19 February 2015

Better Posters on the road: The MEOPAR workshop

I spent the first part of last week in beautiful Québec City giving a poster workshop for MEOPAR. I’d given presentations about making posters before, but this was the first time I’d tried to turn this into a half a day workshop, which was intimidating. The participants (dubbed “Meopeers”) were good sports about it all.

One of the things that made the job easier was that several of the Meopeers brought posters with them. As it happened, between the five there was a good mix of different features to talk about. These five posters gave me the chance to talk about logos, abstracts, eye levels, reading order, entry points, and much more.

This first was one of the cleanest, simplest posters. I would have put the right picture above the text, not below it, to bring the great picture closer to eye level. I also might have tried paragraphs instead of bullet points.

This second poster has a clean three column layout, but the amount of text is truly intimidating. The introduction – the whole right column, if we’re honest – is not welcoming to a casual passerby.

The poster above got caught in a lighting “dead zone" much of the first day. There were lights on to the right of it, to the left of it, but not above it, and it was noticeably dark. Compare the lighting of the middle poster to the two flanking it. 

This demonstrated that posters are not always displayed in good lighting conditions, and lots of conference poster sessions are in hotels like this one.

On poster number three, there are a few unnecessary boxes around the columns of this one. The logos here throw off the nice centering of the title, so I suggested left aligning the title and leaving the logos where they are.

The colours of the graphics are all over the map. This is a situation where I don’t know if the colours can be harmonized while keeping the scientific content intact, however.

This fourth one tries to provide skimming readers with a quick entry point, with a box that reads “Goal” in the upper right corner. The box is a bit dark and hard to read, though. Points for concept, but penalties for execution.

A couple of other issues here are that all the graphics are corralled at the bottom, and are rather small. The reading order switches around, with the central two columns reading across then down, instead of down, then across.

This fifth poster had the best title bar of all of the posters. The picture of the ferry is an excellent entry point, the title is big and clear and not crowded, and the logo is appropriately low key, tucked away in the lower right of the title bar.

Then, the bottom falls apart. The left column is okay, but... that right hand side. Oh dear. As soon as you hit the Methods and Results, you’re awash in a sea of small, intense graphs. Even after two straight days of looking at this poster on and off, I still haven’t been able to which way I am supposed to read the figures without going in and studying each one in detail, like these Meopeers were doing:

Some of the points that came up in discussion was the difference between the intended order of information, and how people actually looked at the poster. Even the first three posters, with a clear three column order, were not often read in that order.

Several Meopeers admitted to being “skimmers,” looking at the start and finish of the poster for the main points, and not bothering with with the stuff in the middle at all.

There was some contention about the use of logos. One participant said, “My university will insist that they be there.” I am still baffled by how an institution can stop you from doing whatever you want with a poster. Even then, like everything else, there are some ways to include logos that are better than others.

I thank all the Meopeers for their willingness to listen. I thank the MEOPAR coordinating team for inviting me back home to Canada (first time home in seven years) and being most excellent hosts. I hope it helped!

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