When you do research, you sometimes get results. When you get results, you usually want to present them to your colleagues. As a scientist presenting to scientists, you have three common forms that that presentation can take: the talk, the poster, and the paper. Talks are bad because they inevitably come in one of nine types*, most of which are not illuminating. Papers are bad because they are incomprehensibly jargon-filled. Posters can bridge the gap between the dry technical nature of papers and the time-constraint and making-sure-not-to-confuse-most-people limitations of talks. So they could be an ideal communication method. But they aren’t. Scientific posters are terrible. The reason why has mostly to do with how poster sessions are conducted, and what posters are used for.
The Life and Times of the Poster
Poster sessions that I’ve attended work in the following way: posters are placed up in a row, and then people obtain beer and mingle among posters, spending roughly half their time looking at other people’s posters, and half the time standing by their own poster talking to visitors about their research. That means around half the time, the presentation is just the poster, and the other half the time, it’s poster plus presenter. That places contradictory demands on the poster. To be useful for when the presenter is not around, and to have a good long life as a thing to post on a wall somewhere, the poster must be self-contained. A visitor should be able to come to the poster, read it, and have an idea what the research is about, how it’s done and what the findings are. But for a poster to be useful when there is a presenter around, it must act as a starting point for a discussion or questions, and it must be a presentation aid for things that can’t be explained in words. If, when the presenter is around, a visitor comes up to the poster, reads it all and leaves without saying anything, that is not a good outcome. Thus the poster specifically needs to be not self-contained. Pulled apart by contradictory needs, of course the usual poster ends up succeeding in none.
The Three Kinds of Poster
The ideal stand-alone poster is basically a slightly simplified paper with a catchy title and a greatly expanded introduction section. An unwary passerby is drawn by the title, uses the introduction to figure out why the research is interesting and important, and then reads on to learn about the research. The ideal presentation aid poster is just a set of the figures that you’d use in a talk. You are explaining your research to someone else verbally, but when you need to show data, or apparatus, or some sort of flow diagram or schematic, you point to the poster. The ideal conversation-starter scientific poster is probably just a picture of a penguin. I know this because I once attended a meeting of the Atomic Physics division of the Dutch Physics Society that gave a best poster prize. The best poster prize was won by a student from Universiteit Utrecht whose poster had a picture of a penguin and a waveform on it. Apparently, she was working on the poster late into the night before the last day it could be printed, and drew a blank for what else to include. So she put a sine curve all across, and a penguin in the middle. It was very effective at getting people to talk to her about her poster and her research, and it looked cool, too.
How to Fix the Poster
In preparing talks, the № 1 advice that is always given is to think about your audience. So should it be with posters, but as we see that is impossible, because the poster is designed for several different audiences which have contradictory needs. Trying to make a poster that is both stand-alone, a presentation-aid and an attention-grabber overweights the poster with too much stuff. The ideal solution is to have two kinds of posters. Instead what happens today is that scientists gravitate much more towards the “stand-alone” poster. Part of that is that scientists are comfortable with papers, and so making something that is very similar to a paper is easy. And superficially there is a justification: the majority of a poster’s lifetime will be spent hanging on a wall somewhere, where a stand-alone poster is best. And yet, if you only make one type of poster, you should make an attention-getting, presentation-helping poster rather than a stand-alone one.
While it’s true that a poster spends more of its life presenterless and alone, that is precisely when the stakes are much lower. When someone is idly walking by the hallway and looks at your poster, if they don’t stop and learn about your research, it doesn’t really matter all that much. However, if you are standing with your poster and a scientist you really want to talk to about your research comes by, to have a poster that is useless for that task is a missed opportunity. Basically, I think an ideal poster should have as few words as possible outside the title and authors. I am not suggesting that at the next conference you attend, everyone show up with just pictures of penguins instead of their research results. But I do want you to consider how damning it is that that might actually lead to a better poster session than we often get currently.
An Ancillary Problem
My friend Boris once asked people why scientific posters were usually so ugly. And it’s true, they’re really ugly a lot of the time. And yes, in part it is that they’re so word-heavy because they’re meant to be stand-alone. But I think another part is that many scientists distrust design. They don’t want to be seen as slick, and think that spending any time on style is tantamount to an admission of lacking substance. This sucks, but I am not so deluded to think a change will come to make scientific posters beautiful. If they start becoming more useful, that will be good enough.
*it’s worth following that link just for “at this point, the understanding has passed into the complex plane”