Tag Archives: typography


I was asked on Twitter if I could clarify my views on text justification for conference posters, but decided I couldn’t come up with a good 140 character response. So here you go:

fabric-postersI recommend left-justified research posters for several reasons. First, I read in some typography/readability article (can’t find reference but will keep looking) that your brain subconsciously uses the ragged right edge to better gauge vertical reading position, allowing reader to more quickly travel through a paragraph. This matters less if you have good space between lines of text, but matters a lot if you’ve squished lines together to fit more on your poster (unfortunately, a very common scenario). Second, left-justified text has more predictable spaces within and between words, and that consistency makes sentences easier (faster) to read. Fully justified text can be especially awful when column widths are too small, and for smaller text boxes like figure and table legends. As an example of how awful those space problems can be, here’s an artificial dem on stration. These spacing issues are much bigger problems for people with dyslexia (20% of people, perhaps) and other reading disorders. That said, typesetting software such as InDesign have really good controls for minimizing the spacing problems of fully justified text. And some fonts (often the ones you have to actually purchase) are good at spacing themselves. Third, left-justified paragraphs suffer much less from the rivers and pigeonholes of white space that are sometimes created by full justification. These distracting visual elements are probably more of a problem for people or disciplines that are fond of big words, which coincidentally are those that love to have poster sessions. You can minimize rivers and pigeonholes by turning on automatic hyphenation, of course. In related news, Powerpoint doesn’t do auto-hyphenation, which makes it terrible for posters because you typically want to cram as much on a page as possible. Finally, errors in spaces between sentences (you just need one) are much easier to catch if you are using left justification.

But there are at least two reasons why you might reasonably ignore what I’ve written above. First, full justification looks so cool! If you want people to think you’re cool and professional, and you probably do, you might just go ahead and hit that button … because most viewers (and mentors, and poster judges) will also be similarly impressed. Unless they’re dyslexic, in which case they might hate you. A compounding problem is that justification looks cooler and cooler as you reduce font size … contributing to the word problem that plagues almost all conference posters. Second, there seems to be some research (again, I’m looking for citations I know I have somewhere) suggesting that full justification might increase a reader’s comprehension of the text. My guess is comprehension increases because one reads it more slowly. Changing the font every sentence might also increase comprehension in the same way, though I don’t recommend doing that. (Hyphenated paragraphs take longer to read, too.)

By the way, don’t center-justify text in figure legends and table captions. Many prestigious journals use centered text in this way, but I think they’d change to left justification if they could do so without admitting to prior foolishness.

As an aside, I recently purchased a Kobo eReader because I can specify left-justification. I couldn’t do that with my Kindle. I can also now read while floating in a pool (my Kobo is waterproof).

If for some reason the above didn’t bore you, please see more of the same at Designing conference posters. Drop me a note if you have actual data for any of the above speculation.

Posted in Education, Graphic design, Science | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The fine print on poster sessions

For giggles, I contacted approximately 100 societies with annual meetings coming up, and asked them whether they offered word count suggestions for attendees presenting posters.  The majority didn’t write back (no real surprise), but of those that did the most common response was, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Some went on to provide me with the word count limit for the abstracts submitted (to get your poster accepted).  Only one response had the information I was looking for: “5 pages of 16pt text” as maximum.  If you fill up 5 pages with the phrase “average word”, that gives you 1750 words. Personally, I think 500 – 1000 is a good range. If you’re curious what a wordy poster looks like, I’ve attached to this post an image of text-only version of one of my templates.

Word count of poster with too much text

In hindsight, though, it was probably a silly question.  What is more important and understandable to attendees preparing their posters is the minimum acceptable font size, because even in posters with low word count, readability can be awful if all the figure text (for example) is set in 12pt instead of the size of the rest of the body text. If only the poster prize committee would police these limits, though.  Whenever I stumble onto a site showing prize-winning posters, committees often seem to be awarding people who have made their font smaller than everyone else, invariably the size is smaller than meeting guidelines.  It’s really puzzling.  It could be that people with high-quality content have a lot to say, and so they have to shrink font size to get it all in.  However, I just think people are somehow wired or trained to attribute small print to “authoritative, creative” and large print to “amateurish, insecure.”  Or do judges take longer to read the small text, and thus demonstrate the “disfluency” advantage that gives strange fonts an advantage in memory retention? If there is a typographer/psychologist out there with insight into this phenomenon, please fill me in.

I know it’s never going to happen, but in an ideal world judges would carry one of those fun little plastic shape templates while they review posters.  Then they could position the 3/8″ circle (or whatever) over a standard letter (“s” perhaps) to evaluate the size.  If the “s” fits without touching the edges, it’s too small and the poster cannot be entered into the prize pool.  Something like this would be really useful, because kids these days have no idea what font size means, especially when the final output is large.

Posted in Education, Graphic design, Science | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment