Zen Faulkes is a biologist who has studied and worked in Canada, Australia, and the United States. He is currently an instructor at McMaster University in Canada. He was an early adopter of science blogging, and began writing about conference posters in 2009. His first book, Better Posters, draws on over a decade of experience giving advice to poster makers. (And the poster blog still updates weekly.) He is @DoctorZen on Twitter, and his home page is DoctorZen.net.
Book: Better Posters
Episode #165: Michael Morrison
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Welcome back to the PolicyViz podcast. I am your host, Jon Schwabish. On this week’s episode of the show, I talk to Zen Faulkes, who is the author of the new book, Better Posters. As you might suspect, I really like the name Better Posters, the title Better Posters. In it, Zen talks about all the things that are important to consider and do when you’re creating a poster for an academic conference. I also think it happens to work for when you’re thinking about creating an infographic or presentation slides or data visualization. Even though it’s specific to this one part of data communication, I think there’s a lot going on here that a lot of us can learn about data communication. So we talk about Zen’s background, coming into this poster area. He talked about his interest in design, working with data academics, what it’s like to actually be in a conference poster session if you’ve never been to one. It’s quite an interesting experience, and Zen will talk a lot about that in the interview today about what it means actually to sit in this huge room of so many different people talking about their content. And then, we spend a bunch of time talking about what are good ways to lay posters out, what does it mean to actually stand there, what does he think about conference poster contests, something that I struggle with when it comes to data visualization contest. So we spend a bunch of time talking about all of those different aspects of his new book Better Posters. I hope you’ll enjoy the episode, hope you’ll enjoy the conversation, and I hope you’ll check out his book and all these things I’ve, of course, linked to on the show notes page. So here is my interview with Zen Faulkes.
Jon Schwabish: Hey Zen, good to see you. Welcome to the PolicyViz podcast. How are you?
Zen Faulkes: I’m very well, thank you. And I feel like, right off the bat, that I should put in a disclaimer that this interview, despite the name of the podcast, we’ll probably have no policy and very little viz. So I just wanted to apologize to any listeners right now.
JS: Well, I don’t know, I mean, so here’s the book that we’re talking about. So Better Posters, which, of course, is a name that I – the title of the book I really appreciate. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff on visualization in this book. And we will talk about more of this, but what I love about it is there’s a lot of aspects to data visualization that maybe not a lot of people think about, that you in the poster will have to think about a lot, like the actual layout of something. Whereas like, I make a graph, and it’s an image file, I sort of post it, I’m done. But you’re creating multiple things.
ZF: Yes. So that is one of the challenges of a poster is that it’s all in one, it has to be a complete little ship in the bottle to use an analogy, which is one of the things that makes it a very challenging format.
JS: Right. I want to go back to the beginning really, and maybe you can tell us a little bit about your background, and maybe, if you can remember, like, the first poster that you created, and was it like how many people like their first graph or their first presentation was terrible, and they realized that there’s a better way. Yeah, so where do you come from to get to this point about talking about and helping people and make Better Posters?
ZF: So the book arose from a blog of the same name, which I started about 12 years ago, because I was seeing that there were other really good blogs out there about oral presentations, and there’s tons of books about oral presentations. And I sort of realized that there was an unfilled niche for discussions about conference posters, which are very much unique to academic and even more specifically, the scientific, academic world. You can go see an oral presentation at business conferences, which is keynotes, but you don’t go into a business convention and see [inaudible 00:04:23] poster presentation. That’s very much like an academic thing. And I realized nobody else was talking about this on sort of an ongoing basis. There were a few websites that talked about it, just as here’s my advice as a blog post or something like that, but I thought there was much more to dig into. So that was the start of that. Now, to go back even further of what gave me the confidence/hubris to think that I would have anything reasonable to say is sort of twofold. So I have worked at the student newspaper as an undergraduate, doing layout and so forth, pretty much for most of my undergraduate career. And so, I had a bit of experience with doing layout and some of the basics of graphic design. And if you want to go way back to not my first poster, but even before that, I was one of those science fair kids, back in grade school, like grades, like junior high, maybe elementary school, I can’t even remember where I did them, what years. I know, I didn’t do any in high school. It was before that. But I did reasonably well, I think. I made it to the provincial’s science fair a couple of times. I think the best I could do was second at a provincial [inaudible 00:06:00] but in terms of doing those science fair projects, there’s some similarities between those [inaudible 00:06:08] posters. And I remember one of my teachers saying, you have a really strong eye for the graphic end of things. And so, that was part of the fun of doing the science fair posters for me was like messing around with Letraset and doing some of these things to kind of make it look nice. So I’ve been messing around with these sorts of things on and off for a long time, and then, really, with the blog was when I got serious about it, and doing it on a regular basis, I decided to teach myself some more because people started to find the blog and recommend the blog. And it was like, oh, now I have a responsibility. It’s like, oh, other people are actually reading this.
