Do you judge a research poster by its cover?


My academic department is running a research poster competition today as part of the department’s 75th anniversary celebrations. All attendees are being asked to judge the posters and to pick the best ones. There is a saying that you cannot judge a book by its cover. That is, you should not judge the content of a book by what you see on the cover. A research poster, however, is essentially all cover. Everything is immediately visible to the reader. So, how do you judge a poster? And what makes a good research poster?

I tackle this question in my Research Skills course. Three things seem important:

1. Attractive presentation.
2. A clear textual summary in the top left hand corner.
3. Good visual material to allow you (the author) to explain your work to attendees.

The posters are available at Go have a look and judge them on these criteria.

Attractive presentation
By this I mean that attendees are attracted to look at the poster, in the first place, and are then able to assimilate your poster’s message quickly. So, the important things are to have short pieces of text, clear visuals, and a clean layout. By contrast, long pieces of text will not be read, poor visuals will confuse the readers, and a messy layout will mean that the reader will have no idea of an appropriate order in which to look at the different bits of your poster.

A clear textual summary in the top left hand corner
The first thing that any attendee will read is whatever you place in the top left hand corner. That piece of text should therefore summarise your entire poster. Preferably in four sentences or fewer. My ideal summary would follow Simon Peyton Jones’ formula for a four-sentence abstract:
Here is a problem.
It is an interesting problem.
Previous solutions do not solve it.
Our new solution does solve it.

Good visual material to allow you to explain your work
Most attendees do not read through a whole poster. Most conferences have a session where the poster authors stand next to their posters. This is the time when most attendees spend time in the poster room. Therefore a key use of your poster is to provide visual aids for you when you are talking to people about your work. You need relevant images, figures, diagrams, and graphs. These are the things that you will point at, when discussing your work. Textual material is secondary to the visuals. You cannot dispense with text entirely, because the poster will need to be comprehensible when you are not there to explain it, but you should go heavy on the visuals.

Some of the 75th anniversary posters are excellent: presenting research in a compelling and interesting way. Some have gone over-the-top on trying to attract attention to themselves, to the detriment of the message. Some fail to explain what they are about in the first paragraph, leaving the casual browser none-the-wiser as to what the research is about. And some would not be particularly useful as a prop for speaking about the author’s research to conference attendees. But, on the whole, the submissions are a good advertisement for the department’s current research projects.

I now wait to see which posters win the competition, and whether they will meet my criteria for what is important.

The photograph was taken at the IS&T/SPIE Electronic Imaging symposium in January 2009. I was one of the chairs of the Stereoscopic Displays & Applications conference at that symposium.

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