How to Design a Research Poster: Collected Resources

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My poster and I at the 2018 AAG in New Orleans (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Academic research posters are something most people have to produce at least once or twice during your PhD. They can be a good way to present your research at conferences, particularly if you are nervous about giving a paper. However, they are a quite particular medium, that requires an approach unlike anything else. If you get it right, they can look great, and communicate your research in an effective and concise manner. If you get it wrong, then they look a mess. I recently designed a poster about protest stickers for the 2018 Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers in New Orleans. Below are some of the resources I found helpful when putting my poster together. I would also like to acknowledge the input of my Dad, Dr. Graeme Awcock, who is a bit of an expert on academic posters, and taught me how to design them when I was an undergraduate.

I have collected some resources together that I found useful below, but my own key tips would be:

  • Give yourself plenty of time to design the poster. Unlike other academic outputs, it is not the writing, but the design that takes the most time when designing a poster.
  • Detail matters. It can feel petty, and be very frustrating, trying to make sure that all your columns are the same length and the same distance from each other and the poster margins, but it does make a big difference.
  • Produce several versions, experimenting with different layouts and colour schemes. You can then ask family, friends, or colleagues for input about which works best.
  • Proofread your poster carefully. Twice. I have noticed typos in posters before, and it must be an awful feeling to display your poster and notice a mistake.
  • Build time for printing into your schedule. Some printers need several days to print a poster. Make sure you have accounted for that, so that your poster will be ready on time.

Helpful resources:

Buket Gundogan, Kiron Koshy, Langhit Kurar, and Katharine Whitehurst, “How to Make an Academic Poster,” Annals of Medicine and Surgery 11 (2016); p 69-71. This contains some good advice, particularly relating to what to do when you’re actually presenting your poster–the work doesn’t finish when you pin it up.

NYU Libraries: How to Create a Research Paper: Poster Basics does what it says on the tin really, including providing examples of good and bad posters.

The University of Manchester School-University Partnership Initiative: Academic Posters covers most of the basics, and provides a couple of templates.

University of Liverpool Computing Services: Making an Impact with your Poster is a detailed guide on a number of elements, including balance, images, font, and colour.

Author Meets Critics at the AAG

I spent last week at the Annual Conference of the Association of American Geographers (AAG), a mammoth event with hundreds of sessions spread over 5 days and 3 hotels in New Orleans, Louisiana. I had a fantastic time at the conference, and I loved exploring New Orleans in my time off. I have attended the conference before, in Chicago in 2015, so I knew what to expect from this epic exchange of knowledge and research. But I also had some new experiences, including participating as a panellist in an Author Meets Critics session.

Representing my new employer, the University of Central Lancashire, at the Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting in New Orleans (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Author Meets Critics sessions are odd. Primarily designed to publicise recent books (I think!), panellists speak about the book, and the author(s) then respond to those comments. Most of the time, the majority of the audience has not read the book, so it can be hard to formulate questions when the floor is opened up to audience discussion. The number of critics depends on the length of the session, but can range from 3 to 5.

At the AAG, I was taking on the role of critic for Revolting New York: How 400 Years of Riot, Rebellion, Revolution, and Uprising Shaped a City, which attempts to document almost four centuries of contentious history in one of the most famous cities in the world. I really enjoyed reading the book, and I had an idea what I wanted to say about it, but I had never actually been to an Author Meets Critics session before, and I wasn’t sure if what I wanted to say was appropriate. So I went to two other Author Meets Critics sessions before the Revolting New York one. The critics in the two sessions took very different approaches, and I liked one much more than the other.

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The Author Meets Critics panel for Space Invaders by Paul Routledge at the 2018 AAG (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The first session I went to was for Paul Routledge’s new book, Space Invaders: Radical Geographies of Protest (2017). Routledge, and most of the panellists, have published work that has been influential on my understanding of the geography of social movements and protests, so that was a second reason for me to go along. I haven’t read the book, in fact I wasn’t aware of its existence until I saw the title in the conference programme. All of the critics (and there were five of them!) talked about what they liked about the book, and what they didn’t like. It was effectively a verbal review. Times five. With the author in the room. Whilst none of the reviews were overwhelmingly bad, it still felt pretty brutal. I felt quite uncomfortable during the session, and I also found it quite difficult to engage with the discussion.

The second Author Meets Critics was for Tear Gas: From the Battlefields of WW1 to the Streets of Today (2017) by Anna Feigenbaum. I have read this book, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I also got a lot more out of the discussion of the book. There were only three critics, which gave Feigenbaum the time to briefly outline the book for those who hadn’t read it, as well as responding to the critics at the end. In addition, rather than reviewing Tear Gas, the two critics built on it, discussing which elements they found most interesting and how the book fit in to contemporary academic debates. As an audience member, I found this approach much more engaging.

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The Author Meets Critics Panel for Tear Gas by Anna Feigenbaum at the 2018 AAG (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Luckily, this was the approach I had decided to take in my role as critic for Revolting New York. I do not think it is perfect, but I didn’t feel comfortable pointing out what I didn’t like/agree with when the book’s editor, and several of the authors, were in the room. This doesn’t mean I wasn’t critical, however; it is possible to critique something without being negative about it. I instead discussed the elements of Revolting New York that got me thinking, the issues it throws up that I think are worthy of further discussion. The two issues I focused on were: comparisons between New York and London; and the impact of terminology and whether we study events alone or as part of wider social movements. I think it went pretty well, if I do say so myself, and the terminology issue in particular carried on through the audience discussion.

