Wednesday, February 16, 2011

On Science Posters, Three Ways...

In my last post, I mentioned that I presented a poster at a recent physics workshop.  Today, I want to tell you more about the role that posters play in science.

I believe pretty much everyone is familiar with a poster.  Most people have had one hanging in their bedroom, office, etc. at some point in their life.  Posters are used to communicate in some way, be it a motto, a feeling, etc.  In science, posters are used to educate and I feature three levels of this education here.

THE BASIC INTRIGUING POSTER

PhysicsQuest Poster
This poster is meant to get the audience thinking about the world around them and the matter that they are made up of.  The audience is broad, but this particular poster is geared to get elementary and secondary students excited about science (thereby learning the answer to this teaser - which you can do by clicking on the link below the poster).  Note that this poster is mostly composed of graphics with minimal text.  The audience is hooked quickly.

THE EDUCATION POSTER

APS Education Posters

Yes, I am not beyond shameless self-promotion!  You have seen this poster before in a previous post.  I worked with the APS to create this poster that discusses what gravitational waves are, where they come from, how we plan on detecting them and why we are interested in them.  The audience for this poster is mostly high school and college students as well as anyone who is interested enough to read through the poster.  That is a hallmark difference between this poster and the basic intriguing poster - the amount of text (which will only get worse with the professional poster).  There are eye-catching graphics on this poster, but that is not the focal point.  This poster is also delineated into clear topical sections (where there was only a single message in the basic poster).  These delineations are made clear with the use of white space, background color and text grouping. 

THE PROFESSIONAL CONFERENCE POSTER

Poster in the LIGO Document Control Center

This poster is the most intensive of the three I talk about here.  When a scientist takes a poster to a conference, the poster is meant to present their research for them in place of them giving a talk.  Most meetings will have poster sessions where the attendees roam around a room displaying posters and discuss the work with the author that is usually standing nearby.  Posters can also stand for themselves during coffee breaks and other social times during the meeting.

Note that the text on the professional poster is the feature.  Graphics are also important, since they can often communicate complex concepts more efficiently than words, but these are used in support of the text.  If they are eye-catching, all the better!  The audience for these posters is obviously other professionals, but there can still be a broad range there.  For example, a poster I prepare to present at a LIGO centered conference can safely assume that the audience is familiar with the basics of the science and familiar with our jargon.  But at meeting where there are scientists from different fields, even different fields in physics, care needs to be made to make sure that jargon isn't used (which is difficult to do when you are so used to using these specialized terms).  Also, since there is so much being communicated, these posters can become quite large in size - I have one hanging in my office right now that is 3 feet by 4 feet!

SUMMARY

What poster a scientist creates depends on the goal of the poster.  The more general the audience, the less text, more graphics and judicious use of white space is needed.  The more professional, the narrower the audience and text becomes more important.  In the end, what is really important is to consider the motivation of the audience - the more they know about the subject being presented, the longer they will be willing to stand in front of it and read it!

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