Why academic conference posters suck

I’ve been to dozens of conference poster sessions, but I struggle to think of a single thing I’ve learned from them. I don’t think I’m alone, considering the antipathy toward academic posters I’ve noticed among colleagues and librarians.

Research on academic posters

I could find precious little research on academic posters. Some scholars, like D’Angelo (2010), have tried to develop frameworks that may help us better understand the components of posters across disciplines—and their various rhetorical functions. Most studies I did find gathered opinions from scholars rather than testing for, say, information recall. This commentary by Rowe and Ilic (2015) suggests that at larger conferences, the sheer number of posters overwhelms the ability to take in new knowledge and disrupts the interaction among delegates that poster sessions are supposed to foster. Their earlier survey study (2009) was more optimistic, finding that conference-goers do think poster sessions can be useful—but only if the researcher is there to chat and answer questions. As a standalone teaching tool, they’re ineffective.

The astute reader may notice that expecting researchers to stand by their poster, speak with people about their work, and answer questions is, well, asking them to give an oral presentation—sometimes over and over as one gaggle gives way to the next—only with static slides and a smaller, transient audience. Maybe instead of having scholars create and print posters, we could just ask them to give short lightning talks to the larger group?

The awful logistics of academic posters

Let’s say you’re at your poster, explaining your research to a small huddle of people. Someone else wanders by and joins the group. Do you backtrack or start over to give the new audience member context, or do you keep going?

Or you’re alone at your poster. Do you try to make eye contact with passers-by so that they’ll ask you about your work? Will they be genuinely interested, or are they at your poster because you locked eyes and they felt obligated to talk to you?

Do you dare leave your poster to check out others’ presentations?

The word “awkward” comes up a lot when I discuss poster sessions with colleagues. No one’s quite sure what to do or how to react. I don’t know how the murky social norms of poster sessions affect people with social anxiety, but I can’t help wondering if they negate one of the only legitimate reasons I’ve heard so far to prefer poster sessions over lightning talks, which is that posters save people with anxiety from having to speak in front of a crowd.

Everything that comes before the poster session can also be an imposition.

First, posters are expensive. You’d be lucky to get a 3-foot by 6-foot poster printed for $70, and most of the time it’s closer to $90 and up to $150, depending on the paper you choose. For a graduate student with limited funding, the cost of printing a poster is non-negligible.

Sometimes you can print once and use the poster at several different meetings, but not always. Different conferences have different size restrictions, and posters, unlike presentation slides, are hard to update with new information if you’re attending meetings a few months apart.

Second, posters take an enormous amount of time to prepare (I don’t have any hard data here, but anecdotally, the last poster I made took at least twice as long as a talk I prepared on the same topic), and you have to budget time to print the poster and pick it up, whereas presentation slides can be (and frequently are) prepared on the flight over to the conference.

Speaking of flying, travelling with a poster can be cumbersome. Because of their length, poster tubes technically exceed carry-on size restrictions, and whether airlines charge you for them or insist that you check them can be a crapshoot, even if you call them beforehand. Printed fabric posters that can be folded up in luggage are becoming more popular, and although I appreciate the creativity that has sprung from this new medium…

…(“cloth academic posters” are destined to become a new tag on Etsy) they are way more expensive to print and don’t solve the fundamental problems of posters as a vehicle for communication. Like the fact that…

Most academic posters are a visual nightmare

Even the Google image results for “best academic posters” all look busy, cluttered, and, frankly, exhausting to read.

Eighty-two percent of respondents to Rowe and Ilic’s 2009 survey said that “visual appeal of posters is more influential on audience appreciation than text.” Unfortunately, most academics aren’t trained in illustration or graphic design and don’t have a good understanding of typography, white space, alignment, colour, or visual information processing.

This is not a knock on academics without graphic design training! There’s a reason professional graphic designers exist. (Although I’d argue that even pros would have a hard time negotiating all of the demands of a research poster, because I think it’s just a flawed medium for its purpose.) But what usually happens when academics design their own posters is that they basically try to cram a paper into poster format or lay out what would have been PowerPoint slides into a grid. Neither of these strategies results in an effective tool for knowledge transfer.

Further, some research simply isn’t conducive to visuals, meaning posters for these studies usually consist of large blocks of text or include graphics that add no substantive content and don’t enhance understanding.

