Most of the times I've presented a poster at a research conference, I’ve won a prize. This isn’t because of my groundbreaking work it’s because I’ve learnt how to play the game. Here are my top nine tips on how to Develop, Design and Deliver a prize winning poster.
Develop You’ve just had a poster accepted at a conference – brilliant! But don’t dare go near PowerPoint yet. It is time to develop your ideas.
1: Why bother? Ask yourself what you want to get out of the experience. Collaborators? Ideas? Different perspectives? To show off? To win a prize? Knowing what you want from the experience will help you drive towards getting it.
2: Central message
I am firmly behind poster-presentation-researcher Mike Morrison when he says the days of traditional posters are dead and it is time for a better poster format. Mike’s freely available Better Poster design advocates a strong central message, and this is a perfect starting point. Imagine one month after the conference you bump into someone who visited your poster. They greet you with a friendly “Oh hi, I think we met at the conference a few weeks ago. You’re the person who is _______________ aren’t you?” Fill in the blank. What are you the person doing? People will likely take one short idea away from your poster so don’t make them work to find. Know what your message is and have your poster focus on it.
3:Structure The traditional poster format follows the traditional talk format: Introduction, method, results, discussion, conclusions. Tradition is the enemy of innovation. You can get away with this in a talk because the audience is forced to experience the talk in a linear way – but posters are a whole different game. When someone arrives at a poster they won’t read through it to finally arrive in the bottom right hand corner for the conclusions. Open with your strong message and build on it. Add the sections you feel you need and that best tell your story with the most important parts in the most prominent locations. Think of your poster like your shop front. Have your special offers displayed in the prime locations and let the the milk, bread and beans take care of themselves. The further below eye level you go, the less important the information should be. Imagine your poster in thirds – everyone will look at the top third, half of people will look at the middle third and a quarter will glance at the bottom.
Design Once you have your message and structure you can think about what your poster will look like.
There is always one person who gets it wrong, don’t let it be you. Check the programme or ask the organisers for the dimensions and orientation of the posterboard. Know the space and how to use it.
Also check when the posters will be displayed, if they will adorn the halls of the conference venue for three days then they need to be stand alone and contain all the information a reader might need. If, however, there is only a singular scheduled poster session, then you can plan your design based on the assumption that you will be with your poster to explain and give additional information.
There appear to be four main schools of thought on poster format, below I describe them along with their advantages and disadvantages.
Format 1, The Traditional: You’ve probably seen several examples of this – effectively a paper printed out on A0.
The Good: Familiar and likely to please older academics. The Bad: Alienating appearance and often communicates central messages poorly.
Format 2, Better Poster: Developed by Mike Morrison Better Poster's dedicated the majority of the poster to a singular take home message with additional information at the sides and a QR code linking to a paper. Template here
The Good: Everyone will notice and likely read your take home message. Very simple to design.
The Bad: Viewers may see this ‘radical’ design as an ineffective use of space. These people may or may not be wrong but bear in mind the prize may not actually go to the “best poster” but the most “acceptable poster”.
Format 3, Butter Poster: Developed by Derek Crowe who took initial inspiration from Morrison’s "Better Poster", this variation features a graphical abstract (images which sum up or symbolise the work) alongside several highlight boxes with concise information. Templates here
The Good: Again, this poster focuses on core message rather than prioritising traditional format. It has a flexible modular design that can be adapted easily. The Bad: Some people may struggle with the graphical abstract.
Format 4, The Designer: Some of the most beautiful posters I’ve seen come from Nicholas Wu. To me they embody the fourth trend, the designer poster. Which fuses the academic poster with the posters we’d see advertising products. Nicholas uses photography, colour schemes and self-drawn images to create a modern and enticing poster. There aren’t templates for these posters as they need to be bespoke but Nicholas has a fantastic resource page on his website.
Good: Eye catching, these posters are sure to attract a lot of attention. Bad: Of the four options shown here a designer poster requires the most knowledge and skill to create.
6: Layout, colour and font
When you have a format in mind there are some important considerations when it comes to the layout and colour choice.
Layout: In English we are used to reading left to right and top to bottom. Work with this and not against this. A good way to test this is to give someone a copy of your poster and see if they naturally visit the boxes in the order you expected – if not rearrange. If you need arrows or numbers to correct the reader, then your layout is wrong.
Colour: Keep it simple, keep it clear. To choose some colours visit Cloudflare or Coolors to enter in a colour Palx code to generate colour schemes which will be easier for people with colour-blindness to be able to read. Cloudflare can also pull a recommended colour scheme from an image (note how Nicholas’s colour scheme above is dictated by the main photograph).
Font: There is no hard and fast rule as to which font to use, just choose one you like and stick to it. Also try printing an example off as sometimes fonts work better on a screen as opposed to printed (eg calibri). Once you have picked a font stick to it, you can use a second font for titles but use it sparingly.
Font size is important text below 20pt doesn’t belong on a poster. It’s tempting to reduce the size in to make text fit but cut words and not font size.The more styles of text you introduce the messier things look. Instead of using various mixes of bold, underline and italics, try using different font weight. Try using medium weight for body text, regular for captions and bold for headings that way the fonts all look very harmonious but there are distinctions made.
Deliver The work isn’t finished when the poster goes up on the board, now we need to do all we can to get the most value out of all our hard work.
7: Poster Plus
Don’t just tell people what you did, make it as engaging as possible. First off make it easy for people to approach you. Add a photo to your poster so people can tell who you are and add a sign with the times when people can find you at your poster.
Make it a two-way process, ask the other delegates questions. You could have space on your poster, or a separate sheet, where people can write questions or leave comments. You could even add a non-research element just to make the interactions a little easier – for example stick a map next to your poster and people to add a sticker representing where they came from. Networking isn’t about telling as many people as possible who you are it is forming connections.
Bring an object to show which represents or illustrates your work. Meeting strangers can be awkward but talking about and through an object can lower the anxiety of the situation. It’s like when you meet a stranger with a dog and the dog becomes the focus of the interaction and not the face to face encounter with the stranger.
This is the toughest, but one of the most powerful pieces of advice – start the interactions. “people don’t wave, people wave back” this powerful little phrase reminds us that initiating conversations can be difficult but if one person has the courage to do so then most of the time other people will respond positively to it – if you see someone wave you are socially conditioned to wave back.
As people filter past your poster try and strike up a conversation. If you see someone looking at your poster maybe try “have you worked on anything similar before?” or just “that graph was super difficult to make”. Being proactive is sure to get more people to stop and chat whereas looming at the side watching people read your work will have everyone hurrying to the next station.
9: Next steps
When people leave your poster, what happens next? The short encounter shouldn’t be the end. Think about how people can carry on the connection with you. Some simple tips to keeping the conversation going beyond the conference:
A QR code linking to extra information or a paper
A little wallet with business cards for people to take away
A4 versions of the poster for people to take away
Leaflets containing additional information not on the poster
I hope you have found this guide useful. I have a full Powerful Poster workshop which covers these points in more detail. If your organisation could use some poster pointers, then do please get in touch.
If you have any top tips of your own then do add them in the comments