Posters are one of the first ways junior scientists learn to communicate information. In high school students use those three-part poster boards for science fairs. In undergrad research symposia and beyond, scientists make a single flat poster, the dimensions varying by the conference but usually in a horizontal layout. The research poster is how much research is presented, and it’s a great way to get feedback from your colleagues, since you’re standing right next to it while they pore over the text and images as you try to decide whether it’s the right time to introduce yourself to Dr. Famous.

Posters are hard to get right. How much text is too much? What color schemes will draw people to your poster rather than make them cringe? Dr. Zen Faulkes has a series of posts over at his blog called The Zen of Presentations that provides some great insight; I regularly send my students his way. But I also wanted to develop a hands-on way for my students to think about how to communicate their science in poster form.

Earlier this semester, inspired by a talk by Neal Lerner on science communication where he did a similar poster exercise, I used half of my upper level reproductive ecology seminar to work with my students on how research is presented. First, I sent them off to the main hallway in our building that displays biological anthropology and archaeology posters, asking them to find the posters that were the most visually striking, the most interesting, and the least striking or interesting, and bring that information back. It was apparently going very well, because I eventually had to go find them to bring them back to the classroom.

Once we returned to the classroom, I asked students to share what they liked and didn’t like. Why was one poster successful where another wasn’t? In a few cases disciplinary biases impacted the posters they liked, but most of the time their preference was driven by design features. The posters that were striking, confident and accessible were the clear favorites.

In his talk, Lerner described four major design features one must consider in poster presentation: contrast (of color, space or size), repetition (repeating visual elements), alignment (each element should have a visual connection to each other) and proximity (items that relate to each other should be near each other). We talked about those posters that succeeded with these features, and how one would produce a poster that respected them.

Then the fun began.

Justin Bieber’s Hair

Once I was confident that my students understood the importance of poster design, I broke the class two groups. Their task? To provide an argument, and design a poster, based on this rather interesting correlation:

For the last few years, one of the running jokes in my lab has involved a striking physical (or rather, follicular) similarity between biological anthropology researcher Dana Ahern (now a University of Illinois graduate!) and multi-platinum pop superstar Justin Bieber. I thought this observed correlation would make an excellent foundation to help students think about how to demonstrate causality, present a convincing argument, and visually represent their ideas. So I gave the two groups about ten minutes to discuss and sketch out their posters.

Here is what they came up with.

Group 1 not only came up with an interesting argument for the relationship between Bieber and Ahern hair, the poster represented the inaugural research of the new University of Illinois Department of Celebrity Studies, of which these students are of course the founding co-chairs.

These co-chairs argue that Ahern and Bieber are long-lost twins. Plotting the major life events of the two individuals in question (note when Bieber met Usher, and when he “gained a sultry voice”), they claim the two have matured in eerily similar ways (well, except Ahern never met Usher that we know of, but her voice is surely sultry).

For the purposes of this exercise though, the design features are the most important. The poster authors came up with a compelling title, used the university logo in a top corner, and the traditional three column format. The authors also do a nice job with their image: a timeline is a great choice given their argument about long lost twins, and centering it on the poster draws the eye. In all, it was a thoughtful contribution to the exercise.

Group 2 had a conflict of interest in their project because Ahern was a participant, but I let it slide since their grade was again based more on the design features of the poster. This group argues that Justin Bieber has been secretly spying on Dana Ahern and stealing her style. They demonstrate that each of Ahern’s haircuts has preceded Bieber’s by as much as a week. They also claim that Bieber’s stolen hairstyle is largely responsible for his rise to fame, and indicate that Ahern then deserves a share of his profits.

As for design features, this group also chose a great title, used the three column format, and also have a timeline, though it falls along the bottom of the poster. This poster’s images are also in the center of the poster. I would have liked to see the Ahern and Bieber images side by side rather than separated by a glossary, and the glossary moved to a less prominent position. But again, I think these students did a great job thinking about format and style in putting together a poster in only minutes.

The most gratifying part of this exercise is that three of the seven students in this class went on to have posters in our university’s undergraduate research symposium (alas, none on Justin Bieber), and we workshopped early versions of those posters in later weeks. The final versions were all clear, strong, and compelling presentations of their work.

And to think, a great learning session on science communication that all started with Justin Bieber!