Promises and perils for conference posters (Zen Faulkes)

In this post, Zen Faulkes talks about creating resources for poster presenters and whether the poster session can survive in a world of online conferencing.

I was primed for conference posters early.

I was in grade school when I started thinking about graphic design. I was one of those kids who did science fairs, and part of the fun for me was messing around with type samples, opaque projectors, Letraset and the like. I was told I had a strong sense of design.

My interest in design continued in my undergraduate days, when I worked on a student newspaper, sticking down columns of typesetting onto layout pages using hot wax. I learned more about type and layout, and was the paper’s production manager for a while.

Those experiences gave me a little bit of confidence that I would have something coherent to say about conference poster – maybe even helpful! – when I started a blog specifically about posters.  Influenced by Garr Reynold’s blog “Presentation Zen” (no relation), I thought about calling the new blog “Poster Bliss”, but ultimately settled on Better Posters. I think the title better captured the blog’s marching orders: to help people improve rather than aim at some Platonic ideal of perfection.

In over ten years of blogging, I’ve grown to love conference posters even more, because they represent almost all of academia in a microcosm. Posters, like academia, are fantastic – in multiple senses of the word. They can be wonderful, and there are some great strengths to that presentation format. But they are a slightly strange and niche type of communication, particularly to outsiders. Businesses don’t do product launches by having people stand in front of poster boards.

Blogging and publishing about conference posters

I started blogging about conference posters in 2009. This was a time when blogging was well established but before the rise of social media.

The Better Posters blog has remained the heart of the project, because the blog format is the best suited to showing and talking about conference posters. Instagram’s square format on a phone is too constraining and too small.

But I expanded the project into social media to some degree, with Twitter and Instagram accounts. But the influence of social media was important on my thinking, long before I launched dedicated “Better Posters” accounts on Twitter and Instagram.

It took years of consistent blogging before people started noticing the blog. But when they did, they found many posts to dig into, which I think helped the blog. People didn’t feel they were visiting a “ghost town,” which was the fate of many blogs: a few posts, then nothing.

People started recommending the blog to their students and colleagues.

But the best part took me by surprise. People started sending me their own work. And those contributions were by far the most important and vital part of the blog. This was so valuable, because it gave me something specific to write about: real examples. I would always have something to talk about as long as people kept sending me posters.

It also avoided the problems of reviewing posters by people who did not like their work being shown on the blog. I have sometimes written about posters that were publicly posted on websites or social media, figuring that, “If it’s public it’s fair game for comment.” People have disagreed with me a few times – usually not because they are mad about being criticized, but because they are worried that criticisms are potentially disheartening to students.

Nevertheless, the blog continued, sticking fairly closely to a “One post per week” schedule that I tried to stick to early on. This ultimately led to an opportunity to write a book on conference posters. I agreed, because there had only ever been one book on the subject before, Peter Gosling’s Scientist’s Guide to Poster Presentations but the 1999 book was badly out of date, with sections speculating on how the internet would affect scientific communication. A second book, Nicholas Rowe’s Academic & Scientific Poster Presentation, came out as I was preparing mine.

I completed the manuscript for the book Better Posters near the end of 2019, scheduled for release in the first quarter of 2020. First and foremost, I wanted to write a book that would help people make their posters. Posters are usually made by academics and not professional designers, so most attempts are literally amateurish.

But I didn’t want the book to be just an introduction to graphic design. I wanted to help people who had never been to a conference before learn how to navigate a poster session, even if they were not presenting. I wanted the book to be a reference for conference organizers setting up poster sessions. And I wanted to point out how poster sessions could be more inclusive events.

I hoped the book would be a celebration of conference posters.

Then COVID-19 hit, and my celebration felt more like a wake.

Conference posters and COVID-19: Forecasting the future of posters

The events industry took a major hit from the pandemic. A 2020 Boston biotech conference turned a COVID-19 superspreader event that may have resulted in over 300,000 subsequent infections. One conference center in New Orleans was repurposed into an emergency ward for COVID-19 patients. Conferences were cancelled, posponed, and moved online with varying degrees of success. As for this writing (early 2022), it’s not clear how many conferences will be held face to face this year.

The pandemic only accelerated trends that were already in play in academic conferences. Some conferences, such as the massive Neuroscience meeting, had already been experimenting with posters on large video displays instead of paper for several years. Concerns about the carbon footprint of in person conferences and improved technology for video calls and other online platforms. All of those factors probably would have started to exert pressure on the “print a poster on a piece of paper and haul it in a plane to a convention center” model of poster sessions.

Conferences are now in a strange place where they are still offering “poster sessions,” but there is almost no consistency about what that actually means in an online conference environment. The design parameters that people have to meet are more variable and unpredictable than ever. This is either exciting or terrifying, depending on your point of view.

Because of the convenience, cost and accessibility, conferences seem ready to embrace some sort of online components even after the pandemic ends, as it eventually will. I will be very interested to what forms poster sessions will take in the next ten years.

Will paper posters become obsolete technology, like floppy discs and 8 track tapes?

Or will they remain a durable niche product, like vinyl records? By all rights, records should have died in the 1990s, but they have not only survived, but are now thriving more than they have in decades. Posters might be the same, and finally be fully appreciated for their uniqueness.

Bio: Zen Faulkes is an instructor at McMaster University and is @DoctorZen on Twitter. His technical research mostly concerns biology of crayfish (particularly the cloning marbled crayfish;, crabs, and other crustaceans. He blogs about general academic and scientific topics at NeuroDojo.

Author: CI_Jamie

Academic at the University of Warwick. Interests: higher education, sexuality, gender, equity. PhD in Doctoral Education from Auckland University.

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