How many scientific posters can you gain insights from at a typical one-hour poster session at a medical meeting?
Two or three if you are lucky, according US psychology student Mike Morrison, who blames an archaic and cluttered layout of boxes of text and figures for making the average poster session a chore for both attendees and presenters.
In a Youtube video that has gone viral among early career researchers and triggered a growing #betterposters movement, the Michigan State University doctoral student says we need to completely re-think the format of scientific poster, to design them more like billboards rather than just an enlarged version of a journal abstract.
“The cardinal sin of every poster I have seen is that they expect you to be up close and to stand there and read everything for 10 minutes,” he says.
In reality, a conference attendee faced with scores of posters only has the opportunity to stop and absorb the information from a handful, and even then they face a major challenge in eliciting the main insight of the research from a “wall of crappy text”, he says.
This leaves the attendee feeling rushed, confused and underwhelmed that they have learned little from a poster session, while poster presenters feel that nobody is interested in their research and it has been a waste of time, says Mr Morrison.
He notes that some poster authors invest more time and money in better design features such as bullet points, graphs and infographics, but these don’t work because the basic poster template is still based on the flawed premise that people will stop and read them in detail.
Instead, he says a poster must communicate its main insight in a single message to a passerby, somewhat like a street billboard.
“An accurate way to design your poster based on how they’re actually used would be to project it on a wall full size and walk past it time and again and improve the experience for the person walking by,” he says.
His answer is to re-think the poster template with three main elements. A large central ‘blank space’ containing just the main insight from the research. This is flanked on the right by what he term the ‘ammo bar’ of data from the study, to allow the presenter to engage with anyone who stops to discuss it. On the left side is a ‘silent presenter bar’, which includes a brief overview in the traditional methods, results and discussion format.
“The re-designed poster still has almost the same information, just in different arrangement,” says Morrison.
— Stavros A. Kavouras (@DrHydration) May 30, 2019
For those who want to access more detailed information, he suggests adding a QR Code that automatically downloads a full copy of the traditional poster to a smartphone.
If conferences adopted this format for poster sessions it would enable all scientists to communicate their findings and insights much more efficiently to a wide audience, Mike Morrison believes.
“This can accelerate learning – you can conceivably walk into a poster session and learn something from every single poster instead of just one or two.
“It’s jarringly different to what you’re used to using, but if every scientist used a design like this instead of a crappy old wall of text it would accelerate insight and learning – and be a lot more fun for everyone,” he says.
He has released the templates for the new poster format and the idea has been taken up by a few graduate students at US conferences, who report on social media that they have had great feedback about the radical new poster design.