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Every year, at hotels all over the world,
scientists from every field in science
flock to these giant academic conferences.
They’re like WOODSTOCK for geeks in that field. Scientists go to these conferences to learn
about the new research going on in their field, and to share the work they’re doing with everybody else.
And to drink and hang out with friends from other universities who they don’t get to see very often.
So it’s like a big, social knowledge update for the whole field.
And at most all of these conferences there’s something called a poster session.
And poster sessions are where researchers share findings that didn’t fit into bigger sessions or bigger presentations.
Scientists take some new research finding some new truth about the world…
…and they try to explain it on this giant poster.
These poster sessions are one of the main ways that scientists share knowledge with each other.
And they have the potential to be
this really great experience…
…for both the person presenting the poster, and the person walking around looking at all the posters.
But in reality scientists have
mixed feelings about poster sessions.
A lot of us go into poster sessions
feeling like, kind of optimistic,
and then we come out feeling like disappointed and underwhelmed. And here’s why.
First, here’s what it feels like to present a
If you’re going to be the person presenting the poster, you’re first thinking like “oh this will be great.”
I’ll put all this work that I’m really
passionate about on this big beautiful poster.
And people will walk by it and be
like “oh cool research!” And I’ll be like “oh you think so? Let’s talk about!”
And then we’ll have this really engaging conversation we’re like *I* learned things,
and THEY learned things.
And other people will walk by and like “oh great research,” and they’ll get to learn what I’m doing.
And I’ll feel like I’m getting to share
what I’m doing with the world and with other scientists.
And sometimes. Like, very, very rarely; you will get like HALF of that experience.
But that’s the BEST case.
Most of the time, you’re standing by your poster all eager…
While people just walk by you
and don’t even look at your poster,
as if you don’t exist,
while you try to like STARE THEM DOWN out of desperation.
And then the whole hour the poster session goes by and no one has even — not even not just ENGAGED with your poster —
but no one has LOOKED at your poster. Then you just take your poster down, and you look at it, and you remember that it cost $100 to print…
…and then you throw it away. And then you
think “Maybe my research wasn’t that interesting anyway.” and “That was a complete waste of time”
Now, here’s how it feels to ATTEND a poster session. The experience of attending a poster session
and walking around trying to learn from
all the posters, can be even worse than it is for the presenter.
OK, it’s not WORSE than it is for the presenter. Nothing’s worse than presenting a poster session.
But it’s still pretty bad.
Again, you start off with very high hopes.
You picture yourself walking through and like BREATHING IN all the latest research in your field. Learning stuff
you never thought to think about before,
and really just like getting more
enlightened as a scientist and getting
all new ideas for the stuff you’re doing.
But it never, ever works out that way.
In reality, most the time you walk in and
there’s all these presenters standing there
by all their posters and they’re like
locking eyes with you and watching you
as you pass because they’re all so bored and desparate
for you to engage with
them and like validate their research.
And their posters are just like walls of
incomprehensible text that you can’t
interpret very quickly. So what you do is
you kind of like avoid the too intense
eye contact of the presenters while
trying to quickly and surreptitiously scan
the titles of the posters. Trying to
get an idea of one or two you might want to check out.
And the title of the poster just sort of gives you a general idea of what the study did.
Like, the research question they asked. Not even the answer.
It’s kind of abstract and a little too
technical, but if you can get the general idea,
then maybe you engage with the
poster, and try to get closer, and try to figure out what they did, and try to LEARN something
So you found a poster that you’re kind of interested in and you walk up closer to get a general idea
and scan it and read it and try to learn
the core insight from it.
But while you’re doing that the desperate
presenter, who’s standing like two feet
away from you and staring at you, notices
you looking at their poster.
And they’re like “Any questions? Any questions?! Let me know if you have questions!!!”
And then you feel like you want to be polite, so you talk to the presenter.
And maybe you have a pretty good conversation and you learn about what’s on the poster and you
eventually learn that key punchline of
the study after you’ve asked a bunch of follow-up questions.
But you end up staying at the poster longer than you need to.
Even past the point of learning
what you wanted from it.
Because you’re in a conversation! You don’t want to be rude to just cut the presenter off.
