I still like is the repetition in the four central columns: they all have a map above and a graph below, and a little explanatory text underneath. The picture in the third column breaks the pattern. Not sure if I should have tried to include it at all.

It was also dumb of me to put the photo on the right column underneath a block of text, instead of aligning it along the top with all the other images. All of the images along the top should have been the same width.

The poster is mostly grey, because the sand crabs were grey, and the maps I made were mostly grey. When you enlarge, you can see dots on the map are in brighter, saturated colours. I might have made those dots even bigger.

Although I never presented most of the data at a conference, I did use it in an example I did for a #SciFund poster class in 2016. When I do that class, I always make a poster at the same time as the students, so I am working alongside them and facing the same struggles they are. (Here’s a poster from an earlier #SciFund class.)

When I was teaching this class, I had just come back from the Evolution meeting where I had seen what has now become the most popular poster ever on this blog. I was very influenced by it and wanted to make something similarly big and simple. I’m happier with this poster today than the one above. Click to enlarge!

I still like the approach of making the picture of the animals big to act as an entry point to the poster, and staying very focused on a small number of graphs.

I’m not convinced I found the right colour palette, or typeface. The brown was lifted from the colour of the beach they are found in. The font was Sitka, which I had blogged about as being highly readable.

I made this poster in Inkscape. I struggled a lot with Inkscape. I know now that some of the things I complained about were not fair comments about the software. I was working with new software and didn’t know how to do certain things. Some of the walls I ran into were the limits of my knowledge, not of the program.

I did learn how to “export” in Inkscape, though. I managed to keep a bit better track of the “making of” than usual. Watch the poster take shape in this animation!

You can see that the big changes happen early, as I make decisions about the layout. After that, it’s mostly a lot of tweaking. Moving here, changing the colour there, rewording the text. Trifles make perfection. I may not have reached perfection here, but the degree I got close to it was due to the trifling I did.

Related posts


Faulkes Z. 2014. A new southern record for a sand crab, Lepidopa websteri Benedict, 1903 (Decapoda, Albuneidae). Crustaceana 87(7): 881-885. https://doi.org/10.1163/15685403-00003326

Faulkes Z. 2017. The phenology of sand crabs, Lepidopa benedicti (Decapoda: Albuneidae). Journal of Coastal Research 33(5): 1095-1101. https://doi.org/10.2112/JCOASTRES-D-16-00125.1

14 September 2017

Critique: C’est difficile

Contributor Abigail Kelly is the maker of today’s poster. She bemoans that she never gets feedback on them. Well... we aim to please here on the Better Posters blog. Click to enlarge!

I hate to say it, but Abigail’s poster shows the lack of feedback. There are many problems that I have featured on the “Key posts” on the blog’s sidebar.

  • Uneven columns, contributing to unclear reading order. (Do I go across in rows, or down?)
  • Very narrow margins, and noticeable uneven ones, too.
  • Boxes around everything.
  • A barrage of bullet points. The bullets are disproportionately large, and not aligned with the first line of text, as is standard.
  • Uneven logos bookending the title.
  • The tables are in a data prison.
  • Vague and generic title.

My first thought was that the best approach to this poster was to blow it up, take it as a lesson learned, and start over.

But my second thought was, “That’s not in the spirit of the blog.” The spirit of this blog is that you can always find ways to make an existing poster better.

I went back to my usual first step when I try to improve a poster: take out the trash.

First, I cleaned up the top. I ditched the logos to create space to rearrange the title and author credit. I also shrunk the main image in the upper left, which needed more white space around it. I probably could have shrunk that diagram down even more.

Then, I got rid of the boxes, and the vertical lines in all the tables.

The hardest bit was figuring out what to do with the icons in the methods. They were too big, and didn’t line up with the text, or each other. I didn’t want to get rid of them entirely, because they added some much needed colour to the poster. I decided to shrink them way down, and lined up each with the top line of the paragraph they were in.

Finally, after removing a lot, I added one thing to the poster.

Shrinking the method icons had helped reveal the structure of the poster. The “Methods” and “Results” now have a clear margin between them. But I wanted another visual cue to indicate the different sections of the poster. I also wanted to add in a little more colour.

Using an eyedropper tool, I picked up some red from the main figure in the top right, so the colour was consistent with what was already on the poster. Then, I used an artistic brush tool to paint a line above each main heading. That the intensity drops off as the stroke moves right gives the line a bit of an organic feel, so that it isn’t a rigid rule.

This poster still has many issues. There’s still too much text, and the irregular column structure is problem. But with these changes, the poster is starting to look organized.

Here’s an animation so you can see the changes a bit better.

