Do Academic and Scientific Conference Posters Need a Drastic Change?

 
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What do you think of traditional conference posters?

Love them? Hate them?

However you feel about them, there is a poster design going viral on social media, often under the hashtag #BetterPosters

NPR even covered it if you’re wondering what I’m talking about.

When I first downloaded the (updated) template, I had mixed feelings about it.

There were some things I liked, but other things I didn’t. The things I liked made it worth retweeting, but now I’ve had a chance to carefully review it and to see how it’s been implemented by others. I wanted to take my time with this to provide a thoughtful post about #BetterPosters.

I didn’t share my initial concerns or critiques because there are usually enough people out there playing “devil’s advocate” and critiquing other people’s design that I almost never feel the need to join in.

I usually feel like we have better things to critique, like all the social injustice that’s happening every single day. I can be plenty critical about the United States health care scam of a system, student loan debt, police brutality, how ridiculous it is that I pay thousands more in business taxes than Netflix and Amazon, and …

well, you get the point.

So when it comes to tech and design stuff?

I’m usually pretty chill.

Even if people don’t want me to be. One of the least popular things I say online is that I do not care how to pronounce gif. Do I know what you’re talking about? Do I get what you’re saying?

Then WHO CARES OMG.

 
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Why am I telling you all of this? I just need you to understand that I’m not the type of person who jumps into every single debate out there. I need you see I’m not just trying to nay-say something because it’s new and different. I embrace things that challenge the status quo! This isn’t just a “hot take” to get attention.

Get to the point, you say? Okay I will.

I finally decided to write this post, because a lot of people have been asking me what I think. Plus, apparently one conference is mandating this as the new poster design layout and that was the final straw (Speaking of straws, I could also go on a rant about the plastic straw ban…). My hope is that this post will encourage our field to take advantage of the good aspects coming out of #BetterPosters, while effectively addressing its limitations.

If we get this right, maybe we can use this momentum to change conference posters (and maybe slide presentations by extension!) for the better, on a widespread scale.


Okay so what do I think?

I recommend that this poster design does NOT become the new status quo or gold standard for conference posters. To me, it’s like the Prezi of poster design.

It seems great at first because it’s so different, and will wake some people up (which is fantastic), but in this post I argue that ultimately it misses the mark in terms of using design to effectively communicate data.


3 things I LIKE about #BetterPosters

(1) It’s changing minds & waking people up about how bad conference posters are.

The #1 biggest struggle I face when trying to get academics and scientists to design better presentations is that most people think their slide design is much better than it actually is. And I’m not saying that as a judgmental snob. I’ve lost count of how many people have come to one of my presentation training workshops thinking they’ll just get a couple “quick tips” but walk away realizing their entire approach needs to change.

But not in a soul crushing way. Many share things like my workshop was the breath of fresh air they needed, and they’re now excited about all the possibilities for their future slide presentations. And, of course, they don’t just get motivated: they learn TONS of actionable strategies to make it happen, regardless of what slide software they use (If you want that for your team, send me a quick email).

I’ve also lost count of how many times someone has said “Yeah, my slide design is pretty good,” but then when I see their slides it’s very clear that’s not the case. When the status quo is so bad, and the problem is so widespread, it’s like everyone gets stuck and collectively lowers their standards for effective research communication.

In other words: I know how hard it is to change people’s attitudes about visually engaging research communication. Yet, that’s exactly what’s happening right now with posters! More people are realizing they don’t need to be trapped by the status quo. That conference posters don’t have to be boring and you can use creativity and design to make them better.

And that is a huge positive step for academia and science, because the status quo for conference poster design DOES need to change.

 
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Too often, conference posters look like a scholarly journal barfed up one of its publications and posted it on the wall.

That’s not effective, either. All the text crowds the poster, leaving little room for data visualizations or other visuals, which means it’s exactly the type of conference poster that:

  1. does not catch people’s attention.

  2. does not encourage people to talk to you.

  3. makes it harder for you to verbally explain.

  4. no one will actually read or comprehend during the conference.

I mean, seriously. The last time you were attending a conference poster session, think about what happened when you tried to read a standard conference poster.

It’d probably take about 10-15 minutes to thoroughly read all the text, in a quiet room with no distractions. Now think back to the noisiness of a poster hall, and the other people breathing down your neck (violating your personal space) to read the poster too. And, you have the author staring at the side of your face the whole time (even if they aren’t, it feels that way).

How much are you really going to understand or remember?

