A work of staggering genius

Ben Young Landis has done the smartest thing I’ve seen all day – adding a smartphone camera friendly abstract panel to a comprehensive poster design, in order to make it easy to capture the poster’s soul.

by Ben Young Landis
by Ben Young Landis (Used with Permission)

For many of us, working a research conference using smartphones has become second-nature…It was the poster aspect that had me thinking for a while. How can we make a better poster layout that will be more friendly to smartphone users…and…will stand out from the crowd?

You can see the beginnings of my experiment with this design I created for Kevin Lafferty, a P.I. with the U.S. Geological Survey and UC Santa Barbara. A key innovation is the “Project Snapshot” — this is actually where I’ve tucked all the technical language, the citation, the coauthors, the email addresses, and all the “usual” poster elements. Essentially, I’ve written up your notes for you in this 9×12 inch space, and the camera icon is a reminder that you literally can just take a snapshot of this box, and not have to write all this down. – Ben Young Landis

The poster design is not just about smartphones. The layout (download a PDF layout or an Adobe InDesign template) is crafted to efficiently and effectively convey information to the user.

What about the rest of the poster real estate? For that, I drew inspiration from webpages, newspapers, and other design realms. The What, the Why, the big Show-Me finding and the Key Figure (I call this “the whale tank” — that main event and showpiece you want everyone to see), and finally, the What’s Next?

They may seem oversimplified, but these are really the types of information we seek and have time for when browsing poster sessions, and they are quite flexible in terms of actual content. – Ben Young Landis

I’m not sure I was thinking about how to make posters more smartphone compatible before, but I am now. After five minutes of thought, I’m not sure this approach would have been my approach. That probably makes this approach brillianter by default. The approach that leaps immediately to mind would require the smartphone user to have a specific category of application already loaded on the phone, whereas this one does not – making it immediately accessible.

How would I have done it? Glad you asked. I would have added a QR code that goes directly to a high-resolution PDF of the poster. Which is not my Platonic ideal of how to execute that idea. What is my Platonic ideal of how to execute that idea. Glad you asked. I would have I would have added a QR code that goes directly to an animated walk-through of the poster with voice over – and I would have been at the bar, even during my poster session1. Win win.

While we are on the topic of posters, I thought I might pass on my greatest poster discovery. If you select certain glossy finishes on the poster, you can write on them with dry erase markers. In the world of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory2, going “chalk talk” on your poster is bad ass. I have to thank the employees at this FedEx Kinkos in St. Louis3 for letting me experiment on some scrap sheets to figure this out.

1. Got a question about my poster? That is what the Twitter handle is for. Look, I know you may not have met me face to face. This is really for your own benefit.
2. Nice place for a conference. Good bar. Crap housing if you are not royalty. Creepy portrait of James Watson in Mr. Rogers cosplay stares at you in the auditorium while you are watching presentations.
3. After a printer breakdown, they also shipped my poster directly to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory for me. This was very convenient for my trip there as I was traveling through Boston to play a rugby match before the conference. I don’t recommend it unless you have great confidence in your print shop or have no other choice.

Author: Josh Witten


3 thoughts on “A work of staggering genius”

  1. I think you’ll start to see more and more of this, though a lot of conferences still forbid photography of poster sessions without express permission of the author (which I guess a camera icon sort of does), but the blanket ‘no photography’ signs all over the poster hall at conferences I attend are still a deterrent to many I think (not all, but many).

    I love the idea of chalk talking a poster! That is truly brilliant. And I too put my twitter handle and email prominently and try to encourage people to get in touch…but they never do (or more likely; my work isn’t that interesting to anyone, including me). I find poster sessions tedious and hard to navigate; and the idea of just standing by your poster at an assigned time (unless it’s a small conference) is really ridiculous to me. I suggested to some conference organizers that maybe we could give people a heuristic to follow (as in, feel free to wander, check back with your poster every x minutes…if someone’s looking at it, go say hi). I know that’s not perfect either, but it at least frees up interactions and lets you go see posters you couldn’t go see otherwise because you were assigned the same stand-by time.

    1. I’ve wondered about the utility of leaving twitter handle/phone number etc. with directions to ping me from the poster if you want to talk about it, but I think the actual use of it would be vanishingly small.

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