But meanwhile, like this is taking a lot of
You usually have less than an hour to browse all the posters.
And that’s if you showed up on time. Which you didn’t.
So the minutes are going by while you’re
having this conversation and
doing all these social niceties and trying to
figure out a polite way to exit the conversation.
And usually after just ONE of these conversations, you realize that time is limited
and you’ve got to like
skim harder and avoid eye contact harder
So you breeze through the rest of the
posters. Maybe stop at one more.
But you’re really, really desperately
skimming now.
So you’re forced to adopt a strategy, where you spend a lot of time at one or maybe even two posters…
maybe even past the point where you’ve gotten the insight you wanted.
And then you’ve used up most of your time, so you have to skip around
and breeze through the rest of the posters and barely even read the titles.
And then you leave the poster session feeling a little disappointed uneasy,
but still trying to convince yourself
that it was productive.
Like, “oh I’m super glad I spent 35 minutes talking about that one poster that I wasn’t even super interested in”
“That was a good use of my time. It was.”
“I’m sure there was nothing on ANY of the other posters that was remotely relevant
to me…”
So the point is you may have had one good conversation — or two maybe — but you didn’t really learn as much as
you had hoped to learn from the whole
And you wonder what insights you might have missed on all those other posters you didn’t have time to get to.
So this all kind of sucks for you when
you walk around trying to learn from the posters…
And it also sucks when you’re
the presenter trying to make an impact with your poster that nobody’s looking at.
But there’s something much more sinister going wrong here…
And that’s that when you’re walking around trying to learn from this poster session
and you’re only able to interact with one or two posters,
you’re MISSING all the insight from the posters you had to breeze by and skim.
And these missed insights are all like part of your field
you’re supposed to know all of this
stuff. A lot of them probably apply to
the scientific problems you’re wrestling
with in some direct or tangential way.
And you’re missing them! You’re only getting like one or two points before time runs out and you gotta leave.
So not only are poster sessions kind of a lackluster experience for everybody involved,
but they’re also really inefficient at transferring knowledge
to people walking through the poster sessions.
And that means it’s slowing down the learning. It’s slowing down scientific progress.
Which is actually holding the human race
back in a non insignificant way.
That sounds like hyperbole but I actually
mean it.
Maybe the research in your field isn’t very important — and I’m in psychology so I get that —
but if you’re studying something that people are
suffering from, like cancer or Alzheimer’s or MECFS
Like one of those missed posters could contain some finding you hadn’t thought about
that triggers a moment of insight that helps you cure that disease sooner
than you would have
if you had missed that poster.
And all of these missed insights are happening in mass in EVERY single field of science right now.
This isn’t just a design frustration.
This is a serious problem (and a serious opportunity).
I think a lot of these problems come down to
the way we approach designing academic posters.
So let’s see if we can fix that.
Okay here’s how the poster “design process”
works…if you can call it a design process…
Six months before the conference
you write an essay talking about your research findings
that you want to put on your poster.
And then you submit that to the conference,
and then hopefully it gets approved,
and then you’re happy
because that means your school will pay
for your travel.
And then you forget about it, for like five months. Until about two weeks before the conference.
And while you’re already worrying about
everything else you have to do for the conference:
…plane tickets, packing things like that…it suddenly hits you.
And you’re like “oh…oh…oh shit shit shit shit… I actually have to CREATE the damn poster.”
“Uh… crap.” And then you get like really
You’re like “you know what, I’m gonna make this the best poster ever!”
So you open a blank PowerPoint file and you get started…
And then like an hour later you’re like “uh crap nothing’s done and this is going nowhere
and I need to get this done and to the printer by 2:00 tomorrow and I don’t have time to do this perfectionistic crap
I just gotta like…I need something
done. Now. That doesn’t make me look stupid.”
So you desperately email one of your
senior grad student friends
and they’re like “No problem. I got you covered. Here’s the poster design I always use!”
“It was handed down to me by Susie. Oh you never got to meet Susie… “
“She was one of the senior students that graduated before you got here I was like four years ago”
“Susie was amazing. Anyway, this is the
design I always use. It works for me. Hope it helps.”
And you’re like “great great
great it’s perfect.”
