Alternative Presentations

I have wanted to do a post on posters for a while. As somebody with an interest in graphic design who also did a tiny little bit of it as part of her undergraduate degree (specifically designing promotional material for theatre productions), I was always baffled by the academic research poster as a genre. The posters I have come across at conferences are often very dense affairs that are text heavy, and I have often wondered what the point of them was, as whenever I was confronted by a room full of them, my patience for reading dropped from low to non-existent. Let’s face it, a poster session at a conference isn’t really the ideal environment to read…

And then came the time when I had to do a research poster myself, as part of my teaching qualification. I had great plans to do it differently – not much text, very visual, surely that was the way to go. Alas, I stumbled across a problem: this was the only assessment for a module, and while I had about ten minutes to present it, basically the poster was where I had to prove all my knowledge of the subject.

The Importance of Sharing Practice - academic poster 2010

The Importance of Sharing Practice – academic poster 2010

So it got more and more filled up with text while my good intentions stood by feeling powerless; it felt a bit like squeezing all my findings onto an A1 sheet (or however big it was). Looking at it then, I thought this was a bad poster, but at least it showed off the research I had done. Looking at it now, I think it was a really bad poster. The feedback I got mainly was about the content, although it also stated “The graphs on the poster had a positive visual impact from a distance, however, larger fonts or at least headings would enhance the accessibility of the message.” and then “The quantity of information within the poster could be reviewed” (which I am guessing means PUT LESS TEXT ON IT).

Some time later I would come across ‘Spineless Classics’ – a company that designs whole books onto a one sheet poster by the way of pretty miniscule type. In a way research posters remind me of that, trying to squeeze your whole report onto A1 (or A0). But the brilliant thing about Spineless Classics is that they design their layouts in a way that you also end up with an image of (usually) white space that is significant to the book in some way. (You can see some examples here.) Research posters often don’t have that saving grace!

Trying to find out more about the academic research poster – and how to put together a good one – has been a bit challenging, I haven’t been able to find any good guidance beyond the basics that relates to the arts and humanities, maybe because it is more common in the (natural) sciences. But I think that this is an important aspect of practice for any research student – they might get the opportunity to submit a poster to a conference, after all, or just want to develop a visual way to show the development of their project(s).

After getting a bit of funding from my university, I was able to invite visual journalist Lulu Pinney to do a lecture and workshop about research posters for us, which was very well received, incredibly inspiring and I can only recommend. Lulu gave us a lot of practical tips on how to organise a poster, but I think the most important was her mantra to “ignite, don’t immerse”. A poster shouldn’t be a summary of your research, it should ignite people’s interest in your research. I think this is fabulous advice when it comes to designing a poster for a conference.

Unfortunately, however, this could turn out to be terrible advice when it comes to preparing a research poster for assessment. If a poster is the only thing that is assessed, you might have to design it very differently. So maybe the split personality of the research poster comes from us lecturers trying to adjust the ‘assessment mix’. At university we want to test students in different ways, and we want to give them skills that they can use ‘outside’ of the university (or, in case of the research poster, still in academia, but once they have progressed from the student to the researcher role). I would guess that only rarely can a research poster do both effectively.

I also have a theory why. I’m currently reading Daniel Keller’s Chasing Literacy – Reading and Writing in an Age of Acceleration. Keller refers to Lester Faigley’s 2006 chapter ‘Rhetorics Fast and Slow’ in Rhetorical Agendas: Political, Ethical, Spiritual, that argued that there are two different rhetorics: a “fast” one and a “slow” one. The slow one is the one we often try to instil in our students for their academic work. I want my students to read deeply, not just skim over the surface of a text, just as I want them to show deep thinking in their essays, which I expect to be re-drafted carefully a number of times. Fast rhetoric – the web-based digital images, blog posts, e-mails, text messages, instant messaging systems, websites – seems to have little room in traditional academia beyond the initial stages of research (although Keller argues that maybe it should). The tradition of the poster is part of the fast rhetoric – posters are promotional tools, they let us know about events or products, they are designed to get their meaning across in the careless glance the passer-by gives them. The research poster attempts to emulate this, but with the burden of trying to get across the slow rhetoric of the academic research project. And this is the problem. Thinking back to the time I designed that first research poster, I knew that if this was to work as a poster, it needed to be short and snappy. It needed to be utilising a fast rhetoric. I could see what would be lost in the translation. So the ideals of the fast rhetoric became replaced by the learning outcomes (this was, after all, an assignment), and a weird hybrid was created, much more like a ‘spineless’ report.

