11 June 2020

Four bad habits of academics that cause ugly posters

There are many reasons that academic conference posters are often bad. Some of it is lack of experience. But even with some experience, many academics have some habits – often deeply ingrained habits – that work against good posters.

1. Academics are verbal.

Think of a generic, stereotypical “smart person” or “academic,” and you probably think of books.

Women in glasses reading a book

Any kid who likes reading is sort of pegged as “the smart kid.” Books, reading, and writing are almost inextricably linked with our ideas of intelligence and academia.

What does this mean for posters?

Academics are largely a selected group of people who love words. Maybe too much. So they write and write and write and write.

Because academics love words and have a lot of experience writing, they forget that reading is hard. Kids start reading maybe around 6. Even after ten years of practice, teenagers would still struggle with most academic articles.

But posters are a visual medium.

Academics, inexperienced in communicating visually, struggle to shift to communicating in a visual medium. For instance, they will write out a prediction rather than drawing a graph of what they expect the data to look like.

2. Academics are cheap.

Academics are weird about money.

I get it. Education in many places is not cheap, and undergraduate degrees can leave a student deep in debt. Grad school doesn’t pay well. You learn to be careful with money. And that mindset sticks with you.

I remember hearing one professor describing how he was in the grocery store, debating what to buy. It was something like, “Butter or margarine?” Something nice versus something cheap. And then he said he realized, “I’m a tenured full professor. I could probably buy out most of this aisle.”

Academics are often reluctant to shell out cash for anything that would help poster design.

Over and over and over again, I see academics say, “I’m looking for free tools,” “Where can I get free software?”, “It has to be free.” I think this contributes to why so many people use PowerPoint to make posters: because they already have it on their computers and they don’t want to buy anything else.

They won’t shell out money for graphics software like Adobe Illustrator or CorelDraw. They won’t pay for fonts. They won’t hire an artist or designer.

3. Academics are busy.

Academics have time management issues. We have multiple, constant demands on our time. We have teaching to do, we have meetings that we are expected to go to, we have to squeeze in our research and writing somewhere.

Weekly schedule for a professor, with workdays almost fully booked

In fairness, this is only part “habit.” Part of it is the reality of being in an academic setting. But “busy-ness culture” that works its way into your mindset. There’s an old joke about academics going to grab a cup of coffee somewhere so they can complain to each other about how busy they are. Being busy is seen as a virtue.

Good graphic design takes time. But “busy” academics are often unwilling to put in the time to design and refine the work, because there is always more work to do.

And on top of that, some kinds of “busy” are expected more than others. “I’m busy collecting data” will earn you more nods and approval than, “I’m busy picking just the right typeface for this presentation.”

4. Academics are detail oriented

For many academics, every data point is sacred.

Young woman looking at blades of grass through magnifying glass

When I asked others about what habits got in the way of communicating visually, this was was the most common answer by far.

There are many factors that contribute to this bad habit.

First, data is hard to get. People have egos, and by showing lots of data, they are showing off how hard that have worked. (See bad habit #3 above.)

Second, academics operate in an environment were everyone is trained to be skeptical and critical. If you put up a bar graph of averages, someone will ask if the data are normally distributed. If you put up a regression line, someone will remind you of Anscombe’s quartet or the Datasaurus dozen. So people want to show all their data as insurance against people who see summary statistics as a place where flaws can hide.

Those two factors mean that even experienced academics have this bad habit. But many people making posters are often early in their careers, and they are faced with a third factor that contributes to “demoncratizing” data

It takes experience to develop that “view from 30,000 feet” perspective. They may be doing one small slice of research that fits into a senior professor’s long term research master plan, and they don’t know the big picture. When you’re not sure what is important or not, it is extremely difficult to edit.

Habits are hard to change. But identifying bad habits is at least a starting point to cultivating good habits to replace them.

Problem #1: Academics are verbal.
Possible solutions: Draw and sketch. Get a whiteboard in your office. Collaborate and work with graphic designers and artists.

Problem #2: Academics are cheap.
Possible solutions: Normalize spending money on visualization and design. Put money for “visualization” in grants - graphics created for a poster can be used in many other places!

Problem #3: Academics are busy.
Possible solutions: Block out poster making and put it in your schedule instead of working it into cracks made out of cancelled meetings. Hire someone to work on your poster (also helps with solution in #2.)

Problem #4: Academics are detail oriented.
Possible solution: Put summaries on poster, but bring detailed graphs on paper or mobile device to show to skeptics. Edit other people’s work for practice. Always be asking, “What is the main point here?”

Thanks to the Lifeology slack group for discussion!

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