27 May 2010

No more slidesters, part 5: The specialist, PosterGenius 1.5

Poster Genius annoyed me a bit by putting ads in the Pimp my poster group on Flickr in the place where an actual poster should go. But I didn’t let it dissuade me from trying their free trial version. A few features are limited in the trial version, and it places a large notice that the poster was created using the trial version in the background of the poster. This review is based on the trial version of PosterGenius version 1.5.

I was immediately struck by how it plods through a very rigid input sequence. The PosterGenius strategy is to allow users very limited freedom. For example, you can only separate authors in the title section with a comma. You can’t put “Author and Author,” or “Author & Author.”

The layout? “Your poster vill have equally spaced vertical columns und you vill like it!

The initial poster creation wizard runs like this:

  1. Enter dimensions
  2. Enter authors
  3. Create sections
  4. Pick a template

After you’ve run through the Wizard, you get a series of sections along the left. You can rearrange sections by dragging and dropping within this pane. Each section ends up functioning much like a PowerPoint slide in a deck: it is a self-contained set of text and graphics.

You enter text and pictures for each section in boxes along the bottom, in boxes that look like the “Notes” for individual PowerPoint slides. (Although I saw “left” and “bottom” here, that’s only the default view; you can change the position of these input screens somewhat.)

Many simple functions are surprisingly difficult to locate – particularly if you miss your chance to specify them during the Wizard set-up.

For example, if you insert a new section of text, it’s damn hard to figure out how to get rid of it. you can’t find an option in the pull down menus that says, “Delete section.” You can’t select it and hit the delete key on the keyboard. You can’t select it and right click it for a context-sensitive menu. I finally discovered that you can hit the delete button (a big red “X”) in the toolbar, but this seems to be the only thing that works.

Similarly, you are asked to pick the poster size in the initial set-up. But unlike almost every other program I’ve used of this sort, there’s no “page set up” option to be found in the pull down menus to allow you to change page size. Again, it’s (only?) in the toolbar. And page size is only in nearest whole centimeters. 100.5 cm? 48 inches? Forget it.

The combination of the walk-through creation and the surprisingly fussy controls makes the process of creating a poster feel like David Pogue’s “type a word” Wizard in this talk (fast forward to 7 minutes and 50 seconds).

As I mentioned briefly above, PosterGenius makes you lay out your poster in equally wide vertical columns. Everything must be contained in each column. No wide pictures that straddle two columns, for instance. This limitation will save many posters from turning into train wrecks.

The ability to change the number of columns quickly is sweet. Three columns not working? Change it to four and boom! Everything is automatically rescaled to the new narrower columns.

This is an opportune time to mention that PosterGenius doesn’t redraw the screen live. You have to hit a refresh button in the toolbar every time you want to see the changes you’ve made.

Going back to managing columns, when you change the number of columns, you may find the sections falling into inconvenient places. For example, you may find the “Results” heading sitting alone at the bottom of column 1, instead of appearing at the top of column 2. You can force sections to appear in the next column. The option is hidden under the “Advanced” section underneath where you type in the text for your section.

A “Typography” button allows you to set the font size, colour, and so on. You can set everything for each section individually, or all sections at once.

The available templates feature designs that look very much like those you’d find in PowerPoint. Some are simple and straightforward. Some have very generic “science-y” photo backdrops. There are medical backgrounds with syringes, people in a surgical masks, an IV unit, or a bunch of pills. There are math equations against a starry exploding background for the physicists. Bridges and powerlines for engineers. Many of the photo elements in the templates scream, “I visited iStock photo.” Several templates have music staffs. Do musicians often do posters?

Unfortunately, the PosterGenius templates facilitate putting “logo bookends” around the title. I think they’re mostly pointless, but at least most of the templates make the logos somewhat well spaced and modestly sized.

Another very nice feature is that there is a button that creates a printout for distribution. This is not fitting the poster on a standard letter sized piece of paper; this takes the contexts of the poster, and formats it as a proper document, like something that you’d make in Word.

There’s a series of things that Poster Genius can’t do in its current version.