To be fair, a lot of academics don’t have great oral presentation training, either, but they get more practice giving talks than designing posters, especially if they teach.

There are some poster templates out there, but these are most useful to someone who is completely new to the concept and has to figure out what to include. They are usually designed by other academics and so vary a lot in quality, and they don’t allow for much flexibility in size and layout. A lot of the templates are PowerPoint files because many researchers don’t have or aren’t familiar with how to use a program like InDesign, but this format causes problems for later accessibility. On that note…

Academic posters are not accessible

To be accessible, communications should be discoverable, acquirable, usable, and understandable. Academic posters are flawed in pretty much all of these aspects. I talk about understanding in the next section, but let’s look at the first three here.

There have been some efforts to better archive the content of academic posters for future retrieval, but for the most part, posters are considered grey literature, and libraries index them either poorly or not at all. With a few exceptions, conferences will not ask scholars to submit their posters as part of the conference proceedings, so if you find a conference abstract that interests you, you may have a hard time tracking down the poster that goes with it. At best, you can hope that the author has posted it on a website or added it to an institutional repository and that those results come up on a Google search.

As for usability, posters are almost completely inaccessible to people with visual disabilities. Printed posters are an obvious culprit, but even digital versions can be problematic. Since these posters are often designed in PowerPoint using disjointed text boxes and images, screen readers usually can’t read them properly because the reading order is not defined and there is no alternative text given for graphics. In contrast, oral presentations give people with visual disabilities immediate access to at least some of the content. And recorded talks offered as videos on YouTube, for example, can be made accessible to people with visual or hearing impairments with captioning and transcripts. (Posters can be made accessible to screen readers, too, but few people put in the effort.)

Academic posters are dreadful for communicating

From a cognitive load perspective, posters are pedagogically (or andragogically, if you prefer) worse than oral presentations because they don’t allow for dual-channel learning. We can take in information through visual and auditory channels, and by dividing the cognitive load of the learning task over both, we avoid overloading the working memory associated with a single channel. Further, speakers’ and listeners’ brains sync up in a way that doesn’t occur with purely visual material.

Sure, academics learn from reading papers all the time, but cognitive expectations of the medium may explain why posters don’t work while papers do.

Posters (as a general concept) are essentially signage.

Road sign that says “No person shall, on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday the day preceding a public holiday, or on a public holiday, drive or cause to be driven between the hours of 6 P.M. and midnight. A motor vehicle which exceeds 10.5 m in length in all main roads.”
Good signage gets its message across the first time you look at it. Bad signage, in contrast…

Well-designed signage is meant to be understood immediately and intuitively. To use Daniel Kahneman’s terminology, we expect to be able to understand a sign using only our fast, effortless System 1 thinking, without having to engage our effortful, resource-intensive System 2 thinking. Unfortunately, conveying harder-to-understand, possibly complex research concepts basically demands System 2 thinking. Because System 2 burns more glucose, we are evolutionarily predisposed to minimize using it—meaning that when people viewing a poster realize they have to activate their slow, demanding System 2 thinking, they may disengage altogether.

The determined learners who do commit their precious glucose stores to reading an academic poster face a further problem: the amount of text (up to 800 words, according to these NYU guidelines!) on a poster usually means that the type size sits in an awkward grey area between display and body type. You have to get close to read it, but once you do, it’s like trying to read a PDF that’s been zoomed in too much: you lose a lot of the surrounding context, and you have to keep part of a sentence in your working memory while you visually scan the rest of it. Think of it as having to scroll through a document in two dimensions instead of one. It’s easy to lose your place and it’s a very cognitively taxing exercise.

Alternatives to posters

So maybe poster sessions aren’t great at actually teaching people anything. They have other important functions, right? They give junior researchers an opportunity to showcase their research and add to their academic CV! They give conference-goers a chance to network!

There are other—better—ways to support this kind of interaction and career advancement.

  • Opt for lightning talks of 5 to 7 minutes, which would be just as credible as a poster on a CV and probably more engaging and effective in transferring knowledge.
  • Ask presenters to bring extended abstracts as handouts for people who want more information.
  • Build in networking time (with food!) with the explicit expectation that people with similar research interests can use that time to find each other and chat. When someone has to stand by their poster, they don’t get the opportunity to see others’ posters and find out who is doing similar work.
  • Find ways (like adding a presentation title to name tags or presenters’ photos to the conference program—with consent, of course) to help researchers find each other during that networking time.