JS: Reading this, right, yeah.
ZF: And they would tell me, it’s like, I recommend it to my students, to my graduate students and so forth. And so, and there was that sense of, no, there’s a readership, and people started sending me things for review, which was really the best part of the whole project, was that input from other people, which was the thing that made it the thing I’m now best known for. I joke all the time, it’s like, yeah, I have 60 peer reviewed scientific papers. If I go to a conference, it’s like, you’re the poster guy.
JS: Poster guy, yeah.
ZF: So yes, embrace it. I have written the book now, so I’ve just embraced my destiny, and I no longer fight it. I’m no longer a crayfish biologist, I’m the poster guy.
JS: You’re a poster guy, yeah. So I want to talk about a bunch of the sections of the book. You were talking about the importance of layout, so if you had to, like, say, there’s one thing and I know there’s not, but if you’re like, if you were forced to say there’s one thing, like the most important thing, is it layout, or is it the brevity of the text – so if you had to narrow down the one thing for a poster, which is, again, different from all these other mediums, what would that one thing be?
ZF: The one thing is coming up with the one thing that the one thing is going to be about. It’s about the editorial decisions, because what I see as the most common problem with many, many posters is lack of message discipline. So people are trying to do too many things on the poster. They are trying to show all the data, and they are unwilling, and in some cases, unable, but it’s usually just that they are very reluctant not to show everything that they got. And so, I’m always saying this isn’t your journal article. This is conference poster. You don’t have infinite space, and you really have to make a decision about what is the most important thing that I want to show. And that is very challenging for everybody. It’s always tough to edit your own work, which is what these people are happy to do. And it’s challenging, because, quite often, the thing that people want is they say, sort of, in the abstract, as a viewer, that they want all the detail and all the fiddly bits. But the reality is, when they’re there on the ground, they get tired and they have all these posters. It’s like, that’s not the reality. The reality is you really want a summary for most of these things. You really want to be able to talk to somebody and get something worthwhile in five minutes. That’s what most people have indicated to me. That’s the kind of time they want to spend talking to somebody at a conference, and that’s very challenging, very, very challenging to get down to five minutes. It’s the equivalent of an Ignite Talk, which is a format that some people might know from a slide presentation, which is a five-minute PowerPoint presentation, and you really have to think about in that level of concision.
JS: Maybe we should have backed up first, but can you paint a picture for us – for those of the listeners who are not academics, maybe never been to a poster session, can you paint that picture for us? And just from some of the pictures – in the book, there are some pictures of actual poster sessions, and some drawings of ones – and the ones that I go to, may not be as big as some of the ones that you describe, but they’re large enough. But yeah, maybe paint that picture for listeners who may have not had this, I’ll just say, experience. I won’t put a judgment on top of it, but it’s an experience, so just put it that way, yeah.
