Rethinking poster sessions? (Post associated with EEID 2019)

June 7, 2019

Get the full paper pre-print here (pdf) or read online on AUTHOREA.

I confess, I am not a huge fan of posters.

I find them to be inefficient in their production, ineffective in their communication, and awkward for both presenter and viewer during poster sessions themselves. In part because of this, before this week, I hadn’t made a poster since undergrad. In spite of my prejudice, I tried to dive into the task, telling myself it was a valuable skill to condense information into a single infographic. Yet, I found myself struggling with the same issue I have expounded on before with regards to presentations: namely there is a two-use-case problem. On one hand, you want something aesthetic that compliments (without distracting from) the more important part—what you are saying—but on the other hand, you want this to have some shelf-life and be useful to viewers after you are no longer physically standing in front of them.

Of course there are significant difference between talks and posters. One of which is the length of the script associated with the visual: for posters, usually a short elevator-pitch is all that is planned, since there is much greater opportunity for listener engagement compared to giving a talk. Yet, when I considered writing out a longer-form description (as I do for my talks), I found myself realizing that I had already gone through this effort once before—when I was writing the paper itself. It felt silly to have a very short summary (the poster) lead to a slightly longer summary which then directs to the text itself. It felt too far removed.

I toiled through nonetheless, making what I thought was a fair balance between the two: a poster dominated with figures, but with a couple of blocks of text. I found myself in the simultaneous position of not having enough space to fully explain the project without the need for me to be there and too much space for a concise summary that would serve as a non-distracting prop. I was about done with a version that was neither great nor terrible when I was sent this video by a fellow member of the Craft Lab.

A better way?

The whole video is a bit long, but the gist is that scientific communication could be better if we rethought posters in order to make them both easier to make and more effective in their purpose of communicating new science. There are two major roadblocks to the latter objective. First, as a viewer, it is hard to tell which of the dozens (hundreds?) of posters are actually relevant to you. Second, once you stop at a paper that is useful, you have to split your attention between a complex prop which typically has large blocks of text in addition to figures and tables, and the speaker, who is excited to have a chance to explain their research verbally.

Ideally, a poster should:

  1. be easy to determine usefulness/applicability when skimming it at a walking pace
  2. have sufficient prop value to support an in-depth discussion with those that would benefit
  3. have a way to access the full details after everyone has left the session

To accomplish this, first, the bulk of the poster will be taken up by a large statement of the primary result, prominently displayed in the middle of the poster and written in simple English. This means the vast majority of information that would normally fill an academic poster is pushed into sidebars that will only be referenced by those who are already hooked. In Morrison’s (the author of the video) original proposal, one of these sidebars will have the text necessary to understand the project in case you are not there or are otherwise occupied with other viewers. The second contains supplementary figures, diagrams, tables, etc. for you as a presenter to reference in discussions with viewers. Finally, a qr-code provides an easy and concise way for viewers to find more details or even the whole paper at their leisure. Making a poster like this will have a lot of empty-space and this is by design, drawing the eye to the bits that are most important.

Not a one-size-fits-all

There are substantive critiques to Morrison’s proposal, including both aesthetic and practical concernsI might write a second post responding to this and other critiques at a later time. Importantly, even if one agrees with the underlying motivation, not every project will lend itself to this format. For instance, not every project has a one-liner conclusion. Likewise, sometimes supplementary figures need to be complicated or large to be legible.

Morrison additionally suggests a color scheme that would allow fast categorization of posters according to type of project (theory, methods, empirical, etc.). While I see a practical benefit to such a convention (and am not convinced that such a convention could only arise through top-down enfocement), I suspect many people appreciate the artistic license that comes with making a poster or a presentation, and this level of conformity might feel too restrictive.

A first attempt

For my poster, an exploratory theory project, I had three main takeaways, not just one. Each could be written in relatively simple language (I admit I could have done better in this regard), but were best illustrated with a figure. Hence, the bulk of my poster is filled with these three figures and their findings in words.

I also had a large, multi-panel figure explaining some of the necessary background, which needed too much width for a narrow sidebar. I opted to combine the sidebars, giving me some extra width, but then I ended up filling this super-sidebar with just the materials that Morrison suggested for the “ammo bar”—the reference figures for discussion. This was a mistake, I think. Because I filled the whole poster with figures and equations, there was no room for the text to flesh out my work and allow a naïve reader to grasp the whole project without having to speak to me.

This will (hopefully) be somewhat alleviated by the QR code, but here, I made a second mistake: my QR code links to this post, not to the paper directly. This was due to a combination of procrastination and oversight, and I think the extra steps of clicking through the links to get to the paper is an unnecessary hurdle that I have placed between an interested viewer and my work.

You can access a digital version of the poster here.

As always, I appreciate all questions/comments/suggested improvements, which you can always email to meSomeday I will add comments to this blog, but as of yet I haven’t been able to find an easy solution that I am happy with—if you have a suggestion or something that works for you, I’d love to hear about it!.

Rethinking poster sessions? (Post associated with EEID 2019) - June 7, 2019 - Matthew J Michalska-Smith