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July 19th, 2010

Poster sessions: Beloved dinosaurs?

Published on July 19th, 2010 | By: pwray@ceramics.org

I once heard the old horrible saying about spouses – “you can’t live with ’em and you can’t live without ’em” – used to describe the venerable poster sessions at science conferences.

But, here is a question I have been thinking a lot about lately, and I wonder if any of you have any thoughts: “When, or what will it take for science poster sessions evolve?”

On their surface, poster sessions are still based on technology that is ancient, one-dimensional, difficult to edit and to share, and 99% of the info dies when the poster is taken down. On the other hand, posters are inexpensive and allow nonlinear learning at a pace the reader selects.

Of course, the simple truth is that the posters, themselves, are really a “prop” to stimulate lots of networking and data exchange.

Yet, by modern graphic art and technical standards, the yardstick for a “good” poster experience is very, very low. Nearly every poster is ugly and difficult to follow (flow-wise). And, the type and quality of interaction has been nearly unchanged for at least 60 years. Most participants don’t even prepare a PPT or PDF version of their poster to share. (Thumb drives are nearly free now – and could be preloaded and given away.)

These posters and sessions are literally billboards and sales pitches for a scientist (or grad student/postdoc) and his/her work, yet they often fail not because of bad science but because they fail on a “medium is the message” level.

And despite their ubiquity, creating posters and preparing for poster sessions is largely untaught (and to the extent there is any major mentoring or teaching, it doesn’t involve any designers or communications specialists.)

One possible game changer: Coincidentally while thinking about this last week, I discovered a postdoc at Society of Industrial and Applied Mathematics conference who had prepared videos and lots of supplementary materials on an iPad that he held while standing by his poster. I watched him and he frequently used the iPad to show the supplementary stuff, to immediately email a PPT version of his poster, to search through his research for answers to questions he didn’t anticipate, etc. Very, very cool, and the people who stopped seemed to really like it.

And, for the first time, it made me think that the beginning of major changes might not that far off.

So, I am curious. What’s the best poster you’ve seen recently? Why? (Or what’s the best “worst” poster, if you tastes tend to go in that direction.)

If you could redesign the “poster experience” what would you change?

(And please, please, please don’t waste my time suggesting insidious “How to” sites like this. Slide film and 8.5 X 11 tiled sheets. Really?!?!?! What year is this?)


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2 Responses to Poster sessions: Beloved dinosaurs?

  1. Peter Wray says:

    Joe –
    Good points. But I’m wondering what you (or others) would do if an organization offered, for example, an optional “digital” poster session or area where the sponsoring group would provide an iPad or a mini projector or maybe even a table with a large touchscreen monitor. The participant would only have to prepare the files.

    More importantly, assuming access to the hardware and software wasn’t an issue, what would you do differently to prepare your “poster”?

  2. Joe says:

    It is really a matter of money. Most people don’t have access to graphic artists or don’t have the space budgeted to pay for one. Many companies and universities won’t provide someone with IPad’s and similar items as they are too easily lost, stolen, or dropped and damaged. Same goes for tv’s to bring to a conference to show, unless you are actively trying to sell something (as opposed to network, bounce ideas off others, and show off your work), it is hard to justify the expense of fickle, fragile, small, and expensive equipment.

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