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Promoting visual literacy with poster design workshops

April 5, 2018
A professor and students discuss poster design.

Image courtesy of Jessica Showalter

Civil War telegrams, a prototype of a solar wall, anime, a new type of valve for mixing gas … These were a few of the topics discussed at a series of recent workshops on poster design led by Penn State Altoona librarian Alessia Zanin-Yost and English professor Laura Rotunno. They guided students as they transformed their research into posters for the upcoming Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities Fair. The workshops offer some ideas for libraries hoping to promote visual literacy.

The ACRL’s article Keeping up With Visual Literacy explains that visual literacy is “essential” for today’s college students to succeed in their “media-rich academic environment.” Just because students can take pictures with their phones and post them on social media, this “does not automatically translate into the ability to critically engage with, make meaning from, and communicate with visual materials in an academic context.” Students need practice to develop these skills, and “librarians are well-poised … to take a leadership role in this area.”

As the chair of the ALA/ACRL Arts committee, Zanin-Yost has studied this need for visual literacy. She created the poster design workshops in collaboration with Rotunno, who serves as honors program coordinator and organizes the annual Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities Fair. The interdisciplinary fair gives students a chance to showcase their work via poster presentations, as well as oral presentations and performances.

Their first hour-long workshop covered best practices, tools, and resources for poster design. Zanin-Yost taught students how to use PowerPoint to design the posters, and she also created an online library guide that provides additional tips. Zanin-Yost said, “Two important tips are: you need a title that pops and white space so the poster doesn’t look crammed.”

The second workshop featured a poster peer-review session. Students had the opportunity to share drafts and ask questions.

Rogan Allen, a senior majoring in Communications, based his poster on his research paper about military telegrams and battlefield communication. He said, “I found some historical photos of the technology in the databases, and I have some clippings of correspondence. Now I’m working to enlarge the images for the poster without pixelating them. I’m using Photoshop and combining four versions of the same picture to sharpen them.”

Tristyn Stemple, a first-year Energy Engineering major, is part of a group that built a 2 ½ foot tall solar wall. She said, “We can’t bring the wall to the presentation, so we have to design flow charts and incorporate our own photos and videos to show how our prototype works.”

A member of Stemple’s group, Januario Emerson Mendes, also worked on a second project to study a novel approach for building gas-mixing valves. Mendes, a senior majoring in Electro-mechanical Engineering Technology, said, “I want to design a poster without using too much jargon. I am using labels and describing functions in my diagrams to make it easy to understand for a nonspecialist audience.”

Zanin-Yost and Rotunno also gave the students advice about how to present their research in a poster session.

Zanin-Yost advised, “Bring a bottle of water—your throat will get dry from explaining your poster to everyone. Dress in a business casual style—you want to be comfortable, but you also want to look professional and show pride in your work. And bring a notebook and pen because you may want to record questions and feedback.”

Rotunno added, “A poster session is a great celebration of all the cool projects fellow researchers are working on, so take some time to circulate and check out other posters, too. And consider having a takeaway for visitors, like a handout or business cards. Faculty or community members who attend may want to contact you for more information about your research poster.”

After considering Rotunno’s advice, Allen mentioned that he might bring a homemade telegraph machine to give visitors a chance to try the technology described in his poster about Civil War telegrams.

Finished posters will be presented at the upcoming Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities Fair, to be held April 14, 2018 at Penn State Altoona.

Jessica Showalter is an Information Resources and Services Support Specialist at Penn State Altoona’s Eiche Library.

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