Alison Atkin, graduate student of archaeology at the University of Sheffield, made a brilliant poster on the modeling of plagued versus non-plagued cemetery collections. The poster debuted at the British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology (BABAO) conference, where it won the Bill White prize (Atkin, 2014)! It will also be at the Day of the Dead conference at Queen’s University. More importantly, it is viewable online. See it at its online home here, then come back for my comments.
This poster got my attention because it is presented in the form of a charming comic. It is also an excellent example of the academic poster format in general. I will elaborate on these qualities presently:
The Poster as a Comic
- The black humor is perfect for the topic of the Black Death. From the dead rat in the first row:third panel, to the person finding their missing eye in the chart’s legend in the third row:second panel, there are many amusing asides that keep the tone consistently lighthearted while discussing this dreary historical event.
- There is a personal narrative that flows through the poster, mirroring the flow of the scientific method in academic posters. In the first row:third panel, Atkin appears as a blue-clad avatar. This unique character reappears more and more often as the poster continues, punctuating the main points of this project and offering personal impressions. The presence of the avatar makes the poster more like an oral presentation, with the text given a distinct voice (this will be mentioned again when discussing the poster as a poster).
- Atkin sticks to the format throughout the entire poster. While the graphs in this cemetery modeling exercise undoubtedly exist in a digital format, they are hand-drawn for this poster. The alternative would be to paste printouts of the graphs onto the panels, which would be the sensible thing to do for an academic poster. As a depiction of data, graphs are expected to be computer-precise. Using hand-drawn versions daringly goes against this undisputed convention to go all-in with the comic format instead of having a conspicuous toe in the poster format.
- The panel density fluctuates through the poster, keeping the reader interested. The big points get their own sparse panel (such as the second row:first panel, feature the avatar delivering the important ‘so what’ statement). Other panels are chock full of important information relating to the project, along with small illustrations to add another layer of variety.
- A few panels are interactive! Just this addition breaks the mold of the typical academic poster. The liftable flaps beg for reader participation. Notice also that the panels are used consistently to represent the lifting of something: either dirt off of a grave, or the flesh off of a skeleton. By strictly delineating what the flaps represent, they are not overused in this poster.
The Poster as a Poster
- You may have noticed that the poster glosses over a lot of the detail in the models. This. Is. Good! Often, an academic poster is so loaded with text, tables, and graphs that they are a chore to read. At a poster session, the reader has dozens of posters to see in a limited timeframe, so brevity is crucial in getting the important information across before the reader crab-walks to the next poster. If you suppose that a reader gives more-or-less equal time to each poster barring confounding factors, then the briefer the poster, the better. A briefer poster means leaving out some detail. This is fine, even desired, if you think of other types of posters. How does a movie poster work? Do they mention every plot point in a movie? No. They give some information and, if you are interested, you seek the full work. Ah, but the academic poster is supposed to stand alone, you say. No! The academic poster is also an advertisement for something else. What the poster hawks can vary: a forthcoming paper, a thesis, a field school, or simply the existence of the data. In Atkin’s poster, you can see the contact information highlighted in mid-poster. She has the raw data, and computer modeling scripts that a potential collaborator would find useful: there is no need to have those on the poster.
- Beyond the density, the text of this poster is also very casual, bolstered by the comic format and the handwritten lettering. Many posters are very dry, possibly the result of an attempt at brevity by leaving out textual embellishments. While I approve of leaving out extraneous material, the result of writing dryly is that the text is a pain to read. Dryness can be addressed in the other conference mainstay: the oral presentation. The skilled speaker can make a talk lively with humor or a practiced flow. (There are also people. who. just. read. from. the. page. but. that. is. another. blog. post.). Poster text is a harder format to liven up. Atkin accomplishes this with the personality-filled text and the comic format, as mentioned previously.
- This academic poster has transcended the usual temporal-spatial constraints of the typical poster. In fact, I posit that this poster is already the most viewed academic poster of all time due to its unique format and excellent presentation. Most of these views have been online. By getting noticed on Atkin’s blog, Twitter, and Reddit, this poster is gaining a lifespan far beyond what is typical. Posters get very little attention for all of the work that was put into it: a few hours at a poster session and maybe a stint in some department hallway. The Internet potentially extends the audience of the poster, but there is little reason to view them online. People view comics online, though! By making a comic-poster, Atkin has made something that thrives online, where the potential audience is huge. More exposure means greater dissemination of the information, and more publicity for her future work.
I still cannot get over how amazing this poster is. If you couldn’t tell from this post, I don’t like posters in general due to the limitations I have mentioned. This poster smartly addresses the problems of the poster format while still doing its job. Is this the beginning of a new age of comic-posters that change forever how academics present their research? Probably not: conservatism reigns in academia. But Alison Atkin’s poster shows what a researcher can do if you think outside the textbox and create something groundbreaking.
Atkin, A. (2014). The Attritional Mortality Myth. Poster session presented at the 16th Annual Conference of the British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology, Durham City, United Kingdom. Retrieved online from: http://deathsplaining.wordpress.com/2014/09/28/plagueposter/