The evolution of academic posters: from Poster 1.0 to Better Poster 2.0 to Hybrid Poster 1.5

By: Natalie Vande Pol (PhD Candidate, Michigan State University)

This week marks the start of my 6th year as a PhD student in the Microbiology and Molecular Genetics program at Michigan State University. I have been extremely fortunate to attend a professional conference in my research field every summer since I began my graduate program. At 4 of those 5 conferences, I have presented a poster describing my research. (Figure 1) And until this year, there was a standard procedure for writing and designing a scientific poster. This year, that all changed…

Figure 1: MC11 poster session, July 2018 (Lodge, D.J., Cantrell, S.A., Luangsa-ard, J. et al. IMA Fungus (2018) 9: 52.

It all started with a video produced by Mike Morrison (@mikemorrison), an Industrial/Organizational Psychology PhD student at Michigan State University. In the video, Mr Morrison makes the argument that the standard poster format used by most academics is overly technical and usually obscures the main finding(s) of the science being presented (Figures 2 & 3). Also, the time required to parse the information on a poster means that most people attending a poster session are only able to really engage with 3-6 posters in an hour, severely limiting the dissemination of potentially useful knowledge through the scientific community. Mr. Morrison proposes an alternative poster design, which he calls “Poster 2.0” (Figure 4, Video). The biggest changes to the poster layout are 1) a large, central, simple takeaway message that summarizes the point of the poster in accessible language; 2) a “standalone” bar on the left with a very basic introduction, methods, and discussion; and 3) an “ammo” bar on the right with anything that the presenter might want to have handy when talking about their poster. The standalone bar is meant for someone to read about your research in more detail without needing to engage with the presenter. In addition, Mr. Morrison suggests including a QR code, which he suggests pointing to the paper associated with the poster subject so that readers can access the additional detail they might want.

Figure 2: “Poster 1.0” by Mr. Mike Morrison

Figure 3: My “Poster 1.0” at IMC11, July 2018.

Figure 4: “Poster 2.0” by Mike Morrison

“How to create a better research poster in less time (including templates)” by Mike Morrison

The big advantage to the Poster 2.0 format is that the takeaway message is highly accessible, meaning that it is a short, prominently displayed message in plain language and large font that can be read and understood in the time it takes to walk past the poster. It is also supposed to be very easy and fast to write the poster since the language is simple and the “ammo bar” is unformatted. The disadvantages of this format is that the very low detail of the introduction, methods, and intermediate results make it somewhat difficult for a reader to learn more about the project when the presenter is absent. Since most posters are hung and available all day in advance of the actual poster session, this can be disadvantageous. Now, some would say that this simply means that during the poster session, the reader will come and discuss the poster with the presenter, or read the paper using the QR code (if there is a paper and if the reader has a QR scanner on their phone). However, I have also overheard some more “old-fashioned” academics who regard this lack of instantaneously available detail and new format as “gimmicky” and faintly unacceptable/unprofessional.

Being a rebellious, tech-loving millennial, I decided to give the Poster 2.0 format a shot when writing a poster for a conference earlier this month. The first thing I learned was that it’s actually really hard to distil the main takeaway message, especially from my preliminary and incomplete results, which is what most posters describe. Moreover, it’s also really hard to distill an introduction, methods, results, and discussion into less than a quarter of the poster space. Ultimately, writing this poster was no faster than any of the other 4 posters I’ve written. In the end, I decided to create a hybrid version, which I jokingly called “Poster 1.5.” Poster 1.5 maintains the large, simple, prominent takeaway message and slightly abbreviated text, but has significantly more text than 2.0 and lacks the ammo bar. Finally, since I was presenting preliminary data, I had no paper to which to direct a QR code, so I eliminated that element as well. I will point out, the QR code doesn’t need to point to a paper, it could point to any form of supplementary multimedia (videos, audio, etc.), the presenter’s website, and so much more.

It turns out, I’m not the only one to have the idea for a hybrid. There is an active academic Twitter community around Poster 2.0, with followers posting pictures of their implementations and adaptations. Dr. Andrew R. Smith (@AndrewRSmith), an Associate Professor of Psychology at Appalachian State University posted a template for his own rendition of a Poster 1.5 (Figure 5).

Figure 5: “Poster 1.5” by Dr. Andrew R. Smith

When I presented my Poster 1.5, I had the most “traffic” at my poster than ever, especially from a more generalized audience. In the past, most of the people who have visited my posters were specialists who picked out keywords from my poster title and were working with the same organism. With the main takeaway of the poster front and center, I also met people who were interested in my methods and intermediate findings and the applications/implications for broader research. Discussion was more animated and since my entire poster was already written in plainer language, it was a lot easier for me to develop a generalized “schpiel” on the spot, rather than sifting through all the details and trying to create a schpiel adapted for each listener. It was much easier to add detail than to subtract it.

In conclusion, I think that the conversation and experimentation that Mr. Morrison instigated has been invaluable to academia. The same-old Poster 1.0 format has been so standard that nobody (except Mr. Morrison) even questioned whether there might be a better way to do things. Just having challenged the status-quo has radically shaken up poster design and new adaptations are being explored all the time. I’m very excited to see how poster design continues to evolve and expect we will see the rise of many new poster “species” tailored to the needs of different fields and content types.

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