rethinking academic posters

I generally don’t enjoy presenting a poster. Few faculty tend to check them out and often only a handful of people actually ask about the work. At a convention the size of SPSP (just under 4000 people), posters can sometimes feel like a pointless exercise. Thankfully, this year was different.
I did some reading on how to design academic posters that draw people in to chat about your work. I consistently came across the same advice I’d heard from others: be concise; use as few words as possible; use images where possible; white space is your friend; etc. But I’d never really seen effective implementations of these design considerations. Enter Better Posters.
As I read through some of the posts (e.g., Critique: Sudden StopSubtle, gaudy, and bold), I came across this poster. I loved the bold use of colour, images, and the use of text as images. It wasn’t perfect, of course, but it was better than almost anything I’d ever seen at a conference, so I decided to try my hand at it.
Now, I’m no graphic designer, so I relied on some template help from I ended up deleting most of the template, but I’m the kind of person whose creativity works best when adapting and reinventing a product. I used ColorBrewer to find a colour theme for my poster and then I got to work.
I wanted my poster to be a conversation starter, not a stand-alone written piece. Following the advice at Better Posters, I decided to feature a large image in the centre as a focal point. I research people’s impressions of straight, gender atypical men’s sexuality as a function of the social environment they’re embedded in, so to get the conversation started, I headed over to Pexels to find an open-source image of a feminine-looking man. I settled on this one.

Focal image of my poster.

To portray my experimental conditions–a homophobic and non-homophobic social environment in a high school–I choose an image (from Pexels) of rainbow chalk to portray the LGBTQ* theme and school setting.

Colored chalk on a blackboard background
Photo by from Pexels

For the non-homophobic social environment, I simply cropped the image. For the homophobic social environment, I edited the image to be black and white, cropping it in the same way. After playing around with my introduction, I took my cue from the poster above and varied the size and colour of different parts of the text so they became pseudo images in and of themselves. I had to play around for awhile until I struck a tone between gaudy and bold that made sense to me (with my lack of design skills). I added my graphic visuals, changed the title to be attention grabbing in itself, and then played around with the details.
My SPSP 2018 poster

Ultimately, I came up with the poster above. It’s far from perfect, but I feel proud of the final product and I was excited to try it out and see if I noticed a difference in people’s interest. The short answer is, HELL YES! There were very few times throughout the poster session where I wasn’t surrounded by a small group of students and faculty interested in learning more about my research. The poster seemed to serve as a good conversation starter, provided enough information to pull people in, but withheld certain information that prompted people to ask me to clarify certain aspects/tell them more.
In hindsight, I think I may have left too much information off, and if people looked at the poster and left without asking me for more information, they might not have gotten it. But my impression was that few folks fell into this category.
I also got a lot of positive feedback on my poster. Many students commented on their love of the colour, the aesthetically pleasing design, and that each time they walked past the row of posters I was in, their eyes were drawn to mine. So in the end, was the risk in my design choices worth it? I’d say it definitely was. I will definitely continue to experiment with design ideas until I feel I’ve got the right handle on the balance between aesthetics and adequate information.

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