Every good scientist is half B. F. Skinner and half P. T. Barnum.
Principal Skinner, on Bart’s project, “Duffless”
I recently got an eMail asking for remarks about conference posters (“I was wondering whether you had any thoughts collected (I couldn’t find this on your site) regarding some of the more generic parts of this – fonts, general color ideas, etc. If not, I think this might make for a really useful post, especially for people like me who are new to poster-making.”).
So far I only did two, but both were very well received. Actually I cannot say much about colors schemes or fonts (the first poster was limited to the corporate design of the institute I work for, the second one just “felt right”), but looking back at the posters I have done or seen, I think the following issues are relevant:
- The goal of the poster is to assist you in shortly presenting your research topic
Note that a poster is not an article and should not be “written” (or rather: designed) this way. I should make your topic alive. It can provide you with images, graphs, definitions, results, etc. when you explain the topic. It’s like an elevator pitch with help (meeting the CEO in the elevator, you have ten seconds to explain what you work on and why it is important).
- Focus on the central message
As you do not have the space and time to describe your project fully, focus on the really new aspect, the central message you want to convey. If you are uncomfortable with simplifying the message too much, refer to an article available on request for more information. And never add too much text. Keep it short, otherwise people will walk by.
- Make it remarkable
Your poster will likely be one of many posters, so think of something that makes your poster remarkable (to use Seth Godin’s words: “worth making a remark about”. Take care that it relates to the topic. As some musicians once said: “If it was attention I wanted, I’d run through the streets naked.” So think how you can make the topic easily accessible, interesting, and surprising for the visitors.
- Design matters
While most journals foster austere design, a poster offers you more latitude to make your work appealing to the eye. Don’t use the graphics from the method section of your work, create new ones. Take care to avoid the confusing stuff (e.g., using 3D graphics for 2D-data) or boring images (e.g., any cliparts of software packages). Think how you can make the topic accessible. Be bold in design.
- Convey a professional image
This said, take care that you come across as professional. Meeting you for the first time on a conference, a fellow scientist has little to evaluate whether your work is genuine or not. Be professional to help create that initial trust.
- Facilitate conversation: at the poster
When standing before the poster a fellow scientist should easily get more information — from you. This means that you should be easily recognizable. For example, put photos of the authors on the poster (a current photo!) and highlight who will be at the conference in front of the poster. Smile when someone looks at your poster, let them read it and once they have finished, find out who they are and why they were interested in the topic. Ask whether they have further questions or comments. Posters are bad for in-depth information, but very good for making contact and networking.
- Facilitate conversation: during the conference
If the posters are available for some time, make sure that there is not only a photo of you, but also some ways to contact you. For example, your Twitter name or your eMail address. Write that you would love to talk about the topic during the conference and use this opportunity if someone contacts you. Even if nobody does this, you signal that you are open for discussion.
- Facilitate conversation: after the conference
Contact people who wanted more information after the conference and inquire about their lines of research. Even if they themselves might offer no contribution, if they know about your project they can mention it to their colleagues.
And of course, use the poster sessions at conferences yourself to talk to other researchers. Find out what they are working on and use the opportunity to network. It’s not everything, but it can be very useful.
BTW, if you look at the last poster I did “How to Organize Your Creativity?“, it is rather untypical. It contains a lot of text. On the other hand, the structure makes the core ideas easily understandable, each part is self-contained and can be read quickly, there are comments that add humor and clarification, and the format beautifully fit the audience and the setting. It was presented at a conference of a student organization related to Mensa, most of the members of that student organization love complex information, and it was displayed for multiple days (giving everyone opportunity to read it at their leisure). So be careful with general guidelines for posters and consider your audience. The audience determines what your poster should show — and how.