The Wild Type focuses on the impact of design on scientific databases from the perspective of a bioinformation architect.

Open subjects include graphic and user interface design; data visualization; infographics; and social media integration.

Part I of a four part series discussing scientific poster presentations.

Why are so many poster presentations so bad?

Presenting a poster is too often seen as an easy way out, a quick no-consequence way of attending a meeting. But posters often have greater impact than many talks. Sure, your audience is smaller than giving a talk. But at a poster, the people most interested in your work are coming to you to hear about your work. They’re not captive audience members catching up on sleep, doodling in their abstract book, answering emails, or being outbid on Ebay. They’ve made a deliberate effort to come see YOU.

Last week, Erica Westly at The Scientist wrote about Colin Purrington’s efforts to beautify our poster presentations. Colin attributes the decline in poster quality to the use of Powerpoint, the appearance of the poster printer, and the structure of most poster sessions as glorified wine and cheese parties.

I’ll touch on each of these, but I’d also like to make three suggestions for designing a potent poster: Process, Format, Presentation.


It is misguided to blame Powerpoint for the rise in poor poster presentations. Don’t blame the tool, blame the misuse of the tool.

Granted, some might say that Powerpoint was designed to provide visuals for spoken presentations. I’ve seen stunning posters prepared in Powerpoint. And I’ve seen horrific posters prepared in page layout programs such as Adobe’s InDesign. It’s about the process of design not the program.

Why do we loathe Powerpoint presentations? Is there something inherently bad with Powerpoint? No. Is there something inherently bad with letting Powerpoint steer your design and content? Yes.

Again. Designing a good poster comes down to process, not which tool you use to realize your vision.

Don’t design your poster in front of the computer. Use the same process you would use for preparing a talk. Sit down with some paper. Outline the content and the flow. Once you have your ideas on paper it will make it much easier to translate into a visually effective poster.

Format & Design

I agree with Colin: the rise of the poster printer has sounded a resounding death knoll across the land for good poster design.

First, some history.

When I was in graduate school, we prepared our posters on 8.5″ x 11″ sheets of paper, mostly on the computer in things like Word or Canvas. Some images were even hand-drawn!

The week before the meeting, we would all march up to the bookstore to pick out matte board for mounting the sheets. In the way-way-back time, we’d even cut the matte ourselves, until the University Bookstore started providing this as a service.

Much pasting and cursing followed, particularly when creating the hinged pieces for the poster title. But in the end, we had a set of poster panels, perfectly compact for traveling. Content and form, together in bliss.

Witness the rise of the giant poster printout. At first it was just the medical schools that had access to the printers. We looked on with shameless envy. Those graduate students didn’t have to spend a week working on their cut-and-paste project. They just slapped some crap into a Canvas template and had somebody print their poster. As we fumbled around pinning up our panels at the meeting, they suavely took out four tacks. One. Two. Three. Four. Done. Where’s the wine? Clearly, we needed to make Big Posters, too.

The fall of Eden. When once we traveled freely with lightweight panels packed in our carry on luggage, now we had joined the Poster Tube Brigade. Our printing costs soared. Our posters, heavily templatized, went downhill.

Can you tell that I’m not a huge fan of the monolithic printed poster?

For your next poster, consider returning to the old school way. Print panels on individual sheets. Make each panel concise conveying a single point. Just because the panels are small doesn’t mean you can’t follow good design principles (which we’ll cover here in a future post). You might just find that the combination of deliberate Process and compact Format make preparing and presenting your poster much more fun, too.


Finally, let’s talk a bit about Presentation.

Does this sound familiar?

  1. Slap some information on a poster the day before a meeting.
  2. Rush it to the media arts department (or Kinko’s!) for printing at double the normal price.
  3. Put your poster up 5 minutes into your scheduled session.
  4. Grab some wine to whet your whistle.
  5. Quietly stand by as people read your poster, occasionally asking if they want explanation.
  6. Throw your poster in your lab’s poster graveyard, never to be seen or heard from again.


This is exactly the wrong strategy to take when presenting a poster.

You are presenting your work, your ideas, yourself. Put your best foot forward. If someone comes by your poster, introduce yourself. Get your visitor’s name and find out where they’re from. If you have multiple people gathered around, you can save some wear and tear on your vocal chords by addressing the group.

