The problem with posters at academic conferences

I recently attended the Genome Science: Biology, Technology, and Bioinformatics meeting in the UK, where I presented a poster. As I was walking around, looking at other people's posters, I was reminded of the common problem that occurs with many academic posters. Here are some pseudo-anonomous examples to show what I mean (click images to enlarge):

The problem here is not with the total amount of text — though that can sometimes be an issue — but with the width of the text. These posters are 84 cm (33 inches) wide, and it is not ideal to create text blocks that span the entire width of the poster. The reasons behind this are the same reasons why you never see newspapers display text like this…we are not very good at reading information in this manner.

To quote from Lynch & Horton's Web Style Guide; specifically the section on Page Width and Line Length:

The ideal line length for text layout is based on the physiology of the human eye. The area of the retina used for tasks requiring high visual acuity is called the macula. The macula is small, typically less than 15 percent of the area of the retina. At normal reading distances the arc of the visual field covered by the macula is only a few inches wide—about the width of a well-designed column of text, or about twelve words per line. Research shows that reading slows as line lengths begin to exceed the ideal width, because the reader then needs to use the muscles of the eye or neck to track from the end of one line to the beginning of the next line. If the eye must traverse great distances on a page, the reader must hunt for the beginning of the next line.

In contrast to the above examples, there were a couple of posters at the #UKGS2014 meeting that I thought were beautifully displayed. Bright, colorful, clearly laid out, not too much text, and good use of big fonts. Congratulations to Warry Owen et al. and Karim Gharbi et al. for your poster presentation prowess!