Down the road, it might be a good exercise for Abigail to revisit this poster. Start with the same material, and quickly knock out a new version. I did this to one of mine here.

07 September 2017

Critique: Community influence

Today’s poster was sent in by kindly contributor David Selby. It was created for the useR! conference in Brussels earlier this year. Click to enlarge!

The main data visualization gives this poster a strong graphic element at its core. The visulizations almost look like abstract art. David did the right thing by making these as big as possible. You wouldn’t be able to interpret these otherwise.

David has skillfully mixed both a serif and sans serif font in the type in a way that is not distracting.

There may be a mild problem with reading order. Looking at the text, this was the pattern I expected to follow:

Instead, I realized that I was supposed to go like this:

In fairness, the acknowledgements can be skipped, so I don’t have to drag my eyes all the way back to the lower left. But still, I was confused when I realized that black of text was acknowledgement. “Wait, I’m not supposed to read this yet!”

David was very clever to link the “Web of Science” data and “Statistics” data using colour. But it still bothers me that the two “Statistics” graphs are spatially separate, rather than adjacent.

David has a brief blog post about the poster, and wrote:

One of the key things when doing the analysis was to keep everything reproducible. To this end, all code for the graphs and results is presented in a GitHub repository and vignette, along with the Scribus file for the poster itself. All software used was free and open source. Modulo the raw data, anybody can recreate the design and repeat the analysis for themselves. I also used the vignette to track my ideas during the design process and list some sources of inspiration, even though it’s not really relevant to the actual research.

 Here is the poster on the board (photo: Oscar de León):

I am pleased to report that this was an award winning poster: first place (shared with two others, like the Nobels)!

External links

useR! poster: ranking influential communities

31 August 2017

Link roundup for August 2017

This month’s nominee for “Best poster ever” comes from the Ecological Society of America (ESA) meeting, and was created by Julian Resasco, with pictures by Andrew Bell:

I got multiple people forwarding this to me, and saw many positive comments on Twitter, so this one is definitely a fan favourite. I am hoping Julian will submit this to the blog so we can talk about it in more detail later! Hat tip to Jacquelyn Gill, Michele Banks, and Megan Lynch.

The ESA meeting also gave us a candidate for “best poster reuse”:

Hat tip to Nathan Emery and the Ecological Society of America.

Data is the Spotlight is a blog that does for figures what this one does for posters. Hat tip to Arjun Raj and Prachee Avasthi.

Terry McGlynn makes an important point about conference scheduling, using the ESA meeting as an example:

Many with “late-breaking” posters are stuck on Friday because they weren’t aware of the deadline, or didn’t have funding 6 months ago. Who is most likely to not get the heads up about the deadline? Undergrads, and folks who aren’t surrounded by ecologists at work. I was bummed to see so many undergraduates - the future of our field - lonely at posters on this Friday morning. If we’re taking student development and equity seriously, can we not punish folks who miss the deadline with a crappy time slot?

(A) poorly attended talk will have people at it. But a quiet poster session can have zero visitors and that’s crushing.

Keeping with that theme of scheduling, I’ve noted on the blog several times that most people prefer both giving and listening to talks at conferences. Because talks are perceived as “better,” there is the potential for those slots to be biased towards certain presenters. A new article by Sardelis and colleagues recommends that conference attendees should be assigned talks or posters at random.

To avoid bias toward later-career men filling presentation slots, conferences should randomize program assignments. Delegates could be informed of and agree to this format in advance of submitting an abstract. Accepted abstracts can be randomly assigned to full oral presentations, speed presentations, or posters, making each program presentation category more diverse.

Hat tip to Craken MacCraic.

I’ve been expecting conferences to go fully electronic for their posters for some time now.

We’re getting closer to this becoming the norm, as this picture from this year’s International Botanical Conference in Shenzhen, China shows. Picture by Robbie Hart; hat tip to Richard Prather.

Brittney Monus is ready for electronic posters:

Pros of traveling with a poster tube: you get to meet other tube-carrying #ESA2017 people at your gate. Cons: literally EVERYTHING ELSE.

But poster tubes matter! Melissa Márquez has a blog post outlining her presentation tips for posters. There’s a little bit of design, and a few other tips rarely talked about. For instance, the importance of a poster tube:

I travelled from the US to the UK without a poster case and I was a bit embarrassed by how wrinkled mine ended up being.

Hat tip to Melissa Márquez.


Looking for some lettering to capture the look of vintage scientific figures? Try the Routed Gothic font (sample above). Apparently, some scientists want their figures to look like they came from the 1940s. Hat tip to David Shoppik and Charles Poynton.