Very little. A standard conference poster does not work well in an actual conference poster session.

A standard conference poster maybe works well for bored undergrads to stare at in the hall before their class, but not for an actual poster session.

But even then, if it’s a standard wall-of-text jargon-filled poster, then those undergrads are probably just going to be uninspired and will probably walk away thinking research is boring or confusing.

 
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So that’s what the #BetterPosters creator gets exactly right. What he says about traditional conference posters in this NPR article is 100% true. This is opening the door for people to let go of the wall of text. It’s getting people unstuck from repeating the status quo. I’m thrilled about that.

Whenever a client or member in my professional development program asks about how to design a good poster, one of the first things I say is the purpose of a conference poster is to…

  1. Catch people’s attention (among the sea of posters).

  2. Make them want to come talk to you (networking).

  3. Have juuuuust enough detail to explain your work to them, pointing to visuals, data visualizations, and key points along the way.

  4. Hopefully, get them excited enough about you/your research that they decide to learn more, after the conference.

And I think that’s what #BetterPosters is trying to get researchers to do, which I appreciate 100%. And for better or worse, it’s working really well for #1 and #2. If you scroll through the hashtag on Twitter right now, you will see a lot of posts about crowds surrounding these posters. Poster presenters are sharing how their #BetterPosters approach is getting a lot of positive response.

But…as I talk about later, I don’t think the #BetterPosters design successfully achieves #3 or #4 for that list.

(2) It encourages academics and scientists to come up with a headline (a takeaway point).

Instead of just a neutral or vague title, the core change of a #BetterPoster is that you have a headline—a takeaway point or message. This is fabulous.

I find it surprising how many academics or scientists can’t answer the most basic question about their work: What’s the point?

What’s the takeaway message?

“I have data” is not a takeaway message. #BetterPosters reminds scientists and academics to start by answering that question, and then design the rest of the poster to support the takeaway message.

(3) It’s changing minds & waking researchers up about using design for better research communication.

What do I mean #BetterPosters is like the Prezi of poster design?

Prezi was released around the time I was struggling with my presentations. I wanted to do better, but didn’t know how, and was getting a little bored with them. Prezi came along and was a fun way to play around with creative ideas. No, I didn’t spin things around or make people sick. What’s funny is that after a couple years, I realized that it was just an excessive, time consuming, and expensive way to do the same things I could do in Keynote/PowerPoint (with less time, frustration, energy, and cost). So, I’m thankful I used Prezi because it got me motivated and excited about applying creativity to slide presentations. BUT it didn’t help me actually design better presentations.

Prezi helped with my attitude and motivation for bringing more creativity & effective communication strategies into my presentations, but did not necessarily play a huge role in helping me actually implement those ideas effectively.

#BetterPosters is doing something similar—it gets people motivated to be more creative and use design, but does not provide a way to implement that effectively. I explain why in the next section (spoiler: templates aren’t the solution).

Still, a barrier I encounter is that many academics and scientists don’t value design the way they should.

A lot of people think design in research communication is superficial and only there to make things “pretty.” Or, that design is something you retro-fit into your work—something you think about after you’re done with the “real” content.

But #BetterPosters challenges that, and I’m thankful. It shows that both design and data are important, and that design shouldn’t just be an afterthought. I truly hope that everyone who is excited about #BetterPosters stays excited, but pursues alternative models and professional development training so they know how to use design effectively. Because, as I talk about next, #BetterPosters misses the mark when it comes to this.


5 things I DON’T LIKE about #BetterPosters

So, why do I ultimately suggest that the field doesn’t use this design as the new status quo? Here are the dealbreakers for me.

1) It perpetuates the myth that templates are the solution to ineffective communication strategies.

This is what I dislike the most about #BetterPosters.

After I finally get researchers ready to improve their slides, the second barrier I have to deal with is the myth that a template is the solution. Everyone is short on time, so once people realize that their slide presentations are actually #DeathByPowerPoint, most people just want to buy a template to solve all their problems.

I have to do a SH*T TON of education to help people unlearn this myth. This blog post is already long so I’m not going to explain it here, considering I talk about it a lot elsewhere and I have a free course addressing it.



And #BetterPosters just made that even harder, which makes me really grumpy.

But not just for me and all the extra work I need to do because of it (like writing this blog post). I’m grumpy in advance for all the researchers who are eventually going to be disappointed when they realize a template didn’t solve their root problems and that, ultimately, they still share their research in boring, confusing, or ineffective ways.

