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Ruben Verborgh

Scientific posters are ineffective

Like the myth of “scientific” English, there’s nothing scientific about posters.

Dreaded scientific posters—if you attend conferences, you definitely saw them. They’re boring and ugly. On purpose. Because that’s what everybody does, right? The adjective scientific seems to imply that we should restrict our creativity. After all, content is king, and too much fanciness won’t get you anywhere? And the term poster is just because “abstract of 84cm × 119cm where you choose the colors” is too long? It’s this kind of reasoning that gets us nowhere.

As with scientific papers and presentations, just imitating what others do is not the best choice. They’re not doing it because they’re more experienced or better than you, they’re doing it because they’ve seen others do it. And those others, well… I truly realized the harm traditions do to effective communication when I followed a session with Jean-luc Doumont. He has a great and free booklet about this subject: Traditions, templates, and group leaders. One of the worst traditions is to display ugly posters. I love posters—my bedroom was full of them as a teenager—but scientific posters are a heavily mutilated version thereof.

Some people are trying to change things, and you sometimes even overhear them talking about poster design. I even found scientific poster on deviantART, which is an artist community, so you expect something decent.

[A typical scientific poster]
Unwittingly, the author of this poster created a typical ineffective example. ©Splette

Admittedly, the above poster has some more interesting graphic features to it, fonts were not automatically selected by PowerPoint, and there is some visual content in there. However, let me ask you (and you can click the poster to zoom in):

  • Would you hang this poster on your wall?
  • What has the author done?
  • And are his results good or bad?
  • Can you read the references, and if you could, would you?
  • Have you actually read any of the non-title text? Can you? Would you?

Now, by no means I want to pick on this poster or its author. For fair comparison, I just wanted to take one where somebody actually put effort into the design. Unfortunately, even then, the poster fails to perform its job.

The job of an effective poster

Recently, I started designing conference posters that I want to have on my wall. And here’s why I believe you should try this, too. The biggest flaw is that people think they are somehow obliged—literally—to put in all information. Everything. Sadly, it’s not uncommon to see almost the full text of a 4-page abstract reappear in the poster design, including references. Why make a poster at all then?

The job of an effective poster is to get people’s attention. No less, no more. In fact, do omit stuff. You don’t want your poster to satisfy visitors. Posters should tease, challenge, invite… People should become curious, intrigued, eager to talk to you.

Do you really expect to see “introduction” on a poster, “acknowledgements”, “conclusion”? Give people the main message. If you want them to remember one thing, what would it be? It’s definitely not your title, because, let’s face it, even you probably don’t know it by heart. Think of a slogan that summarizes the most important finding of your research, and get it in there. It’s the only thing that matters.

If you’re wondering what my posters feel like, take a look at my UMAP2013 poster. I’m not claiming it’s the greatest poster ever, nor that it is the perfect example. (Hey, it’s advertising… If blue was the perfect color and everybody was using it, the only successful company would have a pink billboard.) I don’t care if looks non-scientific. People visited my poster, were curious to learn more, talked to me about it. I met lots of new people at my stand. This poster has been effective. My aim was to attract people for my new and then unknown research project, and I succeeded.

In case you’re wondering about the space in the middle, this is an interactive poster. Visitors could try out the concept live on the canvas, by putting a cardboard website on there and adding links. This achieved three goals:

  • People engaged with the poster and my research.
  • They understood the concept of distributed affordance.
  • They remembered me and what I was doing.

Science needs creativity

I’m pretty sure that, if I meet any of them again, the interactive poster will still ring a bell. What matters here is that creativity is important. It is important for science: this is how discoveries are made. It’s even more important for scientific communi­cation: this is how you get in touch with people, and how new ideas happen.

Bring your messages in an original way, and your visitors will applaud you for that. The worst you can do is having all your text on your poster. It’s inefficient, and it’s impolite: if you let your audience select what’s important, you’re wasting their time. Researchers try to get too much information out, at the risk of delivering none.

Oh… you might think it looks so much more impressive if your poster is full of text. You’re doing something really difficult, right?
Well, I can assure you this: I can make a poster full of text in a few seconds. But creating a poster with only 20 words that says even more?
Trust me, the difficult thing is making research look easy.

Ruben Verborgh

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