We need to be mindful of this. Not just when designing our own research posters for conferences, but also when setting posters as assessments. Should they be part of the assessment mix? Absolutely. But they cannot just be used to replace the report, unless we are happy with the level of detail that would be lost in them.

On the other hand, we also cannot judge them in the same way as traditional posters. They are designed by people with different expertise to graphic designers for a different purpose. And that is ok. In Lulu’s workshop we ‘rated’ a number of example posters (that had been done as assessments). As we were all from different disciplines (and because that wasn’t the point), we did not look at the content, but rather at their design, focusing on Impact, Structure and Legibility. When we were done, one of the participants looked at the poster with the highest score and said “but that’s not very creative”. And it wasn’t. It was pretty straight forward. But what it did do was communicating what it was about. It had impact, so that from afar you wanted to step closer and find out more. It was structured well, so you knew where to look and in what order. And it was legible, so that you could actually read the information quickly and easily. Academic research posters shouldn’t be judged by the same criteria than other posters (even if they are prepared by people with a design background), just like they shouldn’t be judged by the same criteria as research reports.

Fishscale - Poster for Cumulus Conference 2013

Fishscale – Poster for Cumulus Conference 2013

Since my first foray into designing research posters (and with the luxury of not having to them to be assessed anymore), my approach to research poster design has changed a bit. I basically design my posters on A4 and then blow them up, thinking that if it isn’t readable on A4, it won’t be readable from a short distance once it is full size at a conference. I also don’t try to put everything in there, this is not my research report or my full paper. If people are interested they can get in touch with me and get more details (if I don’t provide them with all that stuff as a handout anyway). So now I make sure I get my email address on there (which I in the beginning often forgot about) and/or a QR code leading to more information. After Lulu’s workshop I will also have more guidance to get this right and I’m looking forward to putting this into practice.

But maybe more importantly, I don’t use research posters as the single assessment of modules I teach. The one I set really is about the ‘Ignite’, and I state clearly to the students that its purpose is for me to see whether they are able to identify the most important aspect of their research – the main thing they want people to know about. And I can do that because the poster isn’t on its own, it comes with a full report of their projects.

I think this is the way forward to making research poster design better – including both slow and fast rhetorics into the assessment mix, instead of asking the academic research poster to do both. And I would bet that if we all did this, the posters at conferences would get better in a few years!


After the recent link to the beautiful graphical music notations, I have kept noticing more blogs on visualising content, though in this case more written structures. Frances Kelly thinks about Metaphors for Thesis Writing, while Emily Temple has collected Famous Authors’ Handwritten Outlines for Great Works of Literature. Both great examples of how visualising the content can help you develop a structure that makes sense for your reader.

So, after all the embroidery going on over the last week or so, I declared enough was enough and got out the sewing machine to finally quilt the patchwork.

Quilting the Patchwork

Quilting the Patchwork

As with all design processes I have ever undertaken, it was a good thing that a deadline was looming: the portfolio for HEA accreditation needed to be handed in at Staffordshire University yesterday. And while I had been going back and forth in my head about whether to actually hand in the quilt as part of it or not, I thought it would be nice to have the option. The actual quilting transformed this piece of work, making it look much more ‘finished’ (although it took way longer than I expected it to, I’m glad I did it on a non-work day, because I wouldn’t have been able to complete it in just one evening).

But what about the portfolio? While all the embroidery was going on, I was also busy writing my annotations and sorting out my references. And during a chat with a colleague of mine about the portfolio, he commented on how conversational my writing was and said that on reading the first bits he thought I was going down the interview route. Now, I am ashamed to admit, but this hadn’t really occured to me. It should have, as I do a lot of work with genre writing (lots of cream embroidery on my patchwork), but my initial plan had been to get all the information down (conversationally as I find that easy as a first draft) and thenn ‘academic it up’ with making it more formal. However, if the whole point of the portofolio was to represent my practice, then using a slightly alternative genre made sense.