  • No spell check. In this day and age, this alone is close to a deal-breaker.
  • You can’t import any vector-based file format. You’re stuck with jpg, gif, bmp, tif, and png, which is a good, albeit limited, set of choices.
  • You can’t crop a picture. You would have to do this in another graphic editor, then import it.
  • You can’t easily reorder pictures. You have to delete it (which can’t be undone), then insert it again.
  • You don’t get to control where the poster is saved. Big drawback.
  • If you include too much stuff, PosterGenius will generate a second page rather than warning you it won’t fit. If you’re not careful, you’ll end up with an entire wasted page when printing.

All of these seem to be fairly simple things to fix over time. This software could be a thing of beauty by version 3 or so.

The bottom line

Poster Genius is a serious attempt to give academics great poster-making software. It’s a far better tool making posters than PowerPoint. (There’s your pull quote, Scigen Technologies!) Anyone who has never used anything other than PowerPoint to make a poster should check it out immediately. Anyone who already has a good grasp on high-end graphics software (e.g., Adobe Illustrator, CorelDraw!) might want to check it out, but I expect they might not find it worth switching to PosterGenius quite yet.

Additional, and conflict of interest statement

I had written all of the above before I mentioned on Twitter that this review would be coming this month. Following that, I was emailed by a rep from Scigen out of the blue who gave me a license to use the full version. Despite my “There’s your pull quote” joke above, they didn’t ask for anything. I guess they really want me to kick the tires on the full and complete version. I may come back and do an update on this after I’ve spent more time with the full version.

25 May 2010

The F1000 poster bank

The Faculty of 1000 is the latest entity to set up a poster archive. It’s announced on this blog post; you can find the archive itself here.

Although the archive is up and running, pickings may be a bit slim for a while. The massive Neuroscience meeting, which I know well, has just tens of posters. And it’s not at all clear how one will be able to browse through this archive.

I’ll be submitting a poster from the 2009 Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting; I’ll let you know how the submission process goes.

This is the third conference poster archive I know of; Nature Precedings and ePosters are the others. It’ll be interesting to see which, if any, thrive. If there are more, please email me!

Still, none offer what I think is badly needed: a “best of the best” gallery where posters are chosen for primarily for graphic and design excellence, not so much for the cleverness of the science.

Related posts

What to do with the poster?

20 May 2010

No more slidesters, part 4: Memory whiplash with Poster 8

In my efforts to find good alternatives to PowerPoint for making a poster, I took the approach that I use to solve all my problems. I went to Google and typed in “poster software.”

This led me to the Poster Software website. When I first saw it, I immediately thought, “I hope the software is better than the website design.”

The website is seriously old school. The multiple coloured fonts, the little linky icons, reminded me of the early days of the web, circa the heyday of Geocities.

And the opening screen of Poster 8 is much the same. It rotates through different graphics, but they all have a very similar feel. Lots of different fonts, showing off multiple shading effects at random. It took me back to my days working with Windows 3.1. Or maybe a Radio Shack Color Computer 3. Okay, maybe that’s going a little too far, although several of the testimonials date to the late 1990s.

The program opened up with an letter sized page. I wanted to make a 4 foot by 3 foot poster, so I looked at how to change the page size.

And I got stopped.

I got sent to the “Printer setup” page, which had a convenient indicator of where to change page size.

The problem was, this led to the standard “printer properties” window. I was supposed to set up the page dimensions there. But I had normal, boring desktop printers, not any capable of printing something 4 by 3 feet. So I couldn’t set the paper size as large as I needed.

So my experience with Poster 8 software ended after less (much less) than 10 minutes.

There is a PDF converter, but it’s not available in the trial version. And I wasn’t enticed enough to shell out the cash for the full version. My overall impression was that this might be great for printing a banner for a garage sale, but it wasn’t going to deliver the goods for a serious technical poster for an academic conference.

Related posts

The “No more slidesters” series

  • Part 1: PowerPoint, the problem child of posters
  • Part 2: Publisher, the alternative you (probably) already own
  • Part 3: OpenOffice Draw, free and better than PowerPoint
  • Interlude: Prezi, for make presentations more like posters

19 May 2010

Sweating the small stuff

A lot of the stuff I discuss on this blog is a little anal retentive, I admit. Fiddly little alignments, spacing, matching up typefaces, more alignment, more futzing with spacing... Are those last few changes it worth it?