And what you’re really thinking is like “I don’t have time to be original here”
“I’ve just got to get this done and to the
printer and it’s my first year of grad school or whatever”
“…and I’m kind of afraid of looking unprofessional”
“or looking like I don’t know what I’m doing.
I don’t have really time to think this through.”
So what do you do in times of uncertainty?
You mimic. You copy somebody
else, and that makes you feel safe.
So you open up your friend’s template, and then whatever is on that old, hand-me-down
poster design, you copy. Like whatever
they did, you do.
If they had their entire introduction paragraph copy-and-pasted into this tiny box in the corner,
then that’s what YOU do. You take YOUR entire entire introduction paragraph and you put it in that little box!
If they display like their full table of correlation coefficients
that don’t all really relate to like what their central points are, that’s what you put in
you put in all your correlation
that’s what you put in! You put in all YOUR correlation coefficients.
That helps fill up space! And then
what you end up with is this monstrosity
of a wall of text poster, with like copy-and-pasted bits of your essay squeezed
into these templated old boxes with like
your school’s faded header on top from
its 25-year old branding scheme. And your
poster just looks like a wall of mess.
And SOME part of you is like “Is this
legible? Like nobody can read this.”
But that part’s very quiet. The very much
louder part is like
“Good. It looks great. And it looks great because it looks like I did something.”
It looks like I spent LONGER on this than the rushed hour that I actually spent on it.
Now if you have a little extra time on your hands,
you may be able to listen to that
“Let’s make this a little more readable” voice.
And if you have that kind of time, maybe you like add a nice graph, or turn one section of text into bullet points
or something like that, or add a picture. And
I’ve done this. When I first started my
Ph.D program, I tried to take an extra
hour with a poster and improve the
usability of it a little bit. So here’s
one of my first posters.
I had like a “so what” box, and icons and pictures for everything,
but it’s still just a wall of text in the same old format.
And then there are these like unicorn posters.
These are the posters that you seen ONE
of at every conference if you’re lucky.
And they’re beautiful. They’re like
infographics, and they’re designed by
either like professional applied firms,
or grad students who WERE designers
before coming to grad school… or they
used templates or paid somebody.
And these infographic style posters make you feel completely inadequate.
You’re like “man, my poster should look like that — THAT’s a good poster.” BUT THEY’RE STILL NOT.
They’re still just a wall of
PRETTY things that you can’t interpret very quickly.
And they’re cardinal sin is that
they expect people to be up close and reading them.
The cardinal sin of every
poster I’ve seen — INCLUDING the posters
I’ve designed myself — is that we assume
people are gonna like stand there and
read our posters in silence for 10
straight minutes, following the order of the sections we laid out.
And when we design them, WE’RE sitting up close to them, reading them in order.
So we design them for THAT kind of user experience;
for a context that’s really different
from how people actually read posters at poster sessions.
Really, the ACCURATE way
to design your poster,
based on how they’re actually used, would be to
project your PowerPoint file on a wall at full size and walk past it over and over again,
and improve the design for the experience of learning while walking by.
But none of us do that.
Like watch: here are beautiful,
infographic-style posters.
They’re gonna move past you at walking speed. Try to read them.
Did you catch anything? Besides the title? Did you even catch the title?
To learn anything from the infographic format,
You have to walk up and spend a
lot of time with it.
They’re designed to sustain your attention while you’re right up next to it
for 5-10 minutes, reading it on your own in silence.
Infographics aren’t the right
goal for scientific posters
Because we just don’t spend that much time with most posters.
if anything, a BILLBOARD is a better design analogy,
because THOSE are designed to transmit information as you move past them.
So what SHOULD an academic poster look like?
I think an ideal academic poster should accomplish three goals…
First, we want to maximize the amount of insight transferred to attendees in the poster session.
If you’re attending a poster session, we
want to make it easy for you to interact with every poster in some way.
So that you could conceivably learn the insight that every single poster in a session
has to offer in less than 50 minutes.
Second, we want keep the good stuff.
We still want to leave time for having good conversations and getting deep insight
about any single poster, if you want to.
