Monday, 16 June 2014

Research posters

Research posters in the humanities

A couple of months ago, I was asked to produce a research poster to be presented at the conference Troubling Narratives: Identity Matters. I was a little sad that I wouldn't get the opportunity to listen to the sound of my own voice at this particular event, but I was intrigued - never before had I attempted making a research poster.

Since it was my first time, I dug around online for some advice about content, layout, and so on, but I was somewhat surprised to find few resources aimed specifically at students in humanities disciplines. Of course there is a reason for this, which is that the majority of research posters are produced in non-humanities disciplines. In the sciences, geography, statistics, and any discipline where quantitative data is used, it makes sense for research findings to be communicated visually through diagrams, tables, and graphs.

On the other end of the spectrum, in the arts images are highly likely to be relevant to the research- often being or directly representing the subject of the study -meaning that posters are a natural format for disseminating research. Humanities that are not arts (by which I mean philosophy, religion, history, theory, etc) are less likely to be engaged in the study of something that can be photographed or plotted on a graph. This doesn't mean that research posters are impossible or irrelevant for those of us in humanities subjects. It does mean that the advice given to scientists or students of the arts are not necessarily helpful to us.

So, now having been through the whole process of designing and producing my own research poster, I thought that somebody out there might benefit from me sharing what I have learned through the process. This advice is aimed at those like me: theorists, scholars of religion and law and history, philosophers, and other difficult academic creatures.

1. Beginning steps

Write your paper.
Assuming that you haven't already completely finished writing your paper, do this first. Write it as if you were going to distribute it amongst the conference participants in advance, with all the academic furniture in its proper place (footnotes, citations, etc). I think that writing the paper and then extracting the juiciest bits of writing and argumentation from it, and putting them in poster form, is the most effective approach. I tried to write my paper and design my poster simultaneously, but I do not recommend it.

Choose the message.
This is the hard part, because this is where you decide the main thrust of your poster (well OK, perhaps it's the second hardest part after finishing writing your paper). Your chosen 'message' should inform your decisions on the poster's content, for example, it could be your original contribution to your field, or the main conclusion of this piece of research.
I think this is something I really failed to do, and as a result my poster doesn't communicate one easily summarised idea. But I think it would've been possible to achieve this in my poster if I had prioritised it.

Excerpt and structure.
Now select the text you want to use in your poster; I found it particularly useful to choose summary paragraphs and concluding sentences. You will probably want to divide the content of your poster into sections, similarly to how you have structured your paper, with an abstract, an introduction, a few sections of argument, and a conclusion of sorts. The main difference is that you won't have the space on your poster for much detail or background information.

Choose a title.
This is not necessarily the same title you gave your paper. Shorter the better, so you can use a large font size – the general consensus seems to be about 72pt for an A1-sized poster.

2. From paper to poster

Usually you will be expected to produce an A1-size poster, and while I was advised that I could orient my design either landscape- or portrait-wise I suppose some conference organisers might specify one way or the other. Check.

Having already decided what bits of your paper to use in your poster, it will nonetheless take some time to transfer the text across to the poster and to edit it down to an appropriate word count. My poster totalled just less than 1,000 words -excluding acknowledgements and a brief bibliography (six references)- but I have a feeling it might still be too 'wordy'. I have read somewhere that the ideal word count for a poster is about 800.
One solution for simplifying the content of your poster without cutting too many words, is to structure each section with both a heading and a leading statement that is visually distinguished from the main body text somehow, whether it is bold or in a larger font. This is another strategy I didn't use, but I could have done so to communicate a more linear argument.

What counts as a relevant image will obviously depend on the content of the poster. This element of the design posed the greatest challenge for me because I wasn't sure what kinds of images would be appropriate on a poster about narratives of racial and religious identity... In the end I decided on a mixture of the following: a map, two portraits, a book cover, my own photo from fieldwork, a historical photo, and photos from YWCA brochures.
It is of course better to use hi-res images (300dpi or higher) but I was forced to use lower quality images because I scanned them from poorly-printed low-res originals, and there were no alternatives. Having seen the results once printed, I'm happy because they are images I couldn't get elsewhere- so use your judgement.

3. Finishing touches

Some people can do design and others can't. Maybe you can get help from a friend and acknowledge their input (?? I guess this isn't allowed in a competition). Apart from that, there are a number of really cool tools available for free online. Personally I used OpenOffice Impress (which is essentially a free version of PowerPoint), and took design inspiration from the templates available at Canva (although the templates there aren't aimed at academics and they aren't A1-size).

If you live near to your university's print centre then you can use that, but I don't so I was forced to look elsewhere. Online, I found that Staples does A1 poster printing but at £24.99 for one poster, it wasn't attractive – especially as I would have to travel to Staples to pick it up (for me that means public transport, a risky proposition when carrying precious cargo). StuPrint sounded as if it was aimed at students but at £28.00 it wasn't cheaper, and express delivery would have been an extra £8.00.
Eventually I found A1 Posters, a company based in Wales. I paid £27.96 for two full-colour A1 prints (£9.23 each, plus £9.50 for FedEx) which arrived at my doorstep the next working day, rolled in a sturdy tube. The posters look great and I'd definitely recommend the service, especially if you're in a rush.

The finished product:

Most useful links

The Scientist's Guide to Poster Design (Kate Everson): This is an excellent resource, and although aimed at scientists it's still a great place to start.

Pimp my Poster (flickr): for example posters.

Poster and Presentation Resources (University of North Carolina Graduate School): A seemingly comprehensive list of online resources for creating research posters.

Creating Large Format Posters Using PowerPoint (Wake Forest Baptist Medical Centre): Step-by-step instructions for using Microsoft PowerPoint to design large posters.

Creating effective poster presentations (North Carolina State University): Detailed instructions, but aimed at those working in sciences/with quantitative data.

QR Stuff: Website to create a QR code that you can add to your poster to link to your blog/website/twitter etc.

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