In praise of posters

Can you imagine scientific meetings without poster sessions?

The busiest — and loudest — areas of any conference are most likely to be the poster sessions. This is surely testament to the power of the humble poster: they are the places to see the newest science and talk to the people who actually do the work in the lab. The Nature Chemistry editors are frequently to be found inspecting and discussing posters (with or without a beer in hand…) that catch their eye at the conferences they attend throughout the year.

But once upon a time there must have been meetings without posters. So when was the first poster and who came up with the idea? Sadly, it looks as though history has not recorded the exact moment for us to celebrate. As far as we can tell, however, the idea originated in Europe before spreading to North America in 1974 at the Biochemistry/Biophysics Meeting in Minneapolis. The American Chemical Society then introduced poster sessions for the fall national meeting, in Chicago in 1975, a move that was seen as a ‘trail blazer’.

Since those early days of poster pioneers, the rise of personal computing alongside desktop publishing and graphical design software has further driven the evolution and development of posters. Of course, having the right tools to hand does not guarantee that the perfect poster will be produced every time.

So what makes a good poster? Fortunately for the more graphically challenged presenter, there are books, websites, blogs and even a Flickr photo group devoted to academic posters. From the combined experience of the Nature Chemistry team (which includes one first and two third prizes from our student days), we can also offer some advice. Clarity and content are key. Can all the text be read from a reasonable distance? Imagine that your poster is the highlight of the session: your ideal collaborator (or an interested editor) could be struggling to make out your conclusions at the back of the adoring crowd!

As with any presentation meant for an external audience, considering who makes up that audience and suitably tailoring your poster is critical. The amount of background material needed for a small subject-specific meeting will be very different from that needed for an ACS meeting with many thousands of attendees. When presenting your poster to other delegates, finding out what level of background knowledge they have will mean you pitch it at the right level and gives you the chance to create a dialogue.

As mentioned in the first paragraph, one of the key attractions of most poster sessions is the opportunity to talk to the people — typically graduate students or postdocs — who have actually performed the experiments. Getting the inside track on how the project really developed in the lab, rather than how it is presented in the finished research article, can often be fascinating. As networking events, poster sessions are unequalled at most scientific meetings: relaxed and full of opportunities to bump into people who might make the ideal advisor for that post-doctoral position you were looking for — and vice versa.

Posters are often a scientist’s first presentation or even publication, and can represent the first step on their journey to public scrutiny, feedback and peer review. This alone should be enough to raise them in people’s estimation, and not be treated as an afterthought by conference organisers or attendees.

[This post is an abridged version of the editorial in the February 2012 issue — the full text can be accessed here, available for free to all registered users. We welcome feedback on our editorials in the comments section below.]


Neil Withers (Associate Editor, Nature Chemistry)

PS This editorial was inspired by a conversation I had with Steve Koch at ICBIC last year