The finished patchwork side of the quilt

The finished patchwork side of the quilt

So, inspired by the quilt itself,  I set about rewriting the whole thing, turning it into an interview with myself, trying to explain the quilt concept, why there was only going to be one side of it (for now), and trying to guess the questions that might come up while viewing this piece – and answering them. Of course that made me end up with a combination of the annotations and the reflective commentary (which might have gone slightly beyond the word count), but I think I ended up explaining the concept, how it relates to my portfolio of work, and how it is not only reflective practice in action, but also reflecting my practice.

When the time for the decision came, I decided to go with the quilt and interview, rather than just the ‘normal’ portfolio and annotation. And the HEA bag I had from the Storyville conference in May was just the perfect size…

It's in the bag

It’s in the bag

The work on the quilt as such is not finished. I am working on the other side – a map that locates my different practices in relation to each other – and am doing more embroidery on that. And I keep updating my Post-it Patchwork, as this has become a valuable working document that helps me plan future projects.

current state of embroidery on the 'map' side

current state of embroidery on the ‘map’ side

As to how the portfolio was received, I will let you know once I know more…

If you are interested in infographics of any kind, you might really enjoy reading this feature on The Guardian webpage. Written by Tom Phillips it looks at what can probably be best termed as ‘alternative’ muscial notations. Make sure you also check out the ‘Graphic Scores In pictures’ section, where you can not only see some extraordinary scores, but also find some links to hear them performed and learn more (the wonder of hyperlinks).

One of the things I particularly wanted to explore at the second workshop in Stoke-on-Trent last year was genre, and why academic writing specifically seems to be such a problem for students. Yes, there are the students who ‘don’t like to write’, but in my experience a lot of students also come to university safe in the knowledge that they KNOW how to write, because they learned it at school. And it is difficult for them to understand that they now need to write at a different level – and for a different purpose.

I was talking about this with my colleague Jane Ball, who works at our study skills centre and was scheduled to do one of the presentations at the workshop, and she mentioned the Concscious Competence Model/Ladder/Matrix. In brief, if you are learning skills you go through four main stages:

  • Unconscious Incompetence (You don’t know that you don’t know)
  • Conscious Incompetence (You know that you don’t know)
  • Conscious Competence (You know that you know)
  • Unconscious Competence (You don’t know that you know, because you have internalised the skill)

(Some people argue that there is a fifth stage which is akin to either mastery or coaching, but I don’t want to make this more complicated here.)

Now I think that this is a really good model, but one of the problems with it, is that there are some tongue twisters in there and it becomes really complicated to try to talk about the difference of concious incompetence (which is the stage I would like my students to be at) and unconscious competence (which is the stage most of them seem to think they are at, due to them not paying attention to what I am trying to teach them when it comes to essay writing), because frankly the terms all sound so much alike. So we needed some better terms, and possibly a little visual to tie this together. And we came up with the lifecycle of a butterfly – and that is what The Butterfly Challenge became about.

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So the trick is to be aware of what stage you are in for each skill you encounter. Are you at the egg stage (blissfully unaware of anything going on around you – and not really caring)? Are you a caterpillar (hungry for knowledge you realise you don’t yet have)? Are you at the crysalis stage (knowing all the rules and quietly practicing applying them all)? Or are you indeed already a butterfly (having internalised all the rules to the point where they are second nature to you)?

different types of butterfly representing different genre

different types of butterfly representing different genre

This becomes particularly tricky if a transferable skill is concerned, because you might not be aware that the rules have changed. (And I think this can often be the problem with my students.) Surely once you know how to write, that is it? Well, here it becomes important to understand the concept of genre – not all written pieces are the same. There isn’t just one type of butterfly, there is one for writing text messages and one for writing academic essays, and they are not necessarily exchangable. But because some students are not aware of that, they think that they are a butterfly (or in the crysalis) as far as writing is concerned, when really they are only at the egg stage for the writing they have to do.