And THIRD, we have to accomplish these goals in a way that is AS LAZY (or lazier)
for grad students and scientists to create posters with the new design
under time pressure and with no free mental bandwidth.
Even if this new approach to
designing posters cures cancer faster,
if it’s not easier for scientists to create
than what they’re currently doing it’ll never happen.
So we have to make it easy
so that it’s both the RIGHT way to do it and the FAST way to do it.
So let’s get started.
Okay so let’s get into the right frame of mind here.
We’re gonna start things off with one of the most famous quotes in all of design. Here it goes.
Perfection is not when you have nothing to add…
It’s when you have nothing to
take away.
Good designs start with something very very minimal — like a core thing — and they work from there.
So that’s what we’re gonna do.
And for that core thing we’re gonna follow the biggest, most reliable rule in all of usability research.
You put a lot of effort into what people need to know…
and then you include the stuff that’s nice to know last.
So here’s a blank academic poster.
What is the minimum, need-to-know piece of information that should go on here
if we could only put ONE thing on it?
Well that’s probably like the main finding of the study right?
So we need a finding. I’m gonna use a
real finding for my friend Jacob’s study.
Jacob very bravely sent me his poster
and let me use it for the video. THANK YOU JACOB.
And you probably can’t tell
from this poster, but Jacob’s study is actually really cool and important.
But that coolness and that importance is lost
in this traditional academic poster
format. So we’re gonna take this and we’re gonna redesign it.
And we’re gonna start by grabbing the main finding — the core takeaway of this study —
and putting it on our blank poster.
So let’s see… what’s the main finding of this study…what’s the main finding…
SEE THIS IS THE PROBLEM I’M TALKING ABOUT. It’s taking me way too damn long to find the main takeaway from this study
which is pretty representative of the problem here.
And that has NOTHING to do with this poster. EVERY poster in science like this.
OK. So after reading this entire poster I think the main finding is this bit right here
“We found consistent differential validity for some non-cognitive measures
for predicting international student GPA,
specifically with SJ T’s, continuous learning,
social responsibility, and
perseverance. So let’s put that on the poster.
And then we’re gonna change the
background color.
You can use your school’s color if you want to, but I think it would be extra efficient to use
colors that prime people’s expectations
about what type of poster they’re about to see.
Because they’ll notice the color
first. Like we could use green for empirical studies
because they’re the most common, blue for theory, red for methods…
and yellow, the most attention-getting color,
for that rare and wonderful intervention
study. So this is already better,
but it sounds kind of technical to anybody who doesn’t specialize in the sub feel that this relates to,
which is selection or hiring decisions. Which is fine for an academic paper
where people can go back
and look up terms they don’t know.
BUT WE DON’T HAVE THAT KINDA TIME. People are walking by in five seconds. WE GOTTA PUNCH IT IN THEIR BRAIN.
And research on usability writing shows that plain language is
interpreted faster, and gets people’s attention better.
So the most efficient thing we can put on this poster is actually a plain language version of our main finding.
So we’re going to say for international students, perseverance and a sense of social responsibility
are extra important for predicting first-year GPA.
Now this kind of makes sense, right? Nnow you’re getting this whole story popping into your mind.
But what if we’re presenting a poster,
and somebody comes up and asks us a
question we don’t know the answer to?
Like, “give me your full list of
predictors and all the correlations.”
