Better Posters: Zen Faulkes on ways to rescue the poster session

When I was revising The Scientist’s Guide to Writing for its forthcoming 2nd edition, I had a problem: too many topics I wanted to cover, and not enough space under my word limit to do it. That means my book has gaps. That’s no surprise, of course; every book does. But one gap that irked me is my coverage of poster presentations. Many posters are dreadful, there are few resources for those wanting to do better, and my book disposes of posters in a couple of hundred words. Ugh.

Well, I have good news. The gap in my book is now filled – more than filled – because I can simply cite Zen Faulkes’s new book, Better Posters: Plan, Design, and Present an Academic Poster.  Faulkes has been blogging about poster presentations and poster design for a dozen years, and in the book he sums up his advice about posters – mostly about designing and presenting posters, but about attending and organizing poster sessions too.

I’ll cut to the chase here: this book is great.

The key to Better Posters – and to better posters – is Faulkes’s notion of “design with empathy” (a phrase I wish I’d used in my own book). By design Faulkes means that every attribute of a poster should be a deliberate choice – colour, spacing, typeface, layout.  By empathy Faulkes means that the way you make that choice is by considering the needs of the poster’s audience. And posters have a very specific audience: people in a bustling convention hall, often jostling for space and juggling a drink and a plate of snacks, whose attention needs to be grabbed and held. Faulkes shows how empathy for the audience fits into every decision, from the big ones (people read left to right and top to bottom, so posters that flow that way are easy to follow) to the tiny ones (rounded boxes around text blocks can look like they’re about to be punctured, and that can suggest tension in a way you probably don’t want). Faulkes leans heavily here on three crafts: storytelling, graphic design, and typography. Each of these crafts exists for only one reason: to help in communicating information effectively given how audiences behave and what they need. That is: design with empathy.

One of the most important parts of Better Posters, for me, is the discussion of why one might give a poster in the first place. Posters are sometimes considered the poor cousins of oral presentations – what you give if you don’t feel ready for the big time. Faulkes agrees with me that a poster isn’t a lesser version of a talk – it’s a different thing, with its own advantages and disadvantages, and the better choice some of the time. A claim I very much agree with is this: a talk is a lecture, but a poster is a discussion. So, “the most important thing a poster does is start a conversation” – and I’ve given posters that failed miserably at that, and others that succeeded.

So how does one give a poster that succeeds, vs. one that fails? Almost nobody is taught this, beyond the passing down of unwritten and often questionable lab lore. Here Faulkes is quite up-front about the fact that there just isn’t much data. Poster presentations aren’t a very old form, or one used much beyond academia; and there are vanishingly few formal studies. Instead, Faulkes distills more general wisdom from graphic designers, typographers, and so on, and leans on his own long experience (via the Better Posters blog) of conversations about what makes a poster better. I found myself nodding vigorously almost all the time.*

I’ll finish by noting that it would be quite easy to write a dull book about poster design. Faulkes chose not to – Better Posters is engaging and easy to read. And whether it’s schadenfreude or a spirit of “we’ve all been there”, I enjoyed Faulke’s critiques of his own less-than-excellent posters. I think it’s “we’ve all been there”, though, because I’ve certainly perpetrated some less-than-excellent posters myself.

Every lab should have a copy of Better Posters (much like it should have – cough, cough – a copy of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing). The book should make conference poster sessions better for everyone – those presenting and those attending. Thank goodness someone wrote it!

© Stephen Heard  June 8, 2021

 Need a copy? You can order from the evil but convenient corporate behemoth; you can order directly from the publisher; or of course you can order through your local independent bookshop.

*^It’s traditional in reviewing to offer a “but” – to season an otherwise glowing review with an objection. It’s honestly hard to find much, but I’ll note that my reaction to Comic Sans is much more muted than Faulkes’s. Kind of a letdown, if you were looking for me to pick a juicy fight down here, eh?


1 thought on “Better Posters: Zen Faulkes on ways to rescue the poster session

  1. sleather2012

    Speaking of bad posters – you should have seen the ones I produced in the days of cutting up bits of paper and sticking them on card!! Even with modern technology mine are far from beautiful 🙂

    Liked by 1 person


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