When I presented this idea as part of the talk I did for the Staffordshire University School of Education conference, this seemed to particularly strike a chord… at a different level. Not of undergraduates coming into Higher Education, but rather of graduates continuing on at Masters and PhD level. There also, academic writing (and other research skills) takes a ‘step up’ (in the case of PhD work quite dramatically), and students are sometimes not aware of this. Indeed, somebody in the audience said that when she was working on her PhD it felt like she was a butterfly who got slowly torn apart… In order to avoid this sort of student experience, it might be well worth to introducing the students to this model at the beginning of their courses.

A possible activity to go with this would be to get the students to make butterflies out of copies of different types of texts, and then put them together on a museum type tray complete with labels that identify the specific rules the different texts have to adhere to. (I developed this as an activity a bit, I thought washing pegs might be good for the body of the butterflies, but then never actually used it as the idea of using a paper doll came along and seemed to make more sense – see The Dress-Up Doll of Formality, to be blogged about soon.)

(This booklet was made in a preview edition of 31 handed out to delegates at the Writing in Creative Practice: Integrating Writing into a Studio-based Curriculum workshop, each with a pop-up butterfly in the middle.)

This week I stumbled across poem houses. There they were, waiting in an article in a journal that had been on my shelf for the better part of the year. And I had no idea until I pulled out a number of these journals to give to a student and idly flicked through them. Luckily said poem houses caught my eye and consequently that one journal issue didn’t make it to my student’s bag, but my own instead.

As explained in ‘Sense making through poem houses: an arts-based approach to understanding leadership’ by Louise Grisoni and Brigid Collins (Visual Studies, Vol. 27, No. 1, March 2012, 35-47), poem houses have been developed by Brigid Collins as “three dimensional artefacts combining visual interpretation with poetic text and which hold a special significance for the maker.” (35) Using examples and testimonials from a workshop on leadership development, the article is a fascinating insight into using this format/genre as a focus for reflection. And of course I read this wondering how it could be applied in my learning and teaching. I will definitely try to make my own one of these days, but in the mean time, you can see some examples here.

I have also managed to find some more writing by both Collins and Grisoni, which might be more food for thought.

So I have started planning my quilt.

I did this by first investing in a stack of mulit-coloured post-its (other sticky notes are available), and trying to note down significant incidents in my learning and teaching career one per post-it. Some of them are things that I do with students, some of them are presentations I heard or workshops I attended, some of them are things I have published, some of them are people I have met and subsequently collaborated with. And some of them are things I want to do in future.

After the first rush of ideas had gone, I went over my CV and added things I had forgotten about. And then I started arranging the pieces on my living room wall. And then I rearranged them. As they started falling off the wall I switched to a large piece of paper on the floor, which ended up as two papers side by side.

I have since rearranged my ‘layout’ a number of times, added some pieces, taken away others (I wanted this not to be about every little thing I have done, but rather about the things I at the moment consider significant). And this has already been really helpful! I am now more aware of how a lot of the bits I do connect to each other. And I can see what direction I have most recently worked in much more than in others. I think I am much clearer now as to what I want to achieve, and how the things I plan to do link together.

Starting off on this has also made me consider the process of putting the quilt together:

  • As mentioned above, only things I consider significant now, otherwise this would be far bigger (and say far less I fear)
  • I got rid of the pieces linked to subject-specific knowledge. This goes back to my thinking about the Accreditation Quilt, while subject-specific knowledge is of course important to a teacher, the learning and teaching skills are somewhat separate. What I am thinking is to represent subject-specific knowledge on the back of the quilt. And I don’t think that is going to be a quilt for me, that will be a whole picture, because by its nature I consider this much less ‘bitty’.
  • After this first flurry of activity (which always seems to happen when I have stumbled across a new idea I think might work), I think this also needs some back-up. At the moment the pieces are very sketchy notes to myself, some of them as images, but most of them containing key words or titles. In order to fully appreciate what the pieces represent and how they are fitting together, I need to design them to actually become representations – and then reflect on why I decided to put them here and not there. That could then also be used as a starting point to present my learning and teaching career to somebody else (if I go on and present this as an Accreditation Quilt, for example).

It is this ‘backing up’ of ideas that will get me to where I want to be, and that will show the Thinking through Writing and Making process I am so keen to explore further. So while this collection of post-its will come to my appraisal later in the week, the thinking process will continue while I redesign the pieces and write about them, at least some of it shared on this blog in future.