28 January 2010

From printer to posterboard

You’ve printed your big, beautiful poster and are ready to take it to the conference. What you want to get it there, good citizen, is a document tube. Or perhaps a blueprint tube... or a portfolio tube. The names vary.

Regardless, these wonderful little items seem to be a surprisingly rare commodity, if the number of times I’ve loaned mine to colleagues is any indication. This might be because they are often found more in specialty shops catering to graphic designers and artists, which academic researchers maybe don’t visit as often as they should.

I highly recommend that anyone who presents at conferences regularly get one of their own. Just remember to make sure that the length of the tube exceeds the width of your paper. For example, the printer I normally use for posters takes 42 inch paper, and I see many otherwise nice, snazzy tubes that are only 37 inches long.

I have not yet found any tubes that have a spot to include identifying information. I suggest attaching your name and contact information quite clearly on the tube, because as you get on a plane traveling to a major conference, several other people may have tubes like yours, and it would be a shame to walk away with someone else’s poster.

21 January 2010

Review: Scientific Writing and Communication

In mid January, a copy of Scientific Writing and Communication arrived, quite unbidden, in my mailbox. Of course, the first thing I turned to was to flip through and see if there was anything on posters.

A little bit to my surprise, Chapter 27 is devoted to posters, although posters get less ink than talks, as is often the case. The chapter on posters run 16 pages, compared to 25 pages about talks.

The advice here is generally solid but basic. Much of it can be distilled down to make it visual, and make it big.

The text is broken into little fits and starts that encourages browsing rather than deep reading (very similar to Pechenik 2010). There are guidelines presented as section headings, bullet lists of “Dos” and “Don’ts,” examples (all with thumbs up icons next to them; there are no examples of bad posters in this chapter), a terminal preparation checklist, and finally a summary of all the guidelines... that also appeared as section headings.

The first guideline in the posters chapter, “Design your poster around your research question,” lists an abstract as a poster component. Weirdly, Hoffman later includes, “Do not use your conference abstract as text on the poster” on a list of “Don’ts,” before settling in on “Some posters have abstracts, some don’t” a few pages later. I appreciate that practices vary substantially from conference to conference, but the text here doesn’t make that point explicit.

The chapter contains two completed sample posters. One is a generic layout that is not very useful, featuring my favourite hot button, inconsistent alignment.

The title isn’t centered. Figure 1 is wider than 2, while Figure 3 is skinnier than 4. The horizontal spacing is also strange, with Figures 1 and 2 being closer than 3 and 4. The references box is wider than everything above it and intrudes into the column to its left. And I have no idea what those shadowboxes around the figures are supposed to be.

The other example is an actual poster. It looks like it is quite a good poster, but it’s printed rather small, so it’s difficult to pick up some of the details. The book is printed in black and white throughout, though, and the original poster was in colour. It makes the annotation, “coloring is appealing,” somewhat unhelpful. Indeed, many of the examples would have been enhanced if they could have been printed in colour; they look a bit muddy on they page.

One section provides a list on online resources, dated to October 2009. None of the three links provided as resources on how to use software to create posters worked.

  • Creating a large-format poster in PowerPoint: Page will not load
  • Creating a poster using MS PowerPoint: Missing
  • Poster presentations using FrameMaker: Missing

I fared better with the pages listed under “Other useful links,” but even one of those had moved. Plus, they all have horrible, long URLs. For those who don’t want to have to type them in yourself, here they are:

I am picking on only one short chapter out of a book that runs close to 700 pages. The stated purpose of the book is to provide a “one stop shop” for any kind of scientific writing. It covers manuscripts, grant proposals, job applications, English as a second language, plagiarism, and much more. And when you have this much breadth, it’s not surprising that any one subject is going to suffer a bit in terms of depth.


Hoffman A. 2009. Scientific Writing and Communication. Oxford University Press: Oxford. ISBN 978-0-19-539005-6. OUP link | Amazon link

Pechenik JA. 2010. A Short Guide to Writing About Biology (7th Edition). Longman. Publisher link | Amazon link

19 January 2010

Type fashions

Seth Godin writes:

If you send me a flyer with dated, cheesy or overused type, it's like showing up in a leisure suit for a first date.

He has more good advice, so go read the rest.

Type conveys a lot. Choose wisely.

Type crimes: Do as I say, not as I do

From Failblog.

14 January 2010

Communicate, don’t decorate

Wedding cakeHave you ever eaten wedding cake?

Was it the most delicious cake you’ve ever had?


The layers might not even be cake in some of them; just styrofoam instead. Even if it’s not styrofoam, the taste might be about appealing as styrofoam.

The people making them get so concerned about whether the cake matches the decor and the bride’s dress, they forget the point of a cake: to be delicious.

Many posters are like wedding cakes. People get so obsessed with the decoration, they miss the point. The point of making a conference poster is communication. Never lose sight of that.

07 January 2010

Is it big enough? The “arm’s length” test

Most posters should be visible and, more importantly, readable from about two meters away. But how can you test whether its legible without printing off the entire thing, which might itself be a couple of meters of somewhat expensive paper?

Arm's lengthA useful test is to print the poster, at reduced size, on a regular sheet of paper, like 8½ × 11”, A4, or maybe legal sized paper. Most graphics programs, and Acrobat Reader, will have a “Shrink to page” somewhere in their print menus. Then, hold the printed page at arm’s length.

You should be able to read the text and make sense of any pictures or graphs, even at this reduced size. In fact, I initially heard that you should be able to read well-designed 35 mm slides at arm’s length, so a regular sheet of paper should easily pass this test.

This won’t pick up a lot of problems, like whether an image will be pixelated when printed at full size, but it is a good way to test whether you’re trying to cram too much stuff on your poster by making everything too small.

Picture by user bondidwhat on Flickr, and used under a Creative Commons license.