ZF: It absolutely is, especially when you go to some of the larger ones. So the largest one that I have been to is fairly well known in the scientific community. It is the Society for Neuroscience, and it only goes to a few cities in the US, because there’s only a few cities that are large enough to hold it. The last few years before the pandemic, it was usually drawing about 30,000 people. I’ve lived in towns that are not 30,000 people. Now, [inaudible 00:11:33] in a small town for a boy. But that’s an enormous number of people. So something that some people may know or have heard about is the San Diego Comic Con, which is this huge media event, and they may have seen pictures of that, size of that venue. The Society for Neuroscience is often held in that venue, because it needs something that big to accommodate all of these people. So you think about, okay, we’ve got 30,000 geeky neuroscientists, and they’re presenting their work, and they’re in the floor of this enormous convention center that you walk into, and it looks like they could be building a Boeing 747 in the back. It goes on and on and on. And so, there’s lots of things in the main hall, but the major thing that you see is row after row after row after row after row after row for hundreds of meters of poster boards. And so, they are, over the course of usually about five days, there are tens of thousands of poster presentations, that switch twice a day. So that is, for many people, the first time they go to it, it is an overwhelming experience either for scientists who have been to other reading, even fairly large meetings, which might be a thousand people, something like that, they go into neuroscience or another big one is the American Geophysical Union, which is, I think, comparable, I think it’s going to be a little smaller. And it is, they’re kind of blown away by the amount of stuff there is to see and the amount of science and the amount of content to navigate. So it’s very tough for, as I said before, the poster is a challenging format. The conference is challenging as an audience member, you know, how do you – forget about making a splash professionally – how do you even make a ripple in that kind of situation where you’re up against thousands of other presentations at the same time, going on all around you. It’s challenging. Now, I happen to love that, because it’s exciting. And you see all this stuff, and there’s so much science, there’s something that you’re going to learn, like, just guaranteed. If you have any curiosity, it can be very tiring.
JS: Yeah, because as you walk through, and I’m going to guess it’s the same as you walk through, there are people – the author or authors, I guess, are standing in front of their posters. And so, the main economics conference often takes place in San Diego, but it doesn’t go to the convention center. It’s a combination of the convention center and some of the hotels, but not like that huge room, and I imagine, it’s like being in a football stadium with the amount of noise and trying to have these discussions.
ZF: There’s very rarely a wave that goes on, as you know. Or there’s very rarely that motive, oh, it right goes wild. So it’s not quite as bad as the stadium. But there’s definitely, for a lot of people, it’s a lot of sensory input. There’s a lot going on. And one of the things that I recommend people is go in with a plan, you have to. Because I have talked to people who said, the first time they went to one of these massive, massive meetings, but their plan was, okay, I’m going to start with row A, poster one, and I’m just going to go, and it’s like, well, no, no, no…
JS: Never going to work, yeah.
ZF: You cannot do that, you cannot do that. Fortunately, usually, there’s like at least titles, which are given out to people in advance. And so, you usually can figure out, okay, these are the posters that I want to see, they’re organized by themes, by session, by topic. So it’s not as though it’s just like 10,000 people, and it’s like walking into an anthill, and you’re trying to find a [inaudible 00:15:47]. It’s like a little bit like that, but there is some organization more. It’s like, if you’re interested in Alzheimer’s disease, you go to this set of rows; if you’re interested in locomotion, you go to this set of rows. It’s, again, good organization, by the conference organizers, is really, really critical to having that good poster session experience. But there’s only so much you can do when you have so many…
JS: Yeah, so many [inaudible 00:16:17] right. I mean, it’s one of the things I actually love about the book is that you cover the entire process, not just for the person creating the poster, because you have a whole chapter on how to print the damn thing, but you also have a section at the end about how do conference organizers set it up, and what should they provide to people, and how should they define the rules for a contest, which I want to come back to in a moment. But I did want to ask you, because you have a section in the book about infographics, and I wanted to get your take on how a conference poster is different from an infographic, because I feel like a lot of infographic designers might be really good at creating conference posters, if they had an experience.
ZF: Absolutely. Now, I do have a – I don’t want to say it’s a rant in the book, but that I do find the term infographic to be spectacularly unhelpful in many ways.
JS: I agree.
ZF: Because it’s like…
JS: What is it, yeah.