What if you have to have a poster session?

As much as I want poster sessions to quietly exit the stage and never come back, I know they are so entrenched in academic orthodoxy that they’ll probably be here for some time. (After all, we have literally decades’ worth of research about how adults learn, but rare is the conference that puts basic principles into practice.)

If you’re a conference organizer and must schedule a poster session, consider:

  • asking presenters to supplement with a one- or two-minute talk to the larger group to introduce their work (the only quasi-effective poster session I’ve ever been to used this format),
  • asking presenters to bring a handout of their key points with references and contact information,
  • printing extended, structured abstracts in the conference program,
  • scheduling poster shifts so that presenters get a chance to circulate and view others’ work,
  • offering presenters the option of either a board for a traditional printed poster or a small table where they can set up a looping slideshow on a laptop to support their presentation,
  • at large conferences, clustering posters on related topics in the same area of the room, and
  • asking presenters for digital versions of their handouts and final posters that you can then link on a website to their abstract. (Let presenters know that if their handouts are comprehensive, the posters may not have to be transcribed and described for screen-reader compatibility.)

If you’re attending a conference and have to make a poster:

  • I’m so sorry.
  • Go to the poster session armed with handouts about your research and business cards for networking.
  • Don’t be afraid to leave handouts at your poster while you go view others’ work.
  • Unless you’re trying to win a poster judging (which, let’s face it, is pretty subjective and a bit of a gamble), opt for as little text as possible (no more than 300 words), and make it big and readable from a distance. You’ll never fit everything you want to say on a standard poster, anyway, so don’t even try. Give readers an idea of what you’re working on, and fill in the details in person or in your handout or extended abstract. I’ve only seen one judgmental study harrumph at the lack of references on posters, so I’d recommend leaving references off your poster but putting them on your handout.
  • If you can, focus on visual elements, and emphasize only one or two images. Too many graphics will make your poster look busy. Your goal is simply to get people intrigued enough about your work to come talk to you.
  • If you can, work with a graphic designer to come up with the best way to showcase your research.
  • Speak with the conference organizers, your library, and your faculty about what you could do to archive the poster and handout for future discovery and access. A digital version of your handout with live links to resources would be especially helpful.

In a way, the fact that posters are poorly archived and indexed can be liberating: you know your poster won’t be cited or held to the same standard as a paper in a peer-reviewed journal, so have some fun and take some risks with it. Revolutionize the poster session. Then, when it’s your turn to plan a meeting, get rid of it altogether.

Academic poster in cartoon style. Title says “Increasing patients’ understanding of the Mental Health Act in B.C., Iva Cheung, PhD student, SFU Faculty of Health Sciences.” First section of the poster is titled “Background” and says “A 2011 survey of mental health patients asked: Were your rights under the Mental Health Act explained in a way you could understand?” The image shows a pie chart with the slice labelled “43%” and the caption says “43% said no.” Possible reasons: 1. Inconsistent rights-advice practices. 2. Patients not in a state of mind to absorb new information. 3. Poor communication tools. Yet, patients given a sense of procedural justice (e.g., by being informed of their rights) are more likely to be engaged in their own recovery. Second section is labelled “Methods.” Phase 1: Think-aloud user testing of the rights-advice form. Preliminary results: Patients would like not just one tool but a suite of communication tools; more colour; less legal language; more information about how to exercise their rights. Phase 2: co-create a suite of communication tools in a team with 2 patient partners, 3 researchers, a clinician (psychiatric nurse), and a legal expert. Phase 3: Observe and interview clinicians to identify facilitators and barriers to providing effective rights advice. Phase 4: As a team, develop and implement a training program for clinicians to raise awareness of the potential therapeutic value of rights advice. Phase 5: Launch a pilot implementation of three parts: 1. Usual care. 2. Clinicians using new suite of communication tools. 3. Independent rights advisors using new communication tools. Third section is labelled “Planned analysis.” User testing the suite of tools with people with lived experience, surveys of clinicians before and after training and pilot implementation, interviews with patients discharged over the period of the pilot study. Final section labelled “Expected outcomes”: More patients will understand their Mental Health Act rights. Clinicians will recognize the benefits of rights advice. Research funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.
A poster I made for a conference in June 2017.

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