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So you want to print a conference poster

Well with the DARPA conference coming, I need to print the poster. Easier said than done unfortunately. Sure, with the advent of giant printers, you can get it done in minutes, but there’s a line involved and because it’s conference season and because I want to try something fancy, the line is fairly long. Weeks long, but the conference is in less than two weeks and I only recently finished my poster. Now I SHOULD have taken care of this at the beginning of the week, but again we have an oops because I did not. Moral of the story, if you want to stop reading, don’t be me. Now, since I’m doing something fancy, let’s talk about why and how!

Have you ever flown somewhere? It’s not a fun experience. You’re crammed like a sardine on a flight sitting in a chair (if you’re me anyway) not wide enough to fit your shoulders, meaning you’re already invading other people’s space, just by existing. Can you tell I don’t particularly enjoy it? Then there’s the checked luggage and carry on struggle, not to mention all the stuff that comes prior to boarding, going through security (which in the US is awful, arguably that’s worldwide though). In short, not fun. Now imagine you have to do that carrying a poster tube. A poster tube that (typically) doesn’t fit in the overhead compartments and a poster tube you don’t feel comfortable checking and having it subjected to the treatment your luggage sees. If you’re a wheelchair user (or even if you’re not frankly) you know what I mean. The people handling your luggage just don’t give a fuck, mostly.

Typically we fly in groups, store our posters together, and trust one of the lab members with the duty of guarding it with their life. I have been on both sides of the equation, traveling with the posters and being thankful it wasn’t my turn. It’s not fun, but this is the future, we don’t need to do that sort of thing anymore. There are better ways, we can make a poster better, we have the technology. But often times those ways are costly! Why? Well everyone wants to make a buck basically. The cost of printing (materials and time) is low, but because you’re in academia, the cost gets ticked up a few notches. Kind of like tacking the word wedding on the end of something means the cost just jumped. Yep, we’re married to our research and people know it.

Luckily you get reimbursed for posters (usually). I’m sure I will be reimbursed for mine, but that still leaves a few problems. One finding the ~$100 or more (I’ve spent almost 3x that for a poster depending on where you get it) to cover the cost is hard for the average student, then on top of that you may not get reimbursed. It usually happens, but there’s always the chance that it may not or that it will take FOREVER to happen. Friendly reminder that in the past I was not paid for up to three months (on multiple occasions), so I don’t trust the system for good reason.

The alternative is to find a place that (1) prints high quality posters and (2) doesn’t really do it for academic purposes so they don’t charge a 1000+% markup for something that looks horrid. Then we come into the travel part. I won’t be flying with my poster thankfully, but the solution to the poster tube is simple, fabric poster. Fabric posters don’t tear easy, fold nicely, and are super easy to travel with. I’ve literally carried them in my laptop carry-on bag when I’ve flown. It’s so nice to not have to worry about your poster because you have it physically with you the whole time. If you’re an anxious person (me!!) you can rest easy knowing that you’re in control. The problem is cost, fancy materials cost money! Fabric is not a fancy material, but fabric posters have a huge markup as well. So what do we do?

Well think about it, we need fabric and we need a custom printed design, well the solution there is fabric shops! Welcome to the future my friends. With technology improving, most online fabric shops allow for custom designs to be uploaded and printed to the size you need. Normally they set the minimum size, you order your poster (which will be a smaller size) and you can either cut to fit or simply fold to fit. I prefer the later because I cannot cut a straight line if my life depended on it, although you could add “cut here” lines to your poster I suppose to make sure you’re mostly on target.

Depending on the service you use, the posters come out looking better than the normal printing services too, colors are more vibrant and the posters will last a long time (not that they typically need to, but if you’re spending the money quality is nice). That’s because fabric companies have a vested interest to make sure what you’re printing looks the best it possibly can. If you’re relying on your school located print services, they know they will have business and typically don’t rely on that income for anything anyway. Often times they are run by the school, which if you see the cost of a textbook, you can understand why the markup for a poster is so high.

I’ve used several different services in the past and cost is typically the only reason I switch. The one I used mostly was a academic themed fabric printer, so they had reason to provide a high quality product, but the cost only needed to be slightly lower than the traditional services, so ~$100 -$150 USD. If you’re an academic you’re probably thinking that’s a deal, because it frankly is! But again as a poor college student, we shouldn’t have to rely on that. So what service am I using this time?

I was recently made aware of Spoonflower, which I’m excited about! The lead time depends on when you order and what not, this is conference season, because there aren’t 9 other months to have a conference or anything, so it’s a bit longer than you may expect. In fact, I literally just ordered my poster and panicked when I saw that it would not arrive until well after the conference. So for a fee you can change the priority of the print and get a rush job. There are two “levels” of higher priority, so three levels total, standard -> rush -> emergency (my naming, not theirs, but emergency should totally be a level of priority). I selected, of course, emergency and found that they promise to have it to me by the end of next week.

So I got a fabric poster in Performance Piqué, which is what they recommended for posters. It is the semi-correct size, my poster was 48 (w) x 36 (h) inches and they are shipping me a 56 x 36 piece of fabric with my poster on it, so I have roughly 4 inches extra on either side (roughly 10 cm for those non-freedom unit users), but the height was perfect or I would’ve had to order a second one to extend the fabric to be long enough. alternatively you can rotate the poster to make it fit if it’s longer than wide, but that wasn’t my case. And I’ll have it before the conferences (with an s), so a win all around!

Now how much did that cost me? Well they have a student discount for one, so heck yeah! But there was a fee for the emergency rush (what they call expedited, which isn’t as fun to type) attached to it. So how much would something like this cost, $100 USD, $200 USD, I feel like I’m a late night TV salesman, but would you believe it was ~$50. The poster itself was under $20 and the rest was to cover the “fabric emergency” printing speed. Actually looking at the invoice, the poster after the discount was closer to $10, SERIOUSLY. That’s just the kind of markup you get from a school service compared to a service like this!

Keep in mind, I’m not getting paid by Spoonflower to say anything. They don’t know I exist and I didn’t know they existed until recently, but they come HIGHLY recommended from others who have done the same thing I just did. Between the cost and the quality of other posters I’ve seen, I can see why!

I fumbled my way through the process and managed it okay (I hope, we’ll see once it shows up at the door). However, I did find a helpful tutorial to make life less confusing for someone who wants to do the same thing, which you can find here. Trust me when I say I wish I would’ve found that before ordering, I would have felt much safer about the whole thing, not that I didn’t get it figured out, but man it would’ve helped! I’ve bookmarked it for the next time, because unless they send me something completely unusable I will happily order from them (with more advanced notice to them) in the future.

The nice thing (for me as someone who’s in the States) is they are US based so if I have questions/problems I can chat with them in a reasonable time window, I assume shipping will be faster than if I ordered further away or outside the US, so overall for me it was a win. While I won’t be able to share the final product fully, I’m going to have a follow up once I get the poster (probably after the conferences) to give a better review of the service. I did have a bit of an issue because for whatever reason my school email was auto-filtering their emails with no way to fix it, but they promptly resolved it for me, so they are off to a good start!

I am excited to see how it looks in print. Posters are tricky things, you need to have the right quality of image, but also everything looks slightly different in real life compared to on the screen. As you print posters you get better at accounting for that difference (LARGER FONT, ALWAYS LARGER, LESS TEXT, ALWAYS LESS!!), but having it in hand to look at is always a bit of a unwrapping a gift kind of feeling, you don’t know exactly what to expect even though you know what you wanted. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a good outcome, but we’ll have to wait and see!


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