Making Better Posters

OCT 11, 2016    by TONI KLEMM

On November 2nd and 3rd, the first ever National CSC Student and Early Career Training will be held at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. This blog post is the first in a series highlighting the goals, featured sessions, and experiences from this meeting, but for now here are some tips for preparing and improving your conference poster. Part of the two-day training will be a Poster Session to show off your reseach and help practice your communication skills. If you opted for this session you will get 3 minutes (10 minutes including Q+A) to explain your research for an interested but non-scientific audience, for example policy-makers, journalists, and natural resource managers, using a poster. That’s quite a bar to clear, and because of that we want to give you a head start by summarizing tips for how to design better posters. Some of these points may improve and refine your oral presentations as well.

1)  Figure this Your poster is not a whole journal article printed on a large piece of paper. Avoid large amounts of text, and instead use figures, tables, charts, diagrams, and captions to make your points. These visual aids should serve as a guide in explaining your research to someone with little or no expertise in your subject area with or without your presence (i.e. if they read your poster when you are not there or chatting with someone else). Also, check that colors complement each other and pop on paper as well as a computer screen (pie charts, flow charts, bar graphs, illustrations, schema).

2)  Less is more Don’t try to fit every minute detail of your research onto the poster. Carefully craft and focus on your key messages and take home points. Keep text to a minimum; bullet-pointed lists are great. Give people insights into your research, with hooks to ask follow-up questions. It does not matter if your project has just started or is near completion you can still commuicate the basics.

3)  Proportions Make sure your poster size meets the conference requirements and is not bigger than your allowed space. Test that your figures etc. look good from four or five feet away (you know, so if there is a crowd of people at your poster, those in the back can see), that they’re not too small and not too big. Make a test print if necessary.

4)  Fonts Normal text should be in font sizes between 36 to 44 points, titles about twice that. Don’t give your poster fancy fonts to try and stand out. It’s about the content, not (just) the looks. The rule of thumb is 2 to 3 different fonts, not more. Pick a serif font (e.g., Cambria, Georgia, Garamond, Times) for normal text and a sans-serif font (Arial, Helvetica, Impact, Gill Sans, Futura) for poster title, axes titles, captions etc. Serif fonts are better for flow text because their small “feet” form an imaginary line, making it easier for your eyes to follow the line of text. Sans serifs (sans is French for “without”) meanwhile are best for titles, subtitles, captions, and other shorter pieces of text.

5)  Bring business cards This is a no-brainer, right? People might want to follow up with you after the meeting and learn more, so business cards are a must-have. Also, posters are often left up after the session has ended (and without you there). Bring a little pouch or basket for your business cards and pin them next to your poster. You should always put your contact info on the poster (email and personal website are most common); alternatively, create a Quick Response (QR) code with your contact details. QR codes are free to make online (links below), and there are plenty of free reader apps for smartphones.

6)  Be prepared You made a beautiful and compelling poster. Well done!! But now you need to prepare talking points or your “elevator speach“, to engage your audience and make them remember your poster over the sea of others in the room. Give yourself 30 seconds to pitch your research, but tell it in a way that anyone can understand, technical or non-technical. Keep it simple and free of jargon or  weird acronyms. If someone approaches you and is an expert in your field, be ready with more advanced questions for them that you have been struggling with that you might be able to get help with.

7)  Electronic posters They are becoming more and more common at national and international meetings (note the National CSC meeting will have paper posters only). In some cases you will just get to skip the printing phase and bring your poster as a digital file; but some meetings will allow posters to have interactive features, so that your audience can zoom or use enhanced features to explore and interact with your communication product. Be sure to find out about the screen size that will display your poster, including ratio (4:3, 16:10, 16:9) and resolution (full-HD, HD); format your slide(s) accordingly to use the space in the best way possible and avoiding distortion. Its good to save your presentation as a PPT and PDF to ensure it will transfer to the computer and network provided by the conference host.

More advice on poster design: (weekly critique of a sample poster)

Colin Purrington: Designing Conference Posters

Discussions on Poster’s Graphic Design Elements

Free QR codes for poster

This blog post was modified from a previous post in November 2014.

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