Pimp My Poster: Crowdsourcing scientific poster design?


Zea Poster from m f's flickr stream
Michael Franklin, Rochester Institute of Technology

One of the ways in which I can foresee Web 2.0 applications changing the culture of science is by increasing avenues for mentorship. Web apps allow students from different departments, universities, and nations to connect, collaborate, and exchange advice. This can mean career-changing help for students at small institutions (or for those at large institutions with poor interdepartmental relations or a dearth of experts in a particular field). I'm not just talking about help troubleshooting protocols; far-flung scientific networks can also help students navigate hurdles like passing quals, maintaining work-life balance, writing up, giving lab meeting, and even making scientific posters.

Colin Purrington, a professor at Swarthmore, is trying to help. Among the "gratuitous advice" on his website (graduate students and professors, bookmark this now) is an amazingly detailed, invaluable section on designing scientific posters. I'm old enough to remember when posters were modular collections of 8x11 inch text-blocks pasted on colored cardboard, with - if you were lucky - a few color photos for pizazz. No longer. The typical scientific poster now is printed as one large full-color sheet, and carried through airport security in a long tube. The design possibilities for these digital posters are endless - which is thrilling if you love playing with design, but kind of terrifying for the design-averse who just want to get through a talk about their research!

Purrington's solution is to "embrace the rough draft process:"

Rough drafts are especially crucial in deciding whether you need to cut/add text or resize figures or fonts, decisions that can entail many hours of fussing and gnashing of teeth. You should produce a rough draft at least one month before it is due, and then bribe six people (friends, strangers, etc.) to look at it when you are not present. Ask them to leave their suggestions on small Post-Its that you provide for them (e.g., as on poster shown below). Ask them to comment on word count, prose style, idea flow, figure clarity, font size, spelling, etc. Note that you can print a miniature version of your poster on letter-sized paper to get a very rough sense of impending layout challenges, but such a shrunken version is extremely hard to critique and you will lose friends if you ask them to do so.

That's where Web 2.0 comes in. Purrington has created a flickr pool called "Pimp My Poster" where students can submit their own posters for critiques and critique the work of others. Such collaborative pools only work if enough people participate, and unfortunately he's only got 87 members in the pool so far. So if poster design interests you/challenges at all, consider joining and sharing your expertise, or asking your students to join when they prepare their own posters.


Contaminacion Acustica from jaunis' flickr stream
"Pimp My Poster" flickr pool

Purrington also suggests ideas like preparing mini-posters for readers to take away, dressing to match your poster, adding audio elements, and using 3D. He recently told The Scientist, "I think there's a poster culture where it has become OK to slap something together. I think all of us love our research, but sometimes it's hard to communicate that." I agree. As a former student, professor, and poster judge, I have seen posters so horrifying I don't care if they represent Nature-worthy research - my eyes hurt and I want to flee. While poster design skills won't make or break a scientific career, they are one facet of a larger communications skillset that is important. In the real world, you'll have to convince granting agencies or funding partners that your research has potential, convey its relevance to colleagues and potential collaborators, and explain its social implications to the media. Since formal graduate training opportunities in science communications are rare, you may as well start practicing your skills in the relative safety of a poster session, flanked by a smart, well-designed poster that - literally - has your back.


Pimp My Poster writeup in The Scientist (subscription only)

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Another new thing is getting it printed on fabric (I'm not entirely sure what kind of fabric but my fellow students have assured me that it's pretty neat). No more lugging through poster tubes! I can't wait to get mine printed for the conference I'm going to next week.

The code base from which people develop web 2.0 application is at an interesting point.

Adobe's efforts, which are focused around their flash platform are where I will be placing my bets. Flash player 10 will be the first time that speedy (graphic card accelerated), genuine 3d will be available for the web en masse. 3D on the web has been rubbish so far, but it need not be; science may well be one of the areas to benefit most. The thing that Adobe has been traditionally good at has been the web designer side. The Macromedia purchase has taken some time to absorb, but a seamless designer to developer workflow is almost now in place. Again, and as you mention, Jessica, science should be a beneficiary of more richly presented web products.

Microsoft is working at its Silverlight platform, and HTML 5, which the like of Google is motivated to promote, features native mark-up for things like video, and Ajax is now mature enough that you can even debug your results the same day you first produce them ;p

Something else that science will benefit in is a shift in how web content is stored, processed, and served. Pay-as-you go, highly resilient, completely scalable, and super fast (if you adopt content delivery services like Amazon's Cloudfront) provides a lot of scope to move away from 40k web pages to 3-4mb applications without the user experiencing a noticeable difference in load up times.

Peter, you make a lot of excellent points about advances in web technology. You are right that science will benefit from all of them. The thing I wonder is how much of what you describe is really that participatory-media, Web 2.0 element at work. Certainly open source development is, web-based apps sort of. . . but I'm not seeing a lot of ways in which wikis, blogging, tagging, sharing, etc. are moving the practice of science forward. Web content delivery (driven by these improved technologies) could have a significant effect on the scientific publishing industry, but I think we'll have to wait and see how that plays out.


I think you are right to note the distinction between the information systems and the information technology that combines to make Web 2.0.

A lot of the web 2.0 solutions were really exciting to business people, because they were seen as a great way to get 'end users' to generate content - so called user generated content. The blogging, tagging and so on aspect excited them because it created a 'long tail', which suits the increasingly niched market for content and products alike.

So this aspect was promoted heavily in the media, with the result that the results could definitely be viewed as disappointing. I think that wikis have a long way to go yet, both in terms of adoption rates and the evolution in software terms. I think other aspects will be nothing more than a stepping stone.

So I think that other aspects, such as those I talked about above (rich internet applications and the commoditisation of web content provision) are those with the greatest, largely unreported, potential.

Along those lines, consider Amazon Elastic MapReduce which Amazon describe as:

...a web service that enables businesses, researchers, data analysts, and developers to easily and cost-effectively process vast amounts of data. It utilizes a hosted Hadoop framework running on the web-scale infrastructure of Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) and Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3).

There is a heck of a lot of potential out there. It may not be a good economic climate, but a clever group of scientists and IT people, with a bit of marketing nous, luck, and no need to generate positive cashflows for a year or so, could produce something pretty game changing in the science or general teaching space.

Yeah, I think the business applications of "Web 2.0" have somehow been seen as applicable to everything, including science and government, which is a mistake. It's not that Web 2.0 isn't useful to science and government - competitive intelligence, for example, can be a huge boon for government agencies - but the end goals aren't identical to those in business. Yet everyone thinks primarily about implementing Web 2.0 in business/marketing contexts. It's a challenge to wrest that frame off Web 2.0 and see what else it can do. :) I hope you are right about game-changing advances, especially in education - we really need that.

I'm not seeing a lot of ways in which wikis, blogging, tagging, sharing, etc. are moving the practice of science forward.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAH! You trying to troll Bora?

Nah, Bora knows I'm a friendly skeptic. I'd be happy to see Web 2.0 do more for science!

I think that Web 2.0 can move science forward by spreading the word about new discoveries, theories, etc. faster. Also, with so many people blogging, twittering and sharing, non-scientists can also spread the word and be informed of whatâs going on in the scientific world. Also, scientists and students might only think of their poster design in an academic context, while creative students and artists could help add interesting design flair to create more interest in the poster. Everyone could benefit.