ZF: Mean. It’s graphic with information, how is it different from a graph, how is it different from this. Be that as it may, I think the big difference between a conference poster and what most people think of when they hear the word infographic is that a conference poster usually is by an academic. So it’s very, very influenced by academic style, and academic journal articles. So an infographic is usually very much a standalone sort of thing, but it doesn’t – it can have kind of any structure that you want. The vast majority of conference posters that you see have a very defined familiar structure. For anybody, who’s read academic articles, know that there’s like a way that they are structured. And it’s usually there’s a title, there’s an introduction, there’s a method section, there’s a result section, and there’s a discussion section. And it’s very rare that you get deviation from that. Some journals move the method section to the end, but that format is something that so many academics are so familiar with, and they’re so ingrained in using that format, they read it – and it’s a good format in many, many ways, is that it just ends up coming up on the conference poster as well. They use that same structure, and in an infographic, by somebody who is not from that culture, you’re not going to see it laid out in that way. So I think that’s one of the major differences. Now, that said, I think that a lot of academics could learn from that, no, you do not have to follow that format of the journal article. It’s a [inaudible 00:19:10] paper. And I think that they get very locked into that format, when there’s no need to. You can do what you want. You’re free in that [inaudible 00:19:22]. But quite often, they’re reluctant to do that. And so, they tend to be a little conservative on the design in the editorials.
JS: Yeah. I mean, you do lay out in the book, multiple structures or layouts that people can use in the posters, and sort of you have, I would say, a light recommendation, maybe – is that fair to say, like – I think you say that there are a couple that you like, but have at it, whatever works for you.
ZF: I think there are some kinds of posters, so there’s some kinds of formats that just work. It’s really hard to screw it up. So it’s a little bit like a movie or a television show. There’s a reason why there are this whole range of sports movies where there’s an underdog team that comes up against the champion. That story just works, and people never get tired of seeing that kind of story; or the cop-buddy movie, where the two partners go together, and they’re completely different and they start off hating each other, but they have to work together to solve a crime. It’s like, how many times have you seen that movie or television episode, right? Because if you just pay attention to a few things, it’s really kind of hard to mess it up, like, you have something which is usually okay, at least. And that’s the same thing with conference posters. There’s certain formats where it’s like, if you put it up, nobody’s going to complain, it will just kind of be at least, okay. And heaven knows, I’ve seen enough posters that were not even okay to know that for many people, that level of reaching some kind of bare level of minimal competency of like, rather than, my eyes, it’s a big whim.
JS: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, I think you make the point very clearly, like, the bar is set pretty low to have a really good poster.
ZF: Oh it’s abysmally low [inaudible 00:21:28]. These are my people, and I say this is one of them, but it’s like, oh my god, we’re horrible sometimes. And I made some of those posters, I mean, one of my least successful posters is in the frontispiece of the book. It’s like, I look at it now, and I sort of critique it later in the book. And the reason I put it as the frontispiece was not because I was happy with the poster, but because at the time, I was having a good day, and I liked the picture, because I was feeling very relaxed, and vary in my element, which is how I’ve always kind of felt about poster sessions, and I wanted to convey that feeling of being in the poster session. On the one hand, it’s kind of casual, because it’s not a very structured kind of thing, but it’s also very exciting, because there’s so many people who are bringing you the absolute latest stuff from their labs, and there’s so much that you can learn. And so, that’s why I picked, as a picture, a very bad poster in the front of the book.
JS: I think you make a really good point early on in the book that posters are not somehow lower or worse than or not as sophisticated as giving a five-minute or 10-minute presentation talk. I’m sure it varies from field to field, but I think that that is a really important point, especially for more junior people, who can still get out there and share their work.
