Tamar Schlekat, SETAC Scientific Affairs Manager

The scientific poster has come a long way! But where is it headed next and who is going to take it there?

There is growing sentiment among scientists that poster sessions at conferences are not an ideal forum for technical exchange. It’s also clear that the problem is not with the technical content, peer review or session layout but with the way presenters prepare and present posters. All scientific conference goers likely agree that the traditional poster session could be improved. The experience of both poster presenters and poster session attendees who feel that way is excellently depicted in this anime video. (The whole video is interesting, but for the purposes of this article you can start at 2:29 and watch until about 3:30.)

The creator of the video, Mike Morrison, frustrated with the traditional science poster, took a year off from graduate school and came up with some recommendations for a #betterposter design. If you haven’t heard the buzz, google “better poster design,” and you’ll surely find many articles about the concept and how it’s being received.

Morrison’s main recommendations are to showcase the conclusion boldly in the middle of the poster, use the side bars for supporting information and data, and include a QR code to refer the poster viewer to supplemental material online. He also makes a recommendation for color coding posters topically and suggests a color scheme based on content type. He has posted many templates online, which are spurring spirited debates among scientists globally, both in person and on social media. The good news is that this is challenging scientists to think critically about their poster design and build a template that works for them.

Personally, I am neither fond of the color schemes suggested nor the proposal to use empty, boring space in the middle. The color schemes are not accessible to color blind people and not intuitive or universal. As to empty space, it is easy on the eyes but too much of a good thing is not good. SETACers likely have interesting pictures of their work and should use those to make an appealing poster. I also do not like the recommendation to cram content in the side bars; though, I like the idea of putting supplemental material online and referring to it with a short URL, bitly, QR code, or such. Now more than ever at SETAC, it’s easy for meeting goers to capture a QR code since SETAC has changed its photo policy so that authors who do not wish to have pictures or their work taken clearly note that with an icon on their poster (and presumably won’t use a QR code).

As for the idea of spotlighting the conclusion in large font in a prominent location of the poster, it has my full support. Who thought that hiding the conclusion in the bottom corner was a good idea?! Judging by the social media response and in conversations with others, I am clearly not alone. Some bloggers have suggested that the conclusion should be placed high on the poster, so it isn’t obscured by conference attendees crowded around the poster. I would go as far as to say that the conclusion should be incorporated into the title itself and should definitely use plain language.

There are many new innovative and effective ways to communicate your science through posters. There are wonderful examples out there – some more difficult than others. The reality is, we are not all talented at design, so there is no shame in copying a design template. A search for #betterposter design on Google images or Twitter will yield lots of ideas.

To inspire you, here is cartoon by Therese Karlsson, presented at SETAC Helsinki, and a text message design which is inherently effective.

All of these poster design ideas are consistent with SETAC’s guidelines for preparing a good poster presentation:

  • Ensure that the poster is readable from at least five feet away.
  • Aim for clarity and simplicity in the poster design. Organizing the poster in columns is recommended.
  • Be clear and concise in all statements. Avoid long narratives and make use of lists.
  • Use a short descriptive and compelling title written in plain language.
  • Resist the temptation to overload the poster with excessive text and data. Infographics recommended.
  • Do include objectives, design or methods, results and conclusions.
  • Abstain from including an abstract and excessive background details.
  • Do not include any advertising material in your presentation.
  • Strive for creativity and innovation.

Poster presented wearing costumeIn additon to designing a good poster, presenters are now getting creative with how they attract meeting attendees to their poster. At SETAC Minnepaolis, a terrestrial toxicologist was handing out gummy worms candy at her poster on toxicity to earthworms. That definetly got my attention. The photo below from a Canadian ecology and entomology meeting has attracted attention on social media for the creativity in design as well as presentation. The SETAC poster session is calling for presenters in wildlife costumes!

PLEASE, let’s put away the tired poster design template (and potentially business casual wear) and think of new ways to present and communicate SETAC science. I cannot wait to see what you will come up with for SETAC Toronto!

Author’s contact information: tamar.schlekat@setac.org

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