It doesn’t matter how much you say “edit this template to work for you!” That’s not how templates work. The purpose of templates is to set boundaries and keep you within them (and usually, those boundaries are bad design)

2) Most of the poster design choices don’t actually follow best practices for information/graphic design.

I’ve seen people say that the template is at least helpful for those without artistic or graphic design skills, but that’s not true. In terms of the actual design, there are a number of problems, and overall it teaches people the wrong things about graphic/information design.

I’m not going to list them all (this is why you should take training, so you can learn them!), but generally speaking the placement of objects and text, arrangement of sections, alignments used, and hierarchy are pretty off in the examples I’ve seen.

That’s a lot of major design issues, not just a few minor ones. And that’s another reason you can’t rely on templates. Just like the default ones that come with PowerPoint, a lot of people who make them don’t specialize in (or haven’t studied) how to apply graphic/information design for educational purposes.

I’ve looked at how researchers are implementing (and adjusting) #BetterPosters. The best ones deviated significantly from the original template. The posters that look most like the original template all have multiple, and major, design flaws. But that’s not their fault! That’s an expected outcome of using templates, especially when you haven’t had training on graphic/information design.

Templates do not teach anyone effective design (or effective presenting, for that matter). That is why I don’t make slide templates for sale to the public.

3) It’s wasting a lot of valuable space that could be used for better and more creative poster designs.

This was the thing that stood out to me the most when I saw the original template. That’s a LOT of space…wasted in a poster.

….just for some big text?

Like. That’s it?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of whitespace. I hate crowding and cluttered design. I train people to be careful of their psychological need/habit to fill white space, but this (in my opinion) crosses the line.

That space could be used for more or larger (well-designed) data visualizations!

It could be used for professional-looking and well-designed models or scientific illustrations explaining the topic.

It could be used to have a comic on the poster!

There are more creative and effective ways to use that blank space that actually involve visual communication (not just big words).

If you are excited about #BetterPosters then channel that energy into professional development so you can implement that excitement effectively! Consider taking visual communication training to learn this skill, instead of trying to rely on templates that will just limit your creativity (and encourage you to use bad design strategies).

(By the way, I can help you think more visually. I specialize in visual communication. Let’s work together!)

4) It’s too much like a magazine ad or billboard; posters should be CENTERED AROUND DATA.

Here’s the part that might hurt. The #BetterPosters does not address one of the biggest problems (or root causes) of standard conference posters: sharing data in effective ways with badly designed data visualizations.

What’s funny is that people are often worried my slide design training or services will put design or “fluff” over data. I’m critiqued for this all the time (especially by men). “This wouldn’t work for my sophisticated data” the Menz say.

Yet…that’s exactly what this poster design does!

Yes, it’s tackled the problem of too much text on a poster. But, in the original template, the data column is the smallest one!

The actual data, by default in the original template, is de-emphasized AND designed ineffectively. Diagonal legends, too much clutter, contrast problems, and more (lots more) remain completely unaddressed in the actual graphs.

It’s de-emphasizing and using ineffective design on the key part that could be more visually and graphically represented (e.g., data visualization)…all for a giant sentence.

The #BetterPosters design layout prioritizes the headline above the data, rather than applying visual communication, data visualization, and design strategies to make the data easy to understand.

A single-line statement is not proof of anything, and when I see these I want to cry “show me the data!” The goal should be to blend the design with data, so the data still takes priority but is communicated in more effective and engaging ways thanks to the use of design.

In my opinion, the #BetterPosters design feels more like a magazine ad than something that showcases academic or scientific data.


We should learn how to create our own #DataCenteredDesign rather than relying on templates that put design over data, especially if the design doesn’t even follow best practices.


Yes, I want people to rethink the purpose of a conference poster, but the one thing I think conference posters were getting right was that they were opportunities to share your data! That’s not the part that should have been eliminated or de-emphasized.

Luckily, a lot of researchers seem to agree because many of them are using that whitespace to add more graphs (or other pieces of information). But again, those graphs aren’t following BASIC data visualization best practices, so it’s still another example of how a template does not teach people how to use info/graphic design to share data.

Side note: There’s something extra special about seeing a man getting praised as a “revolutionary” for doing the exact thing that I (as a woman) have been critiqued for not even doing.

 
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4) Because of #2 & #3, it adds unnecessary barriers for the audience.

When most of the poster is blank and text-based, you can bet that a lot of people will be frustrated they have to scan a QR reader just to get the information that should have been on the poster to begin with.

