5 ways to Poster = Fail

This week I overheard @VGoodyear asking on Twitter about tips for doing poster presentations at conferences. I thought it would make a great post topic because there’s so little guidance in the ‘how to do a thesis’ books.

A poster is a good starting point for your conference career. It’s less confronting than giving a paper because you don’t get peer reviewed and you don’t have to get on stage and defend your ideas. Most of the time posters are looked at during breaks when everyone is milling around, so it’s likely that more people will see your poster than a verbal presentation. You will probably have to stand in front of your poster at least some of the time, so it’s a great way to meet people, especially if you are new to a recurring conference.

But doing a good poster is surprisingly hard. My first conference poster was an utter failure. This is a shameful admission because I am no stranger to the concept. I endured 8 or so years of pin ups in architecture school and worked in advertising.  But I’ve seen plenty of terrible posters since then, so I feel better about it now. I’m no graphic designer, but I consulted with my sister Anitra who is and I feel confident enough to tell you what NOT to do.

Here’s 5 things to avoid:

1. No story

The poster reading experience is more like being at an art gallery than reading a book. You need to tell a story of your research (or part of it) with images and text. Both have different design considerations.

Your poster must accommodate multiple people reading it at the same time, so breaking the text up is a good idea. However many posters end up with a lot of disconnected bits of text on them because the author hasn’t thought enough about the ‘story’ that holds it together. You can use standard story structures to create logical ties between each part; a time line is a good way to do this, or outline steps in a process.

Use images sparingly – more on that later – and consider what purpose they serve. They aren’t mere decoration, but every image adds more ‘noise’ to your poster. Excess noise, at the expense of ‘signal’, can make your poster hard to read. Image placement is a complex issue, so don’t be tricky with angles unless you feel confident; if in doubt line them up with imaginary grid lines. Remember that it’s hard to read detailed text at the bottom of a poster and hold a cup of tea at the same time, so the bottom of the poster is a good place for images and the title.

2. Badly chosen text

Where do I start with this one? It’s hard to know how much text you need, you want people to stand there for about 5 – 10 minutes at the most. Less is more in this instance – resist the urge to tell them everything. The idea is to provoke interest and questions, not tell the whole story of your research.

Sometimes people cut and paste text directly from their thesis draft, which is almost always a bad idea. At the very least your poster should contain an abstract that describes the purpose of the work and write it as plainly as you can – you can’t rely on all conference attendees having the same knowledge and background as you.

3. Horrible typography

It’s hard to manage the text on a poster, but remember that people are reading it at two scales: from far away and close up. You should aim for no more than three kinds of text: one for the title, a second subheading style and then body copy for reading. You will need to have a few headlines to guide people around the page, but not so many that they compete with each other – hierarchy is important.

Make it easy for yourself by arranging the bits of text in a way which takes advantage of the way English speakers tend to read: it’s the same way they write – from left to right and top to bottom. Anitra suggests you start with 15pt font for body text and 24pt font for subheading and more for the title, but be sure to test it out in a full scale mockup and see how it looks. Remember that text is easier to read if it’s flush to the left and ragged to the right (ie: not justified to both sides, which can create unsightly ‘rivers’ down the paragraph).

4. No ‘hero’ image

Images are great to illustrate your text and provide interest, but remember trying to emphasise everything usually means you end up emphasizing nothing. One of your images should be the ‘hero’ – it should be eye catching and bigger than all the rest. The purpose of the hero image is to seduce people to your poster, so it should speak about the project in some way. Don’t be tempted to put it at an angle to make it more obvious and never run text over the image unless you have a good grasp of basic graphic design principles.

5. No takeaway

I recommended having a more detailed handout pinned up next to your poster, or ready to hand, which people can take away with them. This should be beautifully written and include all your contact details – clip a business card to it if you have them as people are more likely to file these. Forgetting to include a takeaway means missing a fantastic self promotion opportunity. You never know where that piece of paper will end up – maybe in the hands of someone who wants to give you a job!

So that’s my top five – does anyone have any other tips to offer? Have you seen any good ‘hacks’ to the poster presentation format which you want to share?

Related Posts:

Four ways to rock your next talk

How to be the ‘star’ PhD student… when you are an introvert

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13 thoughts on “5 ways to Poster = Fail

  1. pelf says:

    I have recently presented a poster at the Student Conference for Conservation Science in Cambridge. There were at least 100 posters and display and a handful of them were so good the judges had a very hard time deciding who should win (or so we were told) 😀

    Here’s a short write-up of the student conference, and my poster, if you’re interested 😀

  2. lozzz123 says:

    I think choice of colours is important, if it’s too plain and drab it won’t stand out, but if it’s over colourful people will feel dizzy and be scared away!

    I often think particular topics relate better to particular colours, and so an incongruent colour choice makes it look a bit off as well. Or maybe I’m just crazy hehe.

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