Poster Boy

September 6th, 2011

Going to an ACS national meeting is like going to Applebee’s—there’s an extensive menu that seems great at first glance, but when you’re actually inside, the experience is distinctly mediocre.  And if national meetings are the Applebee’s of conferences, then Thursdays at the ACS are like the 30 minutes before closing when the waitresses are vacuuming the carpet and giving you the stinkeye to leave.

Last week in Denver, I had the “pleasure” of giving a talk on Thursday at 3:30 PM.  There might have been ten people in the room; the tears welling in my eyes hindered my ability to get an accurate count.  Some of the previous speakers in the session didn’t bother sticking around, and I was so pathetic that the session chair couldn’t even muster a charity question.  Basically, thousands more people will read this blog post that is only tangentially about the talk than actually attended it.

So, I’m done with giving talks at ACS meetings.  They’re more trouble than they’re worth.  On the other hand, I had a great time giving a poster at Monday’s Sci Mix session.  This disparity seems strange, since I might have “only” talked to something like 15–20 people during the two-hour session, but those interactions were of much higher quality—actual conversations about science—than lecturing a sparsely populated room of seated cadavers.

Like many things in chemistry, I think poster presentations are undervalued (see also: non-Science/Nature/JACS/ACIE papers, public outreach, and IR spectroscopy).  There are more than a few people who believe that giving a poster instead of a talk is a sign of weakness or copping out, and when was the last time you saw a big-named chemist giving a poster at ACS?  I think it’s time to spit in the face of the establishment and make posters cool again.  Who’s with me?!

So, it’s time we get organized.  I’ll start by providing my set of tips for getting your poster printed at Kinko’s/FexEdOffice:

1. Don’t wait until the last minute.   I have never had an experience printing a poster at Kinko’s where everything went 100% right.  Either the plotter was broken and I had to drive 15 miles to a different store, or they were out of paper, or an image didn’t render, or the people on duty just had no idea what they were doing.  Give yourself at least a two-day buffer just in case you have to deal with some drama.

2. Don’t go during the graveyard shift.  Kinko’s has saved me many times by its virtue of never closing.  In high school, I recall several late night/early morning runs to make color printouts on their fancy $5/page printer.  I am a night owl, and I generally prefer going to 24-hour stores like gas stations and groceries late at night when there are no crowds.  Do not do this for printing your poster.  I find that the people on staff during the graveyard shift are often severely incompetent and/or stoned.  Go during the daytime when the best staff members are on duty.

3. Bring a CD or USB with two files: your source file and a high-resolution PDF.  Ideally, you want to print your poster from the source file, which is usually an Illustrator or PowerPoint file.  The people at Kinko’s should be able to open these files.  Where you get into trouble is if the staffers try to modify them, even a tiny amount.  If they do and you have something like a ChemDraw image embedded within the document, there is a good chance it will get messed up.  I’ve also seen staffers make a PDF from the source file and then print the PDF.  This is unnecessary and can create all sorts of problems, most commonly reduced resolution or uneven scaling of the poster’s dimensions.  Bottom line: get them to print the source file directly, without any modification.  If that doesn’t work, get them to print your hi-res PDF. 

4. Bring a printout of your poster on 8½×11″ paper.  Give the staffer a printed copy of your poster so she knows what it should look like.  Make sure the poster is printed to scale (and not stretched to fit the paper).  Write the dimensions of the poster in the margins so the staffer knows how big it should be.  If they mess up, you can then point to the printout and say “No…it should look like this.”

5. Go with the glossy paper instead of the matte.  As far as the paper goes, you’ve got two options: glossy or matte.  The glossy finish looks so much more professional: the way it reflects fluorescent lighting will make your poster seem radiant.  It is truly a thing of beauty.  The resolution also seems to be marginally higher than with the matte finish.  That said, the matte option is usually much cheaper—about two-thirds of the cost of the glossy.  But if you can afford it, go glossy.

6. Inspect the poster closely before paying for it.  Kinko’s is going to charge you ~$100 for the poster—you deserve a good product.  I have seen all sorts of printing errors, from messed up ChemDraw structures, to garbled jpgs, to stretched dimensions, to random lines from misfed paper, to odd patterns from the plotter’s running out of ink.  When it comes to approving the final product, don’t let the staffer hold the poster up from 10 feet away behind the counter.  Get up close and quickly inspect it. 

7. Get a plastic poster tube and bring it to the store.  Kinko’s gives you your poster in a plastic bag that neither protects the paper from physical bumps nor damage from rain.  If you’re travelling somewhere, you’re going to want to put the poster in a proper tube anyway, so why not just bring it to the store in the first place?  I recommend buying a hard plastic Ice Tube, as I have heard a couple of sad stories regarding air travel and “regular” cardboard mailing tubes.  And nothing says “cool scientist” like walking around an airport with a neon orange poster tube.

54 Responses to “Poster Boy”

  1. zidar Says:

    In my opinion it is better to print on fabric than papir. The fabric can then be neatly folded and packet without the need for the poster tube. If you fly by plane you appreciate that. Fabric is usually as expensive as glossy paper.

    I agree with all other points.

  2. Jessica Says:

    I couldn’t agree more! Right after this conference in China, and then the one in Nashville, I want posters again! The conversation is much better one-on-one. It also helps that I have a designer husband, so my posters were always super sexy.

