Presenting a poster at a conference?

Worry no more. Mike Morrison has got your academic poster design.

Via Mary Williams at Plantae, comes this video on poster design by Mike Morrison. It is long (for YouTube) at 20 minutes, but it doesn’t just lead you to a good poster design. It also explains why you’d want to use it when everyone else is using something very different.

The video takes a little time to unfold, as it introduces how posters sessions work to grad students who may not have attended one. However, it’s well worth watching through as thinking through how posters are created and used explains the design.

When I started making academic posters, I tried doing something different. What I hadn’t appropriately understood was the audience. Morrison’s design works well with the audience, especially when you think who the audience is.

The audience of your poster could be divided into two groups. People who should be interested in your work and people who are not. Think about the people who are not interested. You can divide these into two groups: people who know someone who would be interested, and people who do not. The people who have no interest, and no friends who’d want to know about your poster, you can forget about. The people who have a friend are a useful audience. These are people who can say, “Did you see the poster in the main hall on «topic»?” A simple, easy to grasp message can turn people into a sales force for your poster.

But what about the people who would be interested?

Again, split them into two groups: people who would recognise your poster is important, and people who wouldn’t. That simple message grabs the second group and helps convert passers-by into readers. So, it seems it’s only people who would find your poster is relevant and recognise that that seem to lose out, by having a slightly less info-dense poster. Of all the people passing your poster, this last group is likely to be a depressingly small minority.

What turns a good poster design into a great one is that even these people get more out of your poster. It’s because of that QR code. Some people want to present posters. A lot of people want to give talks and end up getting poster slots. That QR code is a doorway to handing out detailed text, slides, papers and anything else you want to add. Even the people who want the details are better off with this design, because you can go into depth that you would never be able to do with a poster anyway.

Thinking of the posters I’ve seen in the past few years, I’m struggling to remember any that would be worse if they used Morrison’s design. I think there might have been one or two that had a big arresting image. The fact I’m struggling so much to think of them suggests that even they didn’t work.

As great as I think this poster design is, there is something even better. Not only has Morrison made it usable for the audience, but he’s also made it replicable. You can download the poster as a template. You can almost copy and use it with cut ‘n’ paste. It’s a poster design you can do today.

There are a couple of issues you will need to tackle if you do use this design.

First, that simple summary in the centre of the poster is doing a lot of work. It will do that work better if it is simple. To make the design work, you will need to have the backbone to cut back as much as possible. That will be a lot of work. If someone who isn’t so invested in your design is offering helpful clarifications, then this will be difficult. They may, subconsciously or not, guide you to make the poster conform to the norms they’ve seen.

You’ll also need a backbone to stand by this poster at a conference. It will look staggeringly different from the other posters – even if it carries much the same information. It’s easy to buy into an assumption of a binary opposition between scholarly and popular. If you do that then it’s easy to make your work more scholarly, write it in opaque language. It’s obvious that isn’t a way to improve your work, but it’s still going to take some nerve to test it in the real world.

And that’s the sting at the end of the video. The poster sounds like a good idea, but is it? Everyone else is doing something different, so how does anyone know this poster design will work? Mike Morrison wants to test the design at actual conferences. For me, this is possibly the most exciting part of the video. I think the design is good. It makes sense, but is it going to work at a conference? In fields that embrace obscure language, this design could bomb because it clashes with the culture. In botany that isn’t a problem. If you’re presenting interdisciplinary at a conference outside your field, you might find someone equates “accessible poster” with “doesn’t appreciate the complexity of my field”.

Testing will give reassurance to people if this design can show improvements over the status quo. At the very least, it will add scrutiny to an under-valued form of communication at conferences.

If you want to find out more you can follow @mikemorrison on Twitter.