I suspect that not everyone will agree with me on this, some people might not have a problem with pointing out a book’s weaknesses with the author in the room; it can even be argued that it is more fair than publishing a review to which opportunities for response are limited. For the audience however, I think it is downright awkward. I personally think the constructive approach is more engaging for the audience, particularly if they haven’t read the book yet. I would definitely take this approach again if I get asked to participate in another Author Meets Critics panel.

The RGS-IBG Annual Conference: A Social Nexus

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The Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers Annual Conference took place this year at the RGS-IBG in Kensington (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I spent most of last week at the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers (more commonly known as the RGS-IBG to save time!) Annual Conference in South Kensington. It is the fourth big international conference I have attended since I started my PhD, and apart from being more familiar with big conferences and how they work, I noticed one big difference from my previous conference experiences: I know people now. During the tea breaks, lunch breaks, and drinks receptions, I could be fairly confident that I would find someone I know to talk to. Not that there’s anything wrong starting a conversation with a stranger; I did a little of that too. But knowing that I could probably find someone I already knew to talk to make the prospect of networking less intimidating.

The overarching theme of the conference this year was Nexus Thinking. One of the latest buzzwords in geography, a nexus is a space of connections, of junctures, and of interaction. It got me thinking about the way in which conferences bring people together from a wide range of geographical locations and subject areas- they function as social nexuses (see what I did there?).

I saw lots of people that I know at the RGS-IBG, many that I haven’t seen in quite a while. There were previous Royal Holloway students who have now moved on to further study at other universities; current Hollowegians who I haven’t seen since the end of the summer term, or who I don’t normally get to talk to in the day-to-day life of my PhD; and people that I only really see at conferences.

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Myself with some fellow Hollowegians during a lunch break. From left to right: Ben Newman, Rachel Squire, Innes Keighren, Hannah Awcock (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Many of them were fellow PhD students, whose PhDs I have followed via conference papers and chats over tea and biscuits, lunch, or a drink in the pub at the end of the day. I have watching from afar as their research has developed and progressed, and it was really nice to see them last week, as we all come in to the final stretch.

The RGS-IBG Historical Geography Research Group too, have been an intermittent presence throughout my PhD, particularly at the annual Practising Historical Geography conferences. The more established members are so supportive and generous with their time, never seeming to get tired of the incessant questioning from postgraduate students.

Sometimes when I am sat at home at my desk staring at a computer screen for hours on end, a PhD can feel quite lonely. Last week I was reminded that I have become part of a community; a group of people who know and understand what I’m going through, and that feels really nice. It might be a largely long-distance community, that requires a social nexus like the RGS-IBG Annual Conference to bring us together, but it is one that means a lot to me. And I am now confident that I will always be able to find someone to eat with during the conference lunch breaks.

The AAG: Why Did I Sign Up For This?

The Chicago skyline from the top of the Willis Tower, the tallest building  in the Western hemisphere.

The Chicago skyline from the top of the Willis Tower, the tallest building in the Western hemisphere (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Last week, I attended the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Geographers, otherwise known as the AAG. Probably the biggest Geography conference in the world, the AAG continues to grow every year and this year over 9000 delegates gathered in Chicago for the 5 day event. It was my first time attending the conference, and although I had a fantastic time I did find the whole thing a little overwhelming at times. Amongst everything, it is easy to forget why you’re there in the first place. I decided to put this post together of what I believe are the 3 main purposes of going to a large international conference like the AAG, so you can reassure yourself when you find yourself asking the question, which you almost certainly will at some point, ‘Why did I sign up for this?’

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A welcome sign at the AAG (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

  1. Present. And/or organising a session. Although you don’t have to present your work when you go to a conference, it seems a bit daft to fly all the way over the Atlantic Ocean and not present. Each presenter at the AAG only gets 20 minutes for their talk, including questions, so it really isn’t a big commitment. Presenting allows you to share your work with, and get feedback from, people outside your normal academic circle, which can be incredibly helpful. Presenting at such a prominent conference also allows you to stake your claim to your research topic, to make sure other people know what your research involves. Plus, it can actually be quite fun- you might actually enjoy yourself!

    Me Presenting at Chicago AAG

    Yours truly presenting a paper on the Battle of Cable Street (Photo: Innes Keighren).

  2. Network. The sheer size of the AAG makes it a unique opportunity for networking, particularly for international contacts. Some really big names in Geography attend the AAG, and it can be a great chance to introduce yourself (I was sat behind David Harvey in one session, although I didn’t say hello!) If you are thinking about publishing your work, many publishers have booths in the exhibition hall, and a lot of journal editors also attend, so there are plenty of people to talk to about your ideas. It is a great chance to meet other PhD students, and catch up with existing friends who you haven’t seen since the last big conference. A PhD can sometimes be a lonely experience, so I like to take every chance I get to socialise with other people in the same boat.

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    My business cards, an invaluable networking tool! (Photo: Hannah Awcock)

  3. Learn. My final purpose of going to a large international conference is a bit cheesy I know, but I think it’s a really important one. Conferences are a great chance to find out the latest ideas, theories and concepts in geography and your particular field. As I said, some of the biggest names in Geography attend the AAG, so it’s a great chance to hear them speak, and learn directly from them. Plus, it gives you the chance to ask questions about things you don’t understand, which you can’t do when reading a journal article or book. You can develop your own current projects by listening to others, and perhaps even get some ideas for future projects.

And if all that wasn’t enough to convince you to go along to the next AAG, the 2016 meeting is being held in San Francisco, so if you’ve always wanted to see Alcatraz or the Bay Bridge, then why not squeeze in a massive international conference whilst you’re at it?