  3. biochembelle Says:

    0. Visit Better Posters blog. Zen Faulkes (a biology prof at UTPA) has great suggestions for n00b & veteran poster makers.

    I’ve had some great poster session interactions over the years. As you point out, you actually get to discuss your science instead of talking at the audience.

    Also I find it odd how many people bail on the last day (never been to ACS, but applicable to every meeting I’ve attended). I’ve attended meetings where they saved some of the heavy hitters for the last, but the room is still 25% capacity… I mean, you’ve paid a not insubstantial amount of money – get the most out of it! :)

  4. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    I feel your pain since I have had similar experiences during ACS talks. Not surprisingly, the big shots often work their own posters (made by their students of course) when attracting students during the February visitation weekends.

  5. Jan Jensen Says:

    Why not put your slides on and make a video of your talk and put it on YouTube? Wait a few months and you’ll have increased your audience by orders of magnitude.

  6. Speaking Frankly Says:

    I feel your pain. I had the 4:30 talk Thursday (which ended up being 5:00 after a young professor who was shoved into the session went WAY over time). We didn’t even have the luxury of a session chair, who bailed for his/her plane. The speakers would get done and languish answering questions from the 4 people in the audience until, at one point, they would finally shrug their shoulders and go sit down, laving the next speaker an awkward walk up the aisle to start the next talk. Absolutely pointless.

    I very much enjoyed your poster though and will take your advice next meeting. Here’s for posters.

  7. another poster Says:

    I did a poster for this ACS too and I agree that it was a good experience. I know a lot of people who’ve done talks at ACS meethigs in the past, and many of them have ended up clashing with famous speakers and not only missed some of the talks they wanted to see, but also had only a scanty handful of people attending. Posters might be considered an inferior option but I had a great time presenting my poster, talked to a bunch of people who were genuinely interested in my research (again maybe only 10-20, but more than I’d have had at a talk) and didn’t have to miss any talks I wanted to see to do it.

  8. CR Says:

    Poster, what the…? Loser! Posters are for undergrads and bad graduate work. Only half kidding. Although, if the ACS would give an extra 12 – 18″ between the poster rows, my outlook would improve. I have never understood why they need to make the poster “alleys” only wide enough for the two presenters opposite each other to have room to stand, but not anyone walking through. Then you look out and more than half of the hall is being used.

  9. Nick K Says:

    Poster sessions are vastly more rewarding than conventional lectures as visitors can choose what they want to see and have the time to linger on really interesting things. They’re also more congenial and less stressful for presenters. I’d be very happy to see poster sessions completely replacing lectures at conferences.

  10. Chemjobber Says:

    Why not put your slides on and make a video of your talk and put it on YouTube?

    I think we would all enjoy this.

  11. Joel Says:

    Also you can drink at the poster session.

  12. Special Guest Lecturer Says:

    Who says you can’t drink during your presentation?

  13. David Eisenberg Says:

    Stressing Jessica’s point further: a handy graphic designer can turn out real magic. These people’s job is to present ideas / stories in a graphic fashion – and isn’t that the definition of a scientific poster? You don’t have to hire one, you can find some students from a graphic design college and give them a shot at presenting your project in a nice way.

    From my experience, it is amazing what they can do to your poster, if they’re good. You will draw crowds and be talked about for months later.

    By the way, if you really get your hands on a graphic designer, exploit him further to revise your theses, graphical abstracts, figures etc. They can make a real difference.

  14. Paul Says:

    I’ve edited the post to add a 7th tip: bring a printout of your poster on 8.5×11″ paper.

    Regarding the posting of my own talks…I am working on posting short, narrated slideshows of past research projects on my personal Web site. Of course, I’m not sure when I’ll have the time to do so. Stay tuned, but not too closely.

  15. Anonymous Says:

    One thing I always disliked about ACS talks (especially at regional-level meetings) is the lazy bastards who force the same PowerPoint slideshow they already made up for a 50-minute talk elsewhere into a 20-minute time slot!

  16. wolfie Says:

    The photo is heresy. It shows Paul at the age of 16.

  17. Herschel Says:

    Go one further than the glossy option and get it laminated/encapsulated too. It’ll travel better and last longer when you hang it up outside your lab for future generations to admire.

    Don’t worry so much about getting the graveyard shift for a presentation. You gotta work your way up the bill from the bottom, and it looks just as good on your resume.

  18. Doctor Bubba Says:

    All good advice. I’ve seen a lot of posters and given a lot of talks and posters over the years.
    I actually tend to use the same kind of format shown in your accompanying photo, i.e., individual panels glued onto construction paper. Easy to transport, cheap, goes up easily with thumbtacks, and looks good as long as you plan it well.

    Most important is to give a poster which presents your work without including tons of extraneous details. Try to give a poster which conveys the big picture of your efforts and your results. Use lots of graphics. For oldsters like me, USE BIG TYPEFACES.

    Finally, I am not a bigwig scientist but I have given several talks at ACS meetings and always had a large, substantial audience for them with lots of questions afterwards. You have to make sure to present your work at the right ACS meeting (one with a topical focus on your work) and within the right division (one where many people will be looking for talks like yours). By sticking to those two rules, I’ve always had a very positive experience every time I have given an ACS lecture.

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