Make everyone feel welcome, not just those folks that you already know. You are (hopefully) enthusiastic about your work; share that enthusiasm. It will make your presentation stand out amongst the throngs.

Do you have suggestions for how to prepare and present a successful poster? Please share!

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There’s been a lot of talk recently about social networks geared for life scientists. This includes the rise of sites like Epernicus, a blog post on network portability on Nascent, and discussion of topics like shared author IDs in the Science Apps room on FriendFeed.

Today, another new site is percolating to the surface of the twitterverse: Biomedexperts. Disclaimer: I have no idea if there is supposed to be a space between those words, ala the logo for AmericanAirlines.

The cool thing about Biomedexperts is that the basis of their network is built on relationships from the published literature.

Unfortunately, I think that this strategy is blind to some of the most important types of scientific relationships: your colleagues that you might interact with on a day-to-day basis but you don’t write papers with. These are the people you bounce ideas off of, the people who help you piece together a PAGE gel after it’s dropped to the floor, the ones who feed your mice when you’re on vacation, and the ones who read your manuscript with a critical eye.

One solution might be to exploit true intellectual lineages. These are often created in niche fields by interested parties in order to create a family tree of sorts of a research area.

The C. elegans community is a perfect example. Begun in the mid 1970s by Sydney Brenner, the community now tallies at several 1000s of investigators studying directed problems in C. elegans, and tens of thousands more who use the system periodically. Because of the need to learn specialized skills for maintaining and studying the organism, most researchers associated with the community are connected in some way to the Ancestral Brenner (if you will).

In fact, these connections have been tracked by the community creating a sort of intellectual pedigree (albeit with large amounts of inbreeding). Roles like undergraduate, graduate, post-doc, RA, PI, and types of associations like collaboration or sabbatical have been duly noted. The end result? A structured, computable intellectual lineage represented as a directed acyclic graph, presented here as a graphviz graph. The perfect foundation for a social network…

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Do we need a style guide for biology (or: is it time to stop capitalizing DNA)?

August 9, 2008

Last week, Caroline Winter wrote about the peculiarities of capitalizing the personal pronoun in English [“Me, Myself, and I”, 5 Aug 2008, NY Times]. Just like the debate over capitalization of internet, perhaps it’s time to begin referring to DNA in the lowercase. And the same goes for you too, RNA. DNA, after all, isn’t […]

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Review: Designing Interfaces

August 8, 2008

Designing Interfaces by Jennifer Tidwell is a great reference text of common user interface design patterns for both web and desktop application designers. Each pattern is broken down into the “why, when, and how” to use each pattern. While it might seem obvious when it’s best to use something like a drop down menu, that […]

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Suggested surfing: Ben Fry, visualization guru

July 30, 2008

If you aren’t familiar with the work of Ben Fry (blog), you really owe it to yourself to spend a few hours surfing around his work. His work is beautiful and inspirational. Don’t miss his Ph.D. dissertation. Ben is the author of the recent O’Reilly text Visualizing Data (review coming soon). I first came across […]

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Review: The Elements Of Graphic Design (A. White)

July 28, 2008

As a bioinformaticist, you need graphic design skills. Whether you’re presenting data visually for a manuscript or presentation, building an interface for a database, or just working on your own website, it’s critical to be able to display data clearly. Deliberate design makes data easier to access and easier to absorb. For a quick introduction […]

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Prefab social web for biological databases

July 28, 2008

Let’s face it. Signing up on yet another website is a drag. Another username. Perhaps another password if the password naming rules are inane. Then begins the process of building your social network from the ground up. Again. The repetitive nature of this process is — I think — becoming a significant barrier to attracting […]

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Implementing a simple web-log based recommender system

July 25, 2008

I’ve now implemented such a system as an extension to Catalyst, the open source Perl web framework. The system isn’t yet ready for general distribution, but I’d like to share my approach. First, I’ve gathered ten years of web access logs from WormBase, a generic model organism database where I work as the project manager. […]

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Recommender systems for biological databases

July 25, 2008

Recommender systems [Wikipedia] seek to provide users with information related to what they are currently browsing. These are now ubiquitous in e-commerce sites such as Amazon, where each page contains a list of items viewed or purchased by other users. I’ve long felt that a recommender system could revolutionize the browsing and mining of biological […]

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GUI prototyping add-on

July 9, 2008

Check out the GUI prototyping add-on Pencil Project for Firefox.

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