Seth Godin explains why it pays to sweat those last few details.

In most fields, there's an awful lot of work put into the last ten percent of quality. ...

Laying out the design of a page or a flyer so it looks like a pro did it takes about ten times as much work as merely using the template Microsoft builds in for free, and the message is almost the same...

Except it’s not. Of course not. The message is not the same.

The last ten percent is the signal we look for, the way we communicate care and expertise and professionalism.

This is why I write about using Helvetica instead of Arial, and anything instead of PowerPoint.

18 May 2010

Poster versus talk, May 2010 edition

At the Uncertain Principles blog, Chad Orzel takes a survey on whether people would rather present a poster versus give a talk. There’s a lively comment thread that might explain some of the reasons for the three to one lead one format has over the other. (No, I’m not telling you which one!)

Related posts

Poster or talk?
Should your first presentation be a poster?

13 May 2010

Conversation piece

If you walked into a room with that table, you’d have something to talk about, wouldn’t you? It would be almost impossible not to ask what the heck it was doing in that living room, where it was bought, and for goodness’s sake, why?

It is a remarkable object, in the sense that Seth Godin uses the term (emphasis added):

As I travel around spreading the word of the Purple Cow, a lot of people appear confused about just what “remarkable” means. It’s not elitist. It’s not weird. It’s not cheap or expensive or big or small. It’s any or all of these things... it’s just something worth talking about.

A conference poster should be a remarkable object. The job of a poster is to start conversations.

To put it another way, a poster is a social object. People are often more comfortable talking about some third object than they are either talking about themselves, or their conversational partner. After all, talking about yourself, or the person you’re talking to, is not an easy thing to do: it requires some trust.

What starts conversations? Above all else, you need something recognizable if you want to start a conversation. If there is nothing a novice can comprehend at a glance, you’re not going to have conversations.

But you have an even better chance of starting conversations if that entry point is remarkable. That remarkable thing can be an amazing fact. It can be a tantalizing question. Or, like the table above, it just might be unusual, edgy, or unexpected.

Related links

Entry points: Five ways to make your poster more inviting

Seth’s Blog: How to be remarkable

Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 blog: Exhibits and artefacts as social objects.

Furniture from here. Ad from here.

11 May 2010

So you need a typeface?

The “So you need a typeface?” flowchart is taken from here from designer Julian Hansen. Click to enlarge.

It’s a fun graphic, but alas! There is no “research poster” starting point. Either “infographic” or “newspaper” might be good starting points if you want to try it for your poster.

P.S. – If in doubt, use Helvetica. And not that Arial knock-off, either; Helvetica.

06 May 2010

Maestros wanted

I’m looking for inspiration.

I’m looking for talent and craftsmanship.

I’m looking for people whose posters consistently stand out.

People who give good consistently talks can become well-known for doing so. People who make consistently good posters... I can’t think of a single one.

Beautiful slide decks even have their own archives. For instance, I recently discovered Note & Point, a self-described collection of slideware slides “looking that much better.” I’m sure there are many others.

But there isn’t anywhere you can go for a similar gallery of really knockout conference posters. You can find good posters at ePosters and the Pimp my Posters Flickr group, but those have different mandates, really. The former is a general archive, the latter a testing ground.

That’s why I would like your help. If you know a colleague who is great at making posters, please let me know. If you find a single poster somewhere that is just a masterpiece, send me the link. I’d like to start featuring their work, finding out what they do to make great posters, and sharing that with you.

Wearing a black tuxedo is admired, but in no way required.

03 May 2010

Survey: What do you use?

This week marks the last week of classes for many academics. This means that conference season will soon go into full swing. Many posters will be designed, printed, and presented in the next few months.

To better understand the needs of poster makers, I have started a poll that will run through summer. You can see the poll over on the right side of the screen. The question is simple: What software do you prefer to use to make conference posters?

Please take a second to vote – assuming, of course, that you actually make posters! (I can’t image why you’re reading if you don’t, but what you do on your side of the phosphor dots is your business.)

Additional: If your preferred tool isn’t listed, please vote “Something else” and leave a note in the comments, or email me.

Update: The poll is now closed, and the results are here

Photo by secretlondon123 on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.