ZF: Yeah, one of the realizations that I had in writing a book is that objectively, I think that a poster is the hardest format, because with slides, you have as many slides as you want; with a journal article, you have as many words as you want, typically; a poster, you have like what’s within the poster board – so you have a very limited space, you have a very limited time; you are competing for attention, very often with many, many hundreds, if not thousands of other posters, and a busy, crowded environment. And what do we do? We give that to people who are just starting out, most often. We get them the hardest task in information display to people with the least experience, because people think, oh, it’s less stressful. And yes, I get that fear of presentation, like an oral presentation is very high, and I get that that is very stressful for most people. But the actual design, the actual, what am I going to say, and how am I going to present that in a way that is helpful to somebody is really, really hard. This is one of the reasons why I want people to take posters more seriously and to acknowledge that we’re giving this very, very hard task to often very inexperienced people, and they deserve more respect.
JS: Yeah, I agree, I think that’s absolutely right, and I can only speak from my field, but it’s certainly the case that there is a lot of sort of looking down on the poster folks. Even though you are having this more intimate discussion with people who are walking by, that I would guess, you probably get better feedback, and you probably have better discussions than you do in the verbal presentation where you get your 10 minutes, you talk, three other people go, and then you maybe have some Q&A, and that’s it, and people sort of disperse to the next session, whereas you have this actual, you can have these in depth conversations with people.
ZF: Yes. And that, I think, that is the real strength of the format. And the thing is, and I understand why people want to have your presentation, because you see the keynotes. Right?
ZF: You can have the keynote with a thousand people. And you can reach more people than you can with a poster. Because you’re not going to get a 20 foot by 30 foot poster board. You can’t scale up. You can’t get a billboard in the conference center. Whereas you can effectively do that with an oral presentation, you can have a small, and you can have a medium sized room, you can have the keynote room. And so, people sort of see that and they see, oh, the keynote is in the big room, I want to be in the big room, I don’t want to be in the little room, because I’m not going to reach as many people. So just in terms of that numbers’ game, yes, an oral presentation can be a much more effective way of displaying your message. But in terms of starting a conversation, like a real conversation, not a monologue, but somebody being able to say, have you thought about this and really give you and really sort of, wait, can you stop, I don’t understand this, that I think is what posters do better than any other form [inaudible 00:26:52]
ZF: Okay, it may be the talk in the bar, and [inaudible 00:26:56] afterwards.
ZF: But that is the real strength of that format, is that when you’re talking to somebody in front of their poster, they’re not checking their email, like they’ll do in an oral presentation.
JS: Yeah. I mean, it’s also the case that I think a lot of us forget that the point to the purpose of an academic conference is to share information and to get feedback, and then to improve the science. Whereas, I think a lot of people approach conferences as sort of a way to show off the work.
JS: But not to get the feedback part, which is often what we want to do in these times.
ZF: And showing off the work is, I get it, I must show off, I love that, you know, everybody, to some degree, wants to – it’s fun being on the big stage. It’s fun being the center of attention. And there’s a place for that, that 100% to broadcast those kinds of fairly complete stories. But I think that there’s also that importance for the real one to one conversations that you can just have the back and forth, that you’re not going to get in very many other situations.
JS: Right. Yeah. I totally agree. I wanted to ask one last question. Because, as I mentioned earlier, you do spend some time at the back end of the book talking about conference organizers, you talk about which I, like, the whole thing is just so ingenious, I think to add these practical pieces, like, what do you wear, and conference organizers, like, how do you set it up, and what do you do about people who are being inappropriate in various ways, yeah, I wanted to ask, because you mentioned, I think, kind of in passing about these conference poster contests that happen in a lot of conferences. And I’m curious what your take on that is, because I sort of feel it is very similar to having a data visualization conference, because they’re evaluating sort of the design, but not necessarily the science, and they’re not reviewing the data. Right? Like, I feel like I could make a really nice poster if I didn’t have to worry about outliers and all these weird data points.
ZF: What? Constrained by the data.
JS: Right, if I wasn’t constrained by the data, and I was just concerned about winning a poster contest, so I’m just curious how you feel about that. And given your description of the huge room earlier with hundreds of posters, so what’s your feeling on those about those sort of things.