I know I would be. And I’m the type of person who probably wouldn’t bother to take that extra step.

You should never make your audience do extra work to follow along or understand the material you’re presenting. The whole point of using design when communicating data is to make it easier on your audience, not harder.

The QR code (or website link) should be for complementary or additional material only. Relevant data or information should be on the poster.


This poster design template should NOT be mandated. NO TEMPLATES SHOULD.

I also wanted to make a note about something else I noticed in the NPR article. I’m especially concerned about the conference that’s going to mandate this as the poster template.

That is a bad idea for three reasons: First, there are problems with the design already, so you shouldn’t mandate people to follow ineffective design. Second, templates stifle creativity. Third, standardized templates are not the solution!

Conference organizers are already mandating poorly-designed templates and stifling creativity across the globe, so it’s disappointing to see that this trend isn’t slowing down.

Seriously, if you’re a conference organizer who has the power to mandate templates: just don’t.

And besides, if #BetterPosters became the next template that everyone uses, it’ll just be a sea of #BetterPosters. The attention grabbing power of a unique poster design is gone.

 
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By the way, it’s not actually revolutionary.

The NPR article about this opens with:

Mike Morrison hardly looks like a revolutionary. He's wearing a dark suit and has short hair. But we're about to enter a world of conformity that hasn't changed in decades — maybe even a century. And in there, his vision seems radical. (source)

Yeaaahhhh. Ummm… let’s talk about that for a sec.

Want revolutionary? Stefanie Posavec & Giorgia Lupi essentially turned the world upside down with Dear Data. I know it’s not specifically about conference posters, but conference posters are about sharing data, so it still applies.

Others have been doing the hard work of convincing people to use design with data for years.

For example, check out the beautiful, mind-blowing work (including posters) created by Monica Granados! These are probably BEST conference posters I’ve ever seen. One of them is interactive, folks. THAT’S creativity.

Here’s another example, Dr. Kiki Sanford made a video about effective poster design.

Want another example? Kylie Hutchinson wrote a guest post for Stephanie Evergreen’s blog about better poster design, with even more links and resources at the bottom.

And just so you know…there’s more people out there, each one planting seeds in people’s minds about using data with design. People training others or designing things for others that effectively uses design to showcase and support data. People like Sara Vaca, Elissa Schloesser, Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic, Sheila Robinson, Ann K. Emery, Stephanie Evergreen, Ama Nyame-Mensah, Louise Le, and even myself.

So, to have this design suddenly take off and be described as revolutionary? It’s one thing to like the design, but personally I think we should acknowledge the (more) significant contributions by others.

(To be fair, I don’t think the #BetterPosters creator is calling himself that, I think it was the NPR journalist. And he seems like a really cool guy who has welcomed community feedback and has already tried to improve the template. This is not an attack on him personally, because I actually really appreciate his mission to improve research communication).


“Okay Echo, ultimately what’s YOUR point? What’s your takeaway message?”

Thank you for asking. Here are my recommendations for taking the good pieces of #BetterPosters and making it even better so we can effectively and creatively communicate our work in more visual ways.

  1. If you are excited about #BetterPosters, then GOOD. Be excited about the idea that your posters (and slides, by the way) CAN be better, you SHOULD use design and creativity to make it happen, and that it’s WORTH THE EFFORT.

  2. For the love of science and all-things-data, if you’re a conference organizer do not require this as the template (In fact, don’t mandate any template, EVER. Stop it!).

  3. Apply the good elements: have a clear headline and use less text (and larger font sizes) than you’re probably used to.

  4. When it comes to creating your poster design, though, templates won’t save you (not for slides, and not for posters either). They will limit your creativity and most likely will encourage you to use bad design. You’re better off channeling your excitement into learning visual communication skills, and using those skills to make your own unique poster.

  5. Focus less on being a magazine ad and focus more on well-designed data visualization. Use design to showcase, not de-emphasize, your data.

  6. Take professional development and/or work with an information design professionalsomeone with experience and expertise blending design with data — to design your poster. I would love to be that person for you, and have several different service options. I’ve also included links to a lot of other experts (see above) who could also help. #RisingTide

SUMMARY: (1) standard conference posters are currently designed ineffectively and DO need to change, and (2) I’m thrilled that so many new people are interested in using design to present their data and we must encourage this enthusiasm. Sadly (3) templates will never be the solution, so (4) invest in your own professional development about visual communication!


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