And if you like the handwritten look but recognize that Comic Sans is not up to the job, try FF Uberhand, sampled above.

I’ve written about the importance of considering colour blindness when designing posters. This post has the same take home message – colour blindness is common, design for people with this condition – but Oliver Daddow’s first person perspective provides welcome clarity about its importance:

Opinion polls, leadership ratings, PowerPoint lecture slides, pie charts of public expenditure, Brexit negotiation flow charts, political party election manifesto summaries; all get the full treatment. Most books and journal articles are limited to publishing graphics in black and white, due to the cost and other barriers to the use of colour in mass printing. On Twitter, however, they are presented in a veritable riot of colour. In an aesthetic sense, why not?

The problem is that, being colour blind, I can only read around half of them at best. I can spend time deciphering what is going on in a few of the remainder. The rest remain an impenetrable mass of lines and words, the content of which is meaningless, unless some kind soul provides an accompanying narrative, which in 140 characters is, really, impossible. Where colour “normal” Twitter users can process the data quickly and move on, having learned something new and valuable, the colour blind either must spend a long time fathoming it, or are physically unable to process the data at all.

This is a list of ten tips for getting the most out of conferences. The plot twist is that this list is full of tips by students, who are still new to the whole conference experience. Here’s some material about posters:

Nicki Button: Poster presentations at first seem easier than oral presentations. But they provide the opportunity for one-on-one conversations, which can either be extremely beneficial for advancing your research or extremely stressful (or both!)

Embrace poster presentations as opportunities to learn from experts in your field. Pick their brains for suggestions and invite them to collaborate on your research. To prepare for your poster presentation, practice an elevator pitch and write out and answer all possible questions that someone might ask you. Practice in front of your lab group and non-scientists. Even though this isn’t a formal presentation and you might not ever present your pitch exactly how you prepared it, it is still fundamentally a presentation.

Hat tip to Paige Jarreau.

When I started the blog, I did some posts exploring basic terminology. But that’s been a few years ago now, so if you’re looking for a refresher, here are 50 terms used in graphic design. Hat tip to Garr Reynolds.

Cory House nailed something that I think is lurking in the background of this blog. I’ve said from time to time that posters are not just to convey information. Cory put it this way:

After attending many conferences, I’ve realized: I don’t attend to learn. I attend to learn what I need to learn.

A conference speaker’s primary impact isn’t teaching... It’s getting you excited enough to learn more.

Conference speaking is sales, for ideas.

Too often, academics focus on posters as vehicles for information. They treat them like a research manuscript on a single piece of paper. And they kill the excitement that way.

Hat tip to Melissa Vaught.

24 August 2017

Critique and makeover: Hot Mediterranean

Today’s poster comes from Francisco Pastor. Click to enlarge!

I like the central part of the poster. It’s very visual and colourful. The two columns are so clear you could probably do without the central dashed line. There are some alignment problems that could be easily fixed. For example:

On both the left and right, there are twelve maps, arranged in three columns by four rows. On the right, the right edge lines up with the bar above them, but on the left, they don’t. Similarly, the rows are squished together on the right, but not on the left, even though the left needs more space, because it has a bar graph immediately below it.

But I can live with that.

It’s the corners that are driving me nuts.

This may be a little hard to see unless you click to enlarge, because the white poster background on the white black background makes it hard to see the edges. While the central material has been given generous white space, every corner is crammed to the edges.

Here’s a closer look at the top, as if it were on a poster board, so you can see the edges better:

I am not sure you could hand this poster without sticking a tack through the institutional logo (not a great loss) or the author credit (that is a loss, because that matters).

I have no idea why the author credit is aligned with the right side of the poster.

And here is the bottom:

Again, notice how the text in the bottom right is positively threatening to overflow its container, and the logo on the left wants to pop out of its box like a stripper out of a birthday cake.

When so much of the poster is set in a clean serif font, it seems strange that the bottom suddenly switches to a script font. And not a very readable one at that. If you want to use two fonts, that’s fine, but both should be used throughout the poster.

Here are some changes to the bottom of the poster to tidy it up. Spot the differences!

  1. Shrunk the text in the bottom right corner box by 90%.
  2. Moved the text in the bottom left corner down to a more central placement.
  3. Removed the dark blue line around the box containing the concluding four bullet points.
  4. Shrunk the concluding four bullet points by 90%.
  5. Fixed one pixel overlap of “Acknowledgements” box on the two dark blue boxes it touches.
  6. Realinged “Acknowledgements and references” text so it was left aligned with the text below it, and closer to the optical middle of the light blue bar it is in.

The moral of the story is: Every part of the poster needs the same attention to detail.