By Cally Guerin

Recently I sat down to make a poster about the DoctoralWritingSIG blog for a higher education conference. I’ve made only a few research posters over the years; this genre is more common in some science disciplines than it is in humanities and social sciences. The exercise encouraged me to think about how this kind of research writing differs from that of a journal article or a thesis or, for that matter, a 20-minute oral presentation for a conference.

Poster prose is a little like reducing an 80,000-word thesis to a Three-Minute Thesis presentation: turning an article-length idea into a poster requires the author to focus in on the key messages of the communication. Posters encourage writers to extract the skeleton of the narrative they have developed in more fulsome terms elsewhere, to distill the key ideas of the work into neat dot points or short statements. This is not a time to be chatty; a poster gives us only the central message.

Some of Patrick Dunleavy’s advice on “How to write a blog post from your journal article” applies to posters, too. In particular, he recommends minimising the methods section and literature review, and writing short paragraphs. He reminds us that it is also useful to capture the key message in a narrative title. Unlike blogs, though, posters can make good use of subheadings to emphasise key points, to break up the text, and communicate ideas quickly.

In any writing, it is important to consider the audience being addressed. Do poster readers want a condensed form of the whole thesis, or just one aspect of the work? Are they actually much more interested in the results and conclusions than in the theoretical framework and the research methods? Perhaps some sections should be given a larger proportion of the space than one might expect in an article. Or the poster might act as an enticing introduction to the research, inspiring readers to seek out the full article or published chapter where they can discover the nuances left out in the abbreviated poster form.

My own tendency when looking at posters is to start at the top left corner and read down the columns, working towards the bottom right corner – just as I would a page in a book. Lots of the poster templates available online encourage this format, and many posters thus provide a condensed version of a traditional article in their form and layout. The following example demonstrates this type of transfer from an article to a poster. The text-based format is broken up with headings, and a few photos are used to illustrate the subject.

This can be very effective, but there’s no need to feel constrained by columns of text. Given that we can see the whole item at a glance, it’s perfectly possible to draw the eye to other parts of the communication first, such as a diagram at the centre of the poster, or photographs that encapsulate the essence of the findings. The linear narrative of an article might be transformed into a hub-and-spokes format to demonstrate the complexity of relationships. The layout of the poster can be used to direct readers’ attention to specific parts of the communication, as in the maths poster below on Felix Breuer’s blog.

Think about font size to ensure that important elements such as subheadings can be read from a distance. Remember to check colour choices for contrast so that the text and images are easy to read. Consider also how it is possible to draw on the symbolic aspects of colour to support the message.

Since a poster is oriented towards visual elements rather than just the prose, it makes sense to take full advantage of images to support the words. Some posters can benefit from the central focus being on the images, with words playing a supplementary role. For those in disciplines where conference posters are not so commonly used, this can be both challenging and liberating. For example, Sarah Foxen, a PhD candidate in Humanities at the University of Exeter, reports on her experience of very successfully translating her research into a poster. Even if research does not generate data in the form of tables, charts or graphs, what other kinds of visual representations are possible? Could a diagram help explain relationships between stakeholders? Evocative images can get to the heart of arguments, regardless of the discipline. In the process of explaining research in this visual medium, it is possible to gain new insights into the work when seeing it presented differently

What’s your experience of creating posters to communicate your research? What do we need to ensure doctoral candidates understand about this medium? And are there pitfalls they need to be warned about in advance? Share your thoughts on posters with us.