Workshop Participants Put New Design Techniques to Test

Neil Overstrom, RISD, talks to workshop participants about poster design techniques. Photo by Karen Southern.

Neil Overstrom, RISD, talks to workshop participants about poster design techniques.

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Do you have a minute? According to Neil Overstrom from Rhode Island School of Design, that’s the average amount of time people spend in front of posters at scientific conferences.  It’s a reality that led researchers, faculty, and graduate students from Rhode Island colleges and universities to attend Metcalf Institute’s Scientific Poster Design Workshop at RISD’s Edna Lawrence Nature Lab in Providence on November 13th.

Overstrom, a biologist, designer, educator, and director of the Nature Lab, shared tips on conceptualizing and designing effective scientific posters that successfully convey complex information and engage audiences. He encouraged participants to treat posters as informal learning experiences consisting of an organized hierarchy of information.  Overstrom said the best exhibits pass what he called “the finger test.” In other words, the messiest exhibits are the ones that have been most successful in engaging people.  He also urged participants to keep the following information in mind when designing scientific posters:

  • Exhibits are experienced from afar and up close.
  • A great exhibit can communicate information without words.
  • Successful exhibits have three things in common: color, movement, interactivity.

Micah Barrett, a graphic designer and RISD graduate, emphasized the importance of the appropriate use of fonts, word shape, spacing, and variations in color in poster presentations.

Participants put Put new techniques to the test

Participants put new techniques to the test

After Overstrom and Barrett’s presentations, workshop participants broke into small groups and put those design concepts to work in a hands-on exercise.  Each group started putting their new design insights to work by assessing different scientific posters to identify how effectively the authors conveyed their research. Then each team created their own scientific posters based on newly-learned design approaches and best practices.  The workshop concluded with a critique of each group’s poster from design experts and participants.  Overstrom and Barrett were joined by graphic designer Josh Wood of URI and information editor Patrick Garvin of The Boston Globe to serve as roaming coaches during the exercise.

Peers and design coaches critique participants' posters.

Peers and design coaches critique participants’ posters.

Many of the attendees, like Chintan Modi, a postdoctoral research associate in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Brown University, left the workshop eager to put their new design tools to work.

“I thought it was really good,” said Modi.  “I think some of the things that [I don’t typically] pay attention to, things like font size, spacing and organization, were very helpful…I’ll be using this information at future scientific conferences.”

Results of an anonymous exit surveys revealed that participants felt the workshop either met or exceeded their expectations, including this participant, “The group critique of posters was very helpful. It was also helpful to have multiple ‘coaches’ in the room, each with their own unique perspective.”

Patrick Garvin - 500x500

Patrick Garvin, Boston Globe graphic artist

Earlier in the day, faculty, research staff and graduate students gathered for another Metcalf Institute SciComm Exchange at the Rhode Island School of Design, for informal conversations with design experts on how to enhance their data visualization skills for scientific presentations.  RISD Professor Rafael Attias encouraged the lunchtime gathering at the Edna Lawrence Nature Lab to define their intent by determining what type of scientific messages they want to convey, and to whom.  He also advised participants to understand the limitations of their poster presentations, and to come up with creative solutions to overcome those limitations. Attias challenged participants to ask themselves how they could convey their intended messages using limited space and fewer words. According to Attias, editing is probably one of the hardest aspects of these types of projects, especially for scientists who view every word as essential.

Attias said establishing hierarchy is crucial to any scientific presentation. “I often see scientific posters and I just want to walk right by them because I don’t know how to get into them [because of] too much information,” he said.  Once the hierarchy has been defined, the next step is to develop systems for the poster such as color schemes, fonts and other visual cues that tell the story.

The next speaker, Patrick Garvin, a graphic artist for The Boston Globe, showed examples of how he illustrates data for stories in the Globe.  He also reiterated the importance of defining the intent of a presentation, its limitations, and establishing hierarchy. “It’s all about knowing what your audience cares about, “ said Garvin.  “What’s the most important thing that would make the story suffer if we didn’t have it?” Garvin pointed to two fictional characters, Bart and Lisa, in the popular television series, The Simpsons, as a tongue-in-cheek example of the importance of knowing your audience, and suggested that the message would be distinctly different depending on which character you were trying to reach.

Garvin invited participants to create their own maps from a tool he created, Mr. Map Generator, available on his website, He also pointed attendees to free web-based tools for enhancing data presentations.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under EPSCoR Cooperative Agreement #EPS-1004057.

Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are thosensf-plain-blue
of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.