Poster Sessions – A Design Historian Reflects

Poster Sessions – A Design Historian Reflects

I. Posters as a Format for Academic Research: The Benefits

Poster sessions are commonplace of science conferences and are becoming more popular in scholarly meetings in the humanities. Poster sessions have several advantages over giving a paper at a conference:

LONGEVITY: The poster display is usually available for the length of a conference meeting, i.e. several days, rather than being time-limited like a paper, and potentially clashing with a paper everyone wants to hear, etc. The poster can tour more than one conference and after the conference, the poster can be archived physically or digitally as a jpeg, TIFF or pdf.

VISIBILITY: The poster display is often in a prominent place such as a meeting or refreshments area where people linger, or a much-used concourse through which delegates regularly pass and therefore the posters have the opportunity to attract more attention than the same content would when presented as a paper.

ACCESSIBILITY: The successful poster will make the research to be presented easily accessible using text and image in a digestible form. It therefore has the potential to be more accessible to a larger group of people, and furthermore has the potential to be more memorable.

AUDIENCE: For all of the reasons above—longevity, visibility and accessibility—a poster has the potential to reach a much larger audience than does a paper, in which the audience size is limited by the appeal of the topic and the speaker, the size of the room and the competing events.

II. Posters as a Format for Academic Research: Good Practice

There is a body of advice available online to assist in the production of successful academic posters, including:

These sources stress the importance of design principles such as using a range of colours (up to three) to demarcate parts of the poster according to varying content, and using good contrast between the poster background and photographic or other illustrations. Advice includes using numbers to sequence the parts of the poster so that it should be legible without guidance from the presenter. Some advice on preparing posters assumes a poster will be accompanied with a printed supporting essay, and that the presenter will be on hand throughout the scheduled poster session to answer questions and receive feedback. (On the talk surrounding poster sessions, see Celia Shalom, ‘Established and evolving spoken research process genres: plenary lecture and poster session discussions at academic conferences,’ English for Specific Purposes 12, no, 1 (1993): 37-50). However, it is important for the poster to also be freestanding.

III. Posters in Design Research and Design History

When designers and design historians produce posters for academic sessions, isn’t the necessity for good design is even more pronounced? In design contexts, design historians and other commentators on design are likely to find their posters judged alongside presenters who have trained, and practice, as designers, including graphic designers. In design contexts, the poster will be judged not only on:·

  • academic quality: of the research, of the method, of the findings, originality and contribution to knowledge, blue sky/incremental etc.. At the most basic level, is the poster informative?

  • clarity: of the poster design, of the research represented, of the findings and contribution

    • Is the poster visually arresting (attention-grabbing) and clear?

    • Is the relationship between image and text appropriate or imbalanced?

    • Does the poster have an evident structure?

    • Does the poster read from right to left, left to right, top to bottom, bottom to top?

But also, perhaps even equally, on:

  • aesthetics: is the poster well-designed, tasteful, using the right typeface(s) and fonts, positive and negative space, suitable images etc.

    • Are the images the primary focal material or merely illustrative?

    • Is there a relationship between the form and content of the poster?

    • What would improve the poster, from a designer’s point of view?

IV. Case Study: Design, History and Culture, MA Design Cultures, VU University


I asked my students on the MA Design Cultures at VU University, Amsterdam, Netherlands, to design a poster as follows:

This exercise asks you to select a design historical topic of relevance to your own design history practice and communicate it to your peers (assumed to have either no prior knowledge, or a level of knowledge specified by you, which we can discuss) in the form of an A2 poster using text and image. You will need to:

(a) select your topic based on your enthusiasms and expertise and/or gaps or omissions in the design history literature or approaches to which you can provide a corrective and

(b) research your topic thoroughly before you

(c) consider how your ideas can be expressed visually and in writing and

(d) design and produce a poster communicating your knowledge to others.

It will be helpful if your topic is approach through a key question, or point of debate, or is revisionist in some way, rather than simply being a reiteration of basic facts; i.e. try to be analytical. Come prepared to display your poster on the wall. As a group we will review the posters and comment on them in a peer critique situation.


