Fear and loathing in the conference centre lobby
Let me start from a negative place, because my attitude to poster sessions is negative. Poster sessions are neither good ways to communicate science, nor to network at conferences. Moreover, they are unpleasant.
The experience of going to a poster session, as an attendant or a presenter goes something like this: You have to stand in a crowded room that is too loud and try to either read technical language or hold a conversation in about a difficult topic. Even without anxiety, mobility, or hearing difficulties, a poster session is unlikely to be enjoyable or efficient.
Poster sessions are bad because of necessities of conference organisation. We want to invite many people, but we can’t fit in many talks; we get crowded poster sessions.
They are made worse by efforts to make them better, such as mandating presenters to stand by their posters, in some cases on pain of some sanction by the organisers, or to have the poster presenters act as dispensers of alcohol. If you need to threaten or drug people to participate in an activity, that might be a sign.
They are made not worse but a bit silly, by assertions that poster sessions are of utmost importance for conferencing. Merely stating that the poster session is vibrant and inspiring, or that you want to emphasise the poster as an important form of communication, sadly, does not make it so, if the poster sessions are still business as usual.
Mike Morrison’s ”Better Scientific Poster” design
As you can see above, my diagnosis of the poster session problem is part that you’re forced to read walls of text or listen to mini-lectures, and part that it happens in an overcrowded space. The walls of text and mini-lecture might be improved by poster design.
Enter the Better Scientific Poster. I suggest clicking on that link and looking at the poster templates directly. I waited too long to look at the actual template files, because I expected a bunch of confusing designer stuff. It’s not. They contain their own documentation and examples.
There is also a video on YouTube expanding on the thinking behind the design, but I think this conversation on the Everyting Hertz podcast is the best introduction, if you need an introduction beyond the template. The YouTube video doesn’t go into enough detail, and is also a bit outdated. The poster template has gone through improvements since.
If you want to hear the criticisms of the design, here’s a blog post summarising some of it. In short, it is unscientific and intellectually arrogant to put a take home message in too large a font, and it would be boring if all posters used the same template. Okay.
I am not a designer, which should be abundantly clear to everyone. I don’t really know what good graphic design principles for a poster are.
There is also no way to satisfy everyone. Some people will think you’ve put too little on the poster unless it ”tells the full story” and a has self-contained description of the methods with all caveats. Some people, like me, will think you’ve put way too much on it long before that.
What I like, however, is that Morrison’s design is based on an analysis of the poster session experience that aligns with mine, and that it is based on a goal for the poster that makes sense. The features of the design flow from that goal. If you listen to the video or the Hertz episode: Morrison has thought about the purpose of the poster.
He’s not just expressing some wisdom his PhD supervisor told him in stern voice, or what his gut feeling tells him, which I suspect is the two sources that scientists’ advice on communication is usually based on. We all think that poster sessions are bad, because we’ve been to poster sessions. We usually don’t have thought-through ideas about what to do better.
Back to a place of negativity
For those reasons, I think the better poster is likely to be an improvement. I was surprised that I didn’t see it sweep through poster sessions at the conferences I went to last summer, but there were a few. I was going to try it for TAGGC 2020 (here is my poster aboutthe genetics of recombination rate in the pig), but that moved online, which made poster presentations a little different.
However, changing up poster layout can only get you so far. Unless someone has a stroke of genius to improve the poster viewing experience or change the economics of poster attendance, there no bright future for the poster session. Individually, the rational course of action isn’t to fiddle with the design and spend time to squeeze marginal improvements out of our posters. It is to spend as little time as possible on posters, ignoring our colleagues’ helpful advice on how to make them prettier and more scientific, and lowering our expectations.