18 May 2017

Lessons from “Stone Cold” Steve Austin: There’s just one bottom line – and it should be your title

Margaret Moerchen wrote:
Every poster needs an executive summary like this!


I appreciate the sentiment here. Summaries are good. Highlighting those summaries is also good. But this doesn’t go far enough.

Four bullet points is too much.

Let’s turn the mic over to “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, who famously pronounced:


Would Austin get the same reaction from the crowd if he said, “And those are the bottom four lines”?

Do we say, “Get to the points?” “Cut to the chases”? No. It’s singular in every case.

Here’s what I would suggest. Drill down those four points to one. Looking at the points above, I might suggest: “New techniques to measure carbon contents in vapor bubble,” or “Carbon content in the Hawaiian plume may be higher than in the MORB mantle.” Which I’d use would depend on whether I wanted to emphasize the techniques or the preliminary results.

Then, instead of sticking that one point away as a bottom line, make that one point the title of your poster. Don’t make people with 30 seconds hunt for your most important thing. Make it literally the first thing they read.


11 May 2017

Critique: Motor math

Not one but two posters are up today! This is fun, because I don’t often get to show people trying different things. Today’s posters are both from Chris Miles, a graduate student in mathematics. Chris writes:

I’m in a weird misfit field: mathematical biology, which seems to take certain aspects of each culture, like posters from biology. However, this leads to some culture clashes, like having a math-heavy poster. I guess my question is: how math-heavy is too math-heavy if math is the focus of the poster?

This is an excellent question, and reminiscent of a similar question I got about posters in the humanities. Let’s see.

Here’s Chris’s current poster (which you can click to enlarge):


I like this. Clean, straightforward. Colouring a lot of the text bring some visual interest.

There are a couple of elements that distract me.

The right side of the title bar. The logo on top of the names on top of the department affiliation are not harmonizing. I expect to see more space around the logo, and the right side of “diffusion” in the title over Christopher’s name also throws me.

I like the light dashed lines between the columns, which add a nice graphic touch in a text heavy poster. I’m not crazy about the horizontal lines between the sections, though.

For comparison, here is a poster Chris did from last year, about which he says, “It had a very different vibe (but I won an award for despite being not super thrilled with).”



This one suffers from the clutter, which is such an easy hole for new poster makers to fall into. The title is too small, text is too close to the margins, and there is just a sense of “too much stuff.”

On the plus side, this one does a bit better job of giving a viewer an “entry point” and conveying the topic at a glance. Since I am a biologist, I recognized the images of motor proteins and microtubules under the title and on the right column immediately.

I wonder if a line of microtubules might be used in the current poster to replace the dashed lines dividing the columns.

Overall, I think the new one up top is better that the one below. It’s simpler and cleaner. I’d be more likely to stop at it if I was browsing, because I would be turned off by the clutter of the old one. But, if motor proteins were my thing, I might be more likely to stop at the old one because I can more easily see what the topic is.

To get back to Chris’s question, “How much math-heavy is too math-heavy?” Not all math is created equal for poster purposes. For instance, I could write this on my poster:

y = ½x + 2

Or, I could put something like this:


Because I am not a mathematician, I don’t have a good sense of when you can show something visually versus when you need an equation. But equations alone are tough. The standing joke is that each equation loses half the audience.

Perhaps the key with a math heavy poster is to provide something on the poster that is not math, to give people a way in. I recall one math poster that had a lot of equations, but it also had a picture of one of the historical mathematicians whose work was the basis for the poster. It made the poster much more approachable. 

It’s hard to underestimate the value of having even just one thing on a poster that is instantly recognizable and does not need to be deciphered or explained. A photograph does that. Artwork or a single word might do that. A sentence, graph, or equation won’t do that.

04 May 2017

At a distance

Here are two posters from the same conference, photographed at roughly the same distance. (Identifying information has been slightly pixelated.)


This poster is not using its available space well. The board is half empty. But although I cannot read virtually anything at this distance except maybe the headings and title, I can see that there are bar graphs on the poster. I can see blocks of colour.


This poster is about the same size the one above, and suffers from not using its available space well. But it’s suffering in so many more ways. The content of the poster has faded away in the distance like disappearing into a fog. There are no blocks of colour; everything has turned to gray. You can make out that there are columns of text, but you can’t make out anything about the figures.

I am not sure either of these posters would pass the “arm’s length” test. But while both posters are far from ideal, the top one succeeds in that at least at these long distances, you can make out something that is recognizable.

The smaller and further away you can get from your poster and recognize something on it, the more successful your poster is likely to be. Even if that is just blocks of colour.

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