I was delighted with the results, both in terms of process (including the related teaching session ) and product (the posters themselves). We had a long and rich critique session in which the students gave one another’s work their full attention, making notes as did I. Once the posters had been thoroughly inspected we had a lively and frank round table discussion which brought out the same examples of good practice emphasized in the guidance available online. (On the talk surrounding design critiques see Oak, Arlene, ‘It's a Nice Idea, but it's not actually Real: Assessing the Objects and Activities of Design,’ Journal of Art & Design Education, 19 (2000): 86–95. doi: 10.1111/1468-5949.00205; also Arlene Oak, ‘What can talk tell us about design?: Analyzing conversation to understand practice,’ Design Studies 32, no. 3 (May, 2011): 211-234.)

For example, we understood from experience the need for graduated use of fonts (with a maximum of three) in order to capture attention from a distance and provide more detail on closer examination, and the judicious use of bold and upper case type; the need for a clear structure and signposting a route around the information, which could involve text layout and the use of colour coding in the text, plus the use of ample negative space. We learned that the clear linking of text and image was key and that this could be aided by careful and appropriate use of captions, for example.

The most important guideline, we found, was the need to limit text, and we commended a poster which achieved clarity by breaking up the text into very easily legible paragraphs, and while we appreciated the amount of information supplied in other posters, we found the poster format was not the best way to communicate that amount of text.

Elena Becker’s poster on the Shakers

In recognising the need for the form to reflect the content somehow, we really liked a poster dealing with space and science fiction design which used an apt style to amplify the topic, albeit with more text than was ideal (we discussed the benefits of redrafting this poster using fewer words). Also on the relationship between form and content, we praised a poster in which post-it notes were used in the manner of a designer’s brainstorming session. 

Vivian Schilder's poster on mass understanding of fashion

This poster, and one on Dior’s New Look, both led me to suggest that the relationship between form and content might include the shape of the poster itself. Perhaps we might deviate from the rectangular norm and use a shape which reflected the topic in hand, such as a t-shirt shape hanging on a line for a poster about clothing, or a New Look silhouette, for a poster about fashion design.

Zoe Rosielle's poster on The New Look

A poster about bamboo furniture derived from the bamboo ladder form leant itself to an arrangement in the shape of a ladder.

Trinh Ha-Giang, Poster on the Bamboo Ladder

And what about a surfboard shape for Ilja Meijer's poster on surfing design? This surf poster was the only handmade poster submitted from a group of 25 students, which gave it special appeal, the aura of the original in a context of mechanical—or digital—reproduction (with apologies to Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, 1936, The costs of digital reproduction were surprisingly high. Due to delays with printing, one ‘poster’ was presented on a laptop initially and then later as a poster. The students seemed to enjoy accessing the poster in this way so a virtue was made out of a crisis.

Sal Montes on C20th war propaganda

I was informed in this suggestion about the shape of the posters by my recent work on iconic design (Grace Lees-Maffei, ed., Iconic Designs: 50 Stories about 50 Things, London: Bloomsbury, 2014), in which silhouettes had emerged in my looking and thinking as a key signifier of iconicity.

Cover design for Iconic Designs: 50 Stories about 50 Things, ed. Grace Lees-Maffei, Bloomsbury 2014.

In terms of content, we thought the clarity of the guiding question or issue to be debated in the poster was of paramount importance. We found the posters in which the question posed was not clearly answered to be less satisfactory than those which kept to the point more obviously. However, a strongly polemical poster which adopted a position which some of us found rather extreme (about the public misunderstanding of fashion design, see figure above) was criticised for not being more measured, qualified and balanced. The group also noted the absence of secondary references on several of the posters, and preferred those which did give an indication of the sources used and sources for further research.This was done most effectively in a demarcated area for footnotes, such as a footer pane.

All in all this was a worthwhile assignment, part of a series of formative assignments for the Design, History, Culture course in the MA Design Cultures. I have used poster sessions repeatedly with my undergraduate students in the School of Creative Arts at the University of Hertfordshire, and collectively this practice is making me think about sharing best practice in poster design and the pedagogy of the practice too.

Mini-symposium 'Design & Fashion Historiographies in the Netherlands'

Mini-symposium 'Design & Fashion Historiographies in the Netherlands'

‘Writing Design’ talk for ‘Writing and the Object’ A Writing in Creative Practice Seminar

‘Writing Design’ talk for ‘Writing and the Object’ A Writing in Creative Practice Seminar