ZF: Well, I’ll typically say that the really big conferences, as far as I know, I don’t know if there’s any of those really huge ones that have poster competition, [inaudible 00:29:43] something that are going on at the smaller venues or the smaller meetings. Now, that said, I think that there’s – you bring up some really good points. And I thought about this quite a bit, I think the first thing is, well, is design subjective. And I think that, to some degree, yes, but also no. I think there’s definitely some things where you can say, well, this is a better design than another design. Right? Just as in, there’s certain best practices in, to use an example, if you have a graph, are the axes labeled, do they have units. Those kinds of things, I don’t think are subjective. They’re best practices of the craft. So I think that there are some things which you can – there’s a subjective element to it, but on the other hand, there really is an objective kind of design that people can look at and say, oh there’s a problem, this is a problem, this is not. Now, in terms of the fact that, well, are these things vetted or not, is there – how do we know that the data have not been altered in some way. Some conferences actually do review the presentation before they go in. So they’re actually peer reviewed at the outside?
ZF: That’s unusual though. And I’ll say that, but even then, I don’t think they do sort of an audit of all the data…
JS: No, right, it’s like a…
ZF: [inaudible 00:31:26] journals don’t do that.
JS: No, that’s right.
ZF: So I think that there’s this understanding that these are works in progress most frequently. They’re usually not completed works. Again, these are typically students, and quite often, they are – the competitions are by experience of students, so you have undergraduate versus graduate student awards. They’re usually not given to senior faculty at all. And so I think that, with that understanding, yes, there’s limitations; and, yes, there’s going to be an element of luck of the draw in terms of whether you win the competition or not, because there is that subjective element, I’m not going to say that there isn’t. But on the other hand, I think that those sorts of things are, first of all, for many people – many people enjoy competition, why deny them of that?
JS: Yeah, that’s fair.
ZF: Many people, competition brings out the best in them. We just had the Olympic Games, and there are some people who really want to be the winner at the Olympic Games. And then there are some people who just want to run around the block on the weekend. And I think that we can, to some degree, accommodate both of those kinds of people and the goals and the things that they enjoy. And I think that there’s also, to some degree, a little bit of an advantage of when we’re talking about these kinds of things that they are something which are meant to build people’s careers, posters, just, in general, are really important, because they’re frequently the first thing that somebody does professionally. It’s very frequently like the very first line in their CV, in terms of chronology. And I think that’s another reason why we need to take this really seriously for people.
JS: Yeah, seriously, yeah.
ZF: And similarly, for that opportunity to get, not just that you presented a poster, but that you had a winning poster, for many people is such a big builder of their career, because we all know that once you get one award, it makes getting the second one much easier. And I think that the difficulty is, of course, that it’s like, there’s more good work than there is awards.
JS: Yeah. Well, hopefully now there’ll be more better posters out there, so that’s the book for folks who haven’t seen it, I do recommend you. You check it out. Zen rocks through that, as I mentioned, the entire process. And I think there’s enough people who [inaudible 00:34:09] creating posters. I think it’s easy to go in here and take stuff out if you are making infographics. Even if you’re not making an academic poster, I think there’s a lot in here to help folks who are making maybe digital or other posters or just infographics. There’s a lot of great pieces of advice and strategies in here. So, Zen, thanks so much for the book. Thanks so much for coming on the show. It’s been great chatting with you.
ZF: It’s my pleasure. Thank you so much.
JS: Thanks everyone for tuning into this week’s episode of the podcast. I hope you enjoyed that. I hope you learned a little bit of something. And I hope you will check out Zen book. Again, as I mentioned at the very beginning and mentioned throughout the conversation with Zen, I think there’s just a lot to learn here for all of our different types of data communication, whether it’s an infographic, whether it’s a dashboard, whether it’s just a standalone graph, whether it’s a PowerPoint or keynote presentation, there’s a lot to learn in this book about font, layout, color, structure, thinking about being concise, as he mentioned right at the beginning of our conversation. So I hope you’ll check it out. Thanks so much for listening. So until next time, this has been the PolicyViz podcast.
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