Conference Posters: Coloring Outside the Lines

Conference Posters: Coloring Outside the Lines 

“Just because something’s always been done that way, doesn’t mean it  should continue to be done that way”—Coach Kelley

“Just because something’s always been done that way, doesn’t mean it

should continue to be done that way”—Coach Kelley

There are a variety of reasons one might attend a conference: to share compelling theories and findings, sharpen skills, stay up-to-date on practices in your field, and networking opportunities. Whatever your reasons, don’t be afraid to stand-out!

History is replete with successful betrayals of long-standing tradition. For example, the implementation of computer generated imagery (CGI) in feature-length films. While CGI may be heavily used in the animation industry today, its beginning dates back to the 90’s. Before that time, leaders in the film industry dismissed CGI as a viable animation platform to replace the hand-drawn artistry which had always underpinned the trade. However, at the direction of its founders Smith and Catmull, and with the support of visionaries like Steve Jobs, Pixar Animation Studios bravely invested in CGI, and a new approach to animation came to fruition in 1995 with Toy Story. Now, CGI dominates the field of animation and in 2007 Pixar was purchased by the animation giant, Walt Disney; A few people were willing to take a different and unpopular path, and the risk paid off.

My research partner, Ben Falls, and I were given the opportunity to present a poster on our research at the Western Psychological Association (WPA) Conference. This year’s conference was held at the Sheraton, Grand Downtown, in Sacramento California on April 27-30. Excitingly, this was the first time my lab, Talent Science Lab, had been afforded the opportunity to present at a conference! Our research, “The Real MVP: A Team Player Scale”, aims to create a scale that can help organizations hire and train employees. While preparing for this conference I was advised by other students to bring a poster, business cards, lab postcards, and copies of my resume. All of these materials have “standard” formats we are all taught and expected to follow—particularly the conference poster. 

Typically, conference posters include symmetrical paragraphs with charts and references. However, as I considered the intent of my poster (i.e. to engage the conference attendees and share our findings) I was concerned that another conventional poster might relegate our presentation to anonymity in a sea of conformity. I thought it beneficial to go with something a little more avant-garde; graphic images, more color, less text. I had asked my advisor his thoughts on my alternative-style poster—he was apprehensive at first, but agreed it would definitely grab people’s attention. Whether or not that attention would be beneficial or harmful… that was the question.

On the day of my presentation, I nervously hung my material prior to the arrival of the conference guests. I immediately became aware of two things, my presentation seemed scarily out-of-place, and other presenters around me were scrutinizing my poster. Straightaway I began doubting my decision and thought, “Oh no! This is too childish; no one will take this seriously”. I believed that those wandering eyes were questioning my competency and perhaps even my attendance as a presenter. Nevertheless, a disproportionately large and continual stream of individuals began approaching and inquiring about our research, and I was afforded the opportunity to share our work with a great many people. Ultimately, my fears were proven unfounded, and as the conference progressed I received repeated compliments on my unconventional approach. One person complimented the slight text in lieu of the visual appeal, but my favorite comment came from a professor in undergraduate research methods who said, “Would it be okay if I took a picture of your poster? I am teaching a lecture next week on conference posters and I would love to use yours to demonstrate to my students how successful they can be when they step outside of the boundaries”. Not only did guests compliment my poster, but other presenters admitted that they wished they had been courageous enough to try something a little more distinctive.

As the time came to break-down my display to make room for the next group, I stood there looking at my poster with pride. My face was glowing with exuberant satisfaction. A student asked if I wanted a picture with my poster, and I didn’t hesitate to say yes. I wanted to remember that moment; I had dared to take a risk, to try something new, and it paid off. My unique poster brought positive attention to my research, my lab, and myself as a professional to be taken seriously. I know that all risks will not be rewarded, and I do not support flouting accepted norms for the sake of unconventionality, but if you are convinced you have a method that might better serve your purposes – be bold. First impressions are everything; so why not make one that will last?