Getting people to talk to you during a poster presentation (Wade Kelly)

Interactive art | Photo by Wade Kelly
Without fail, whenever I give poster sessions or tweet the suggestion that we need to reduce text and clutter on academic posters, I get negative feedback. That feedback can be, more or less, summarised as, “that’s just not how it’s done”. So, it got me wondering, just how long have we been doing things as they’re done?

When did the tradition of academic posters emerge? If we’re this wedded to the format, it must go back to Plato or the Royal Society? Well, no.

According to Nicholas Rowe’s (2017) Academic & Scientific Poster Presentation: A Modern Comprehensive Guide, academic poster’s really only came into their own in the 1970’s. Post-WWII, as the number of academics increased, so too did participation in academic associations, which resulted in an influx of submissions for presentations at conferences. Organisations turned to posters in order to have more submissions accepted to the conference.

The academic poster is relatively new to academia — only becoming widespread in the last 40-50 years — yet it seems to have been decided what it must look and feel like. For early poster ‘presentations’, scholars were afforded a 15-minute window to present the contents of the poster. Generally, we’ve dispensed with that formality. Now, poster sessions take place in large halls, often accompanied by drinks and hors d’oeuvres for about an hour. For larger associations, there can be hundreds of posters arranged in rows filling the conference centre floor. If the point is to disseminate your research, how can you expect to stand out in the crowd?

It’s good to take a hard look at your motivations. What is the goal of your poster presentation? Is it to:
  • Disseminate your research?
  • Promote discussion about your research?
  • (Re)present, yourself, your faculty and institution?
Chances are, it’s all of the above! There are many sites devoted to detailing what makes a good poster and the steps to take. Most of the posters created using these sites still manage to be pretty dreadful. Even when using institutional templates, the posters are often bloated and dense with information, which make them difficult to navigate. When people are overloaded with information, they tend to turn off and turn away. Even academics.

There are a few difficulties people run up against when designing a poster. The first problem is that generally asking non-designers to be designers doesn’t work. The second issue is that we, as academics, have been taught to ensure that we have presented information as comprehensively as possible. We tend to ensure we’re doing this by adding more, more, and then more.

So, what if we thought of it as poster ‘authoring’ rather than ‘design’? What if we only focused on the text and ignored the design completely? What if we imposed very strict limits on what could/should go on a poster? What we would get is something like Mike Morrison’s Better Scientific Poster (see below).

Mike Morrison's Better Scientific Poster
The key to Mike’s poster is that it doesn’t attempt to present a comprehensive picture of the research project. Rather, the intent is to start a conversation between the researcher and the viewer by presenting a single succinct key finding in the centre of the poster. This key finding can be seen from across the room. It is a short sentence in plain English using bold characters to highlight the important words. Additional information is put in the two side columns. Additional information about the project can be accessed via a website (you can even link it to a Dropbox file that includes the associated research paper) using a QR-code as the trigger.

Mike has removed the design barrier (for the most part) by making it radically simple to use his template. Anyone can download, edit, and print!

The difficult part here is the editing. Deciding what to put as your key finding has, in my experience, been difficult for academics. The reflex is to try and pose the sentence as a question or to fill the statement with hedging language. Putting together a single sentence that is readable, and compelling, from across the room is a tough proposition.

To get started on making the poster that will spark conversation, you must start with this sentence. Workshop it and share it with a colleague. Ideally, share it with someone not in your field. Even better, share it with someone who doesn’t work at a university or didn’t attend one. If they can understand roughly what that key finding is, you’re on the right track. If they can’t, it’s back to the drawing board.

Now, before you get too excited about this new idea in academic poster design, a word of warning. If you are an Early Career Researcher or PhD researcher, adopting such an approach may seem controversial. Talk to your supervisor to get a sense of whether such an approach will be welcomed in your discipline or field.

Remember, though: If the point is to start a conversation, it might be time to try something different.

Dr. Wade Kelly is the Senior Coordinator, Research Impact, at La Trobe University, in Melbourne, Australia.

Wade’s PhD research focused on how and why universities and academics engage with communities. This is Wade’s personal website and he tweets from @wadekelly.