Academic Illiteracy: An Undergraduate’s Perspective Into The Library System

December 7th, 2015

Part Four: Posters

You see posters all over the place in libraries. I would wager that the average person, in the average library, could not go ten minutes without catching glance of a poster. Probably a poster of some celebrity with the word “Read” emblazoned either their chest, face, or hanging above them. It’s as if the command to actively participate in literacy were the OBEY sign of John Carpenter’s They Live.

This is Your God

Man, overdue notice slips have gotten intense recently.

I make a point to roll my eyes at those posters every time I see them. I’ve never quite understood the point of them—the “Read” posters are only found in a library, where people have most likely gone to participate in reading (or maybe using the computer because they can’t afford one). In any case, it seems pointless to advertise a product or service in one place and one place alone—the place which one goes to obtain that service. It’s like McDonalds aggressively advertising for their food, but only inside of their own restaurants. They aren’t convincing anyone new to buy their food, as anyone who sees the advertisement will be going into a McDonalds for the express purpose of food.

It doesn’t help that the “Read” posters are everywhere in libraries—there are three in my office alone (and one poster of a cat that I’m 99% sure they just forgot to print the word on). At least one of the ones in my office features the velociraptor from Jurassic Park. Clever girl indeed. Imagine if they had been able to read. It would be a very different movie for sure. Probably a lot more deaths—definitely not for children.

There’s something else that tends to annoy me about the posters: the lack of variety. Sure, there are different celebrities on them, but that’s like saying that two cars are completely different when one is blue and the other one is some off-green shade. Sure, there are cosmetic differences, but they are functionally the same car.

So what kinds of posters have wildly differing content within their own ranks? Obviously not the “Read” posters, for the aforementioned reasons. Movie posters look different, and sure, they’re all for different movies, but eventually all of the space cowboys start blurring together, until you can’t tell Han Solo from Malcom Reynolds or Cowboy Bebop from Millennium Falcon. But wait, what about academic posters? Not only do they have a number of different visual styles (whereas Hollywood and video games have both fallen into the slump of “Determined people look at camera”) but there’s a wide, practically infinite berth of content. So, shall we talk about academic posters? We shall, since I’m writing this post and therefore have god-like powers over its content (As well as the power of seamless transitions).

So what makes a good academic poster? With other types of posters, it’s a bit easier. Library posters? Find a picture of some famous person holding a book and slap the word “Read” onto it. Movie posters? Find some popular pose and get the actor to hold it, facing the camera. Then slap the movie’s title and release date on top of them. Academic posters, though? Those are difficult—you have to slap a lot of words onto those. And you have to slap on a few graphs. The bibliography will need to be written, and by this point your hand is probably hurting from slapping so many things onto your posters. And the truth of the matter is that there are a number of different ways to create an academic posters. Theoretically, there are infinite possibilities, or at least there are enough that I don’t want to filter through them and find the best ones to write about. So instead, here are a few, simple, easy steps on how not to make a poster.

Don’t make the poster an unusual size.

While I can appreciate the desire to be artistic with your work, this isn’t the opportunity that you’re looking for. All that making a poster that isn’t a standardized side will do is make it a hassle for the printer, which likely won’t have the right size of paper; the person doing the printing, who will need to recut it down to size; and you, trying to find a proper stand when the time comes.

Don’t use small text.

We understand that there are a lot of things that you will want to say in your poster, but it won’t do anyone any good if they are unable to read the poster because of how small the print is. Generally speaking, size 24 is the smallest font that is used on posters and can still be read by the average person.

Don’t use yellow text.

I shouldn’t even have to comment on this one. Why would you ever do this?

On a similar note, ensure that the text color and the background color are distinguished enough from one another that those with color blindness, in its varying forms, are able to read the poster. There are a number of sources for this issue, one of note can be located here.

Don’t tell us everything.

The reason why a poster is being made is so that reading a journal article is not the only method of obtaining the information that you’ve obtained. People won’t want to read eight pages worth of text, especially when a large amount of it can be summarized instead by visual elements—tables, graphs, pictures, and the like.

Don’t tell us nothing.

At the same time; though, filling the poster with tables and graphs without explanation isn’t the answer either. Give a thesis, summarize experimentation and results, and leave them for the reader to, well, read (the hint is in what we call them).

Don’t use too many pictures, and conversely, don’t use too few.

Mainly tying in to the above points, there seems to be a balance that can be struck regarding the usage of pictures (it should be noted that pictures here does not refer to tables, graphs, or similar constructs). Pictures can be used to add context that a poster might have lacked otherwise, to set a tone for the research, or to display a more human side to the academia, to give context in a practical or human perspective. As such, pictures are recommended, so long as they don’t result in a loss of information. It seems that two, maybe three pictures at most, is the recommended amount for a poster.

Don’t use small pictures and then enlarge them.

These look horrendous. The picture quality will not magically enhance along with the size of the image, all that’s happening is that the size of the pixels in the picture is being increased. What looks fine on a computer screen could easily look blurry, smudged, or poor-quality when placed on a poster. Generally speaking, an image with at least 600 PPI (pixels per inch).

Don’t plan on being a silent host.

If you’re standing next to your poster then people who have finished reading it (and maybe even some who haven’t, the cheaters) will likely come up to you in order to talk to you about your research. When this happens, stay calm. Just talk to them—I promise they won’t bite (at the very least, they shouldn’t). Try giving an ‘elevator pitch’, that is, try to explain the purpose and findings of your research in a minute, two minutes at most. It’s quick, generally gets all the points out of the way, and can be a good way to open things. Also, be prepared to answer questions about the research.

Don’t use chartreuse text.

For reasons listed above, as the color is essentially what yellow looks like after hugging green.

With the above tips on how things can go horribly wrong, hopefully you can avoid the worst of the pitfalls that might befall those creating academic posters. Unlike other kinds of posters, academic posters heavily rely on the content, and the author’s ability to successfully transfer the understanding of it to the audience. Even still, it can be one of the most useful types of posters out there. When creating an academic poster, I wish you all the luck in the world. Unless you color the text yellow, in which case you deserve everything horrible thing that happens to you.

Text By Alex McKenzie

Photographic Media Courtesy of Alessandro Liguori

About the Author: Alex McKenzie is an undergraduate student in the UW-Madison Libraries’ ISIP program, majoring in Environmental Studies and East Asian Studies, and has a PPI count somewhere around 420.

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