Mike Morrison's Better Poster Design is Viral

May 16, 2019 - Caroline Kraft

A new poster design is taking hold at academic conferences across the world, thanks to Mike Morrison, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in organizational psychology. Morrison worked for a year to create a video cartoon about a poster design that could maximize the amount of information transferred to attendees during a poster session.  Since his video debuted on twitter on March 25th, it has been viewed 126,600 times, retweeted 2,700 times and liked by 7,000 Twitter users. Click here to view the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1RwJbhkCA58&t=2s

Morrison announced today that his poster design cartoon and templates are also available in traditional and simplified Chinese on bilibili.com: https://www.bilibili.com/video...

“I figured some IO psychology people would look at the video because they know me, and nobody else would care, but the video was up less than 24 hours before it went viral. It’s been a rollercoaster. And everybody has been pretty positive about it. I survived going viral without attracting internet hate! I got lucky,” Morrison says.

Morrison realized scientists could spread information from their posters to other scientists and the public more effectively by using something designers have implemented for years: negative space. In Morrison’s poster design, the main findings are presented in the center of the poster in large, easy to read font against a solid background. A QR code is added below the findings so passersby can scan the code with their phone to access more details about the study. The typical sections of the academic poster, such as the methods, discussion, and results are still part of the poster, but the focal point is the main takeaway. This design allows attendees walking by to attain the gist of the poster from afar, even while others are reading the poster or talking with the presenter. 

Morrison was concerned that academics would reject his poster design because it is more simplistic than the traditional poster design.

“Negative space is a very functional component of design — it helps you find signal in the noise — but the way we do science is that we want to fill in all the details and cover every base. That’s how we think. So leaving space unfilled and reducing a finding down to a single sentence is scary for people. But if you were to read an entire poster in the old, wall-of-text format, I think you would end up taking away what the punchline in this better poster design says explicitly,” he says.

To his surprise, academics from many fields have shown support for the better poster design.

“What amazed me was how positive the scientists were about it; even those in physics and computer science. They are extra methodological, detail-oriented, and pragmatic thinkers, so I thought they would be the last to embrace the minimalistic design thing, but they ran with it. That was one of my biggest surprises — seeing fields that are very technical do these artistic things,” Morrison says.

Morrison’s poster templates have been used at conferences in fields from medicine to meteorology, and he hears from satisfied presenters on Twitter daily. 

“There are topics I didn’t know people were studying, and now I am learning about them. It gives you a sense of what science can be. All of us are doing cool and important things in a lot of ways. When I see an important finding using the new design I think, ‘Wow. People should know this. And if it was hidden in a giant wall of text, people would have missed it,’” Morrison says.

Though the purpose of the poster design is to spread information effectively, Morrison also hopes that his design enables academics to feel more gratification from their work. 

“In my own research on work meaningfulness I've learned that seeing (or not seeing) a positive impact of your work on others can make or break how you feel about it. I think this new poster design helps scientists show off their work a little, and reach more people with it. In that, I hope it helps show scientists how meaningful their research was all along.”

Morrison’s next steps are to conduct a study to validate his poster design, and, of course, finish his Ph.D. If you use Morrison’s poster design in the future, make sure to post a photo of your poster on twitter with #betterposter.