What about those figures and tables that give us that sense of safety and the ability
to answer questions for that we’re gonna
add something called an ammo bar ammo
bar is just gonna be a column on the
right side or whatever side you plan to
stand on and you’re gonna copy and paste
all of your miscellaneous figures and
tables and stuff that you need for
answering questions into that bar you’re
not gonna spend any time worrying about
the design or layout of this section
because it’s just for you to use treat
it as your scratch board make it as ugly
and as fast as you can it’s just there
so you can point to things when somebody
walks up and talks to you now what if
you’re already talking to somebody and
you’re showing them things in your ammo
bar and somebody else walks up and wants
to learn more about your study but
doesn’t want to interrupt you well for
them we’re gonna add a sidebar on the
left we’re gonna call this our silent
presenter bar in the silent prisoner bar
you’re gonna do all the stuff you
normally do on an academic poster but
you’re gonna worry about the layout of
it a little less go ahead and follow the
old intro methods results format copy
and paste bits of your essay or add
bullets and graphs if you have time just
sort of give people an overview of the
paper as if they were going to be
standing there and reading it silently
but in one to four minutes not 10 to 15
these side bars are key to this design
because with the ammo bar and the silent
presenter bar together we really have
almost as much information on this new
design as we had on the traditional
it’s just arranged much more efficiently
but what if somebody wants a lot more
information a lot more than you can even
put on your poster and doesn’t have time
to read it or talk to you these are the
people that sometimes like snap pictures
of your poster well for these people
we’re gonna add a QR code that links to
your full paper and a copy of the poster
these QR codes look scary but they are
stupidly easy to create just Google
create a QR code you’ll
do it in a second and every phone can
read them like if you take out your
phone right now and take a picture of
this QR code on the screen it’ll
automatically know it’s taking a picture
of a QR code and follow the link so this
last QR code feature lets you snap a
picture of any poster and instantly get
a copy of the whole poster and the paper
so now with this QR code option we’re
actually providing an option to get even
more information than traditional
designs allow for and doing it in a way
that lets attendees choose how much
information they want to get instead of
being flooded in design this is called
the principle of progressive disclosure
so here’s our final design now there are
more things we could do with this like
if you have a really important graph or
an image that needs to go in the center
you could move the QR code over it only
needs to be about five inches big to be
read you could also add your own
creative flair with images and stuff but
for now let’s look at the design in its
simplest form let’s look at a before and
after so in the next screen a few real
academic posters are going to move past
you at a walking pace see how much
information you can absorb now try these
same posters you just saw translated to
the new design now this is gonna be a
little unbelievable and jarring at first
because when people see this they don’t
believe that these clear findings came
from the posters they just saw but they
did this is how detached current
scientific poster design is from
actually communicating what you need to
know here we go
you absorbed more right you got the gist
of probably every poster if you wanted
to know more you could still walk up and
talk or read the silent presenter bar or
just scan the QR code and keep walking
so this new design meets our goals
it helps transfer insight more
efficiently by leading with the main
finding and making it big and obvious
and in plain language you can still walk
up and have good conversations with
people and for our third goal and I hope
you can tell from looking at it but this
approach is way easier for grad students
to create you can create this poster
design in much less time than you’re
spending on your current method so let’s
look at the presenter experience now
everybody who walks by it looks at your
poster at least because looking at your
poster is less effortful and it’s more
rewarding to look which is already an
improvement and now people who walk by
can engage with your poster quickly by
snapping a QR code which still makes you
feel good if you see somebody do it and
you still get those conversations
perhaps even more of them because your
hook is better and now look at the
attendee experience you get that feeling
of breathing and insight as you walk
past and you have more options as an
attendee to choose your level of
engagement with posters you’re
interested in you don’t have to get
trapped in a conversation to learn
something from a poster and look at how
it could accelerate learning you can
conceivably walk into a poster session
with this design and learn something
from every single poster instead of just
one or two if every scientist in every
field used a design like this instead of
the crappy old wall of text template
they’re using right now it can
accelerate insight and discovery and be
more fun for everybody the reason I
spent a year of my life making this
cartoon instead of publishing papers
like I’m supposed to be doing is because
I really think that it everybody uses a
design like this we could accelerate the
pace of science we could cure all
diseases slightly sooner and that’s
everything to the people suffering from
them I really believe in this design I
know it’s jarring ly different than what
you’re used to using but for what it’s
worth when actual designers design
posters and billboards their first
advice is to keep it simple and be
comfortable with negative space which
this design really does also we’re gonna
do a validation study on this new design
so if you’re a researcher and you’re up
for participating in a study to help
validate this design get in touch with
me send me an email or hit me up on
Twitter I’m at Mike Morrison so please
try it for yourself even if you want to
hack it up a little and make it your own
no hyegyo’s there are links below to
download PowerPoint templates for these
designs including example posters I’m
gonna use this design and all my
conferences going forward and lots of
people here in my ph.d program are gonna
try it out too so try it and please let
me know how it goes for you now will
retweet any poster selfies you send me
thanks for watching