This year the enterprising inPharma organization committee made extra effort to turn the annual one day gathering into a two-day event. Theory was followed by practice this time. On Wednesday, the attendees enjoyed a symposium and on Thursday, September 6th, the T-building of the MPI of Biochemistry opened its doors once again to welcome the workshop participants.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to clone oneself (at least, for now). So I had to choose one of the 4 workshops to attend. In the face of enticing titles and excellent speakers, it was no easy task. Eventually, I settled on the “Scientific Design – inner values matter, but looks do not harm” led by Dr. Verena Resch (formerly, of the University of Graz, presently, of the Luminous Lab). The choice proved to be incredibly rewarding. The 3 hours flew by in a blink, my notebook pages promptly filled up. It is impossible to imitate the vitality of the in-person exchange in writing, so I selected 5 key lessons I believe every PhD student could benefit from. This is Part I, regarding presentations and written documents. Part II will consider poster design.

Disclaimer: this is not a direct retelling of the workshop content. Filtered through my consciousness, this is a free rendering of the main points spiced up with some critical reflection.

1. Technical minutiae

Especially when printing handouts, you need to beware of the difference between your screen resolution, which is generally lower, and the one used by your printer, which is usually relatively higher. The rule of thumb numbers are:
Screen resolution: 150 dpi
Printer resolution: 300 dpi
*DPI = dots per inch
Here’s an illustration to drive the point home
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In other words,images on paper require more dots (i.e. squirts of paint from the cartridge) per inch than when viewed on the screen from the comfort of your chair. That is why, unless you change the resolution to a number appropriately high for paper, you are bound to loose quality.

2. Cross-platform compatibility

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And not only fonts, but also all manner of sophisticated diagrams, elaborate figure captions, etc. Even programmes that use the same file format, like Google Slides and PowerPoint, may throw up tantrums when you try to present the talk you’ve made in Google Slides on a Windows computer running Power Point. The fail save solution? Save as .pdf! Though if you need to add videos or are into the theatrical ‘fade in’ effects PowerPoint supports, you could save all your text as images and paste it onto the PowerPoint slides. This way, you will be sure the fonts, text size and alignment won’t go haywire during file transfer.

3. Font

Since we are on the topic of font, let’s march on! Have you ever paid attention to what PowerPoint is trying to tell you? That cryptic ‘serif’ upended to the font title?
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You may have not noticed it before, but all fonts you have ever seen could be categorized into two broad classes: serif (e.g. Time New Roman) and sans serif (e.g. Calibri). The Serifs are the tiny protrusions around the edges of the letters.
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The serif fonts all have these genteel looking add-ons, whereas sans serif ones do without them and tend to give a more austere impression.
You’d think such a minuscule detail is a matter of purely aesthetic quibbles. However, there are good reasons to abide by the following scheme:
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If you are presenting in a large auditorium (well, maybe not in the next 20 years, but when you are a professor and a giving a ‘Fundamentals in Neuroscience’ lecture), the people at the back will still be able to read the Sans Serif font. However, if you opt for Serif, you are bound to test their patience. Serifs are much more vulnerable to compromised quality of the image, the letters become almost completely illegible.
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So, Serifs for main text, Sans Serif for titles. Likewise, Sans Serif for screens, Serif for paper.
However, any rule goes only so far…
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Would you say that Nature Neuroscience and Journal of Neuroscience somehow look are worse off for using Serif fonts for their titles?
Also, if you’ve paid attention to our little logo upgrade, I opted for a Serif, despite creating it after attending the workshop. From my perspective, Serifs transmit a certain image: accurate, exact and neat. Would you agree? Let me know in the comments! Maybe we need an emergency makeover?

4. Software

Especially when it comes to graphics, the tools are crucial. Dr. Resch recommended two programmes:
Blender – an open source software tool for 3-D graphics with a vibrant support community.
Adobe Illustrator – the premier vector graphics programme. Paid subscription, but Dr. Resch recommended getting it if you are seriously interested in advancing your design and illustration skills.
Personally, I would add two more:
Inkscape – open source graphics editor, which does just as well as the Illustrator but does not require you to pay a dime to the Adobe gatekeepers.
GIMP – even more ideologically driven open source framework for image manipulation, which can seamlessly do the job of the Photoshop.
What are you using? Please throw suggestions in the comments!

5. Colour

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Unfortunately, color has a bad rep in academia. Some people strongly believe it makes the audience see you as less serious, your presentation – as frivolous. So most of the time academics resort to the good old bare white slides with splashes of plain black text.
Now, as everything else, color is (a) not always appropriate, (b) can be easily overdone.
a) If you are presenting in a lab meeting, some coloristic experiments may be very much appreciated by your sleepy colleagues who already have a good idea of your project. Apart from that, when you are applying for a job or a grant, using some subtle colors can make your presentation memorable to the tired hiring committee, for whom a string of talks with identical layout just merge into an undifferentiated blur at the end of the day.
However, if it is an invited talk at another university or a meeting with your supervisor, where getting your message clearly across is a priority, you may do better by adopting the neutral black-and-white design. This does not violate expectations and helps the audience to focus on the content right away.
b) If you are at a loss when it comes to complimentary color schemes, you can borrow from Mother Nature! For those of us with less-than-perfect color sense, Dr. Resch has devised a rather ingenious solution.
Download a natural image that you find visually appealing, be it a mountain, a lake, a forest (or all 3 since we are in Bavaria). Put it through one of the online color palette generator tools, for example, Canva. Voila! Just pick your two favorites. Opting for more might overstretch your audience’s aesthetic openness.
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Thank you for exercising your attention span! This was Part I. Part II with poster-specific tips is coming soon.