10 guidelines for an awesome poster

A –Streams of Thought– contribution by Andrea Popp.

A scientific poster is a visual communication tool summarizing your work and encouraging conversation with colleagues. However, posters are often poorly designed, e.g., they are densely packed and overloaded with text. This makes it difficult and tiring for the audience to understand the content. The following list provides 10 guidelines for an awesome poster to help you to communicate your work efficiently. We spiced this blog with insider tips from recent EGU and AGU Outstanding Student Poster Award winners (Skuyler Herzog, Ingo Heidbüchel, and Michael Stölzle).

1) Layout and format must be organized and concise

  • do not overload your poster with information
  • think big – choose a large font size and make graphs large enough to read
  • use no more than 3 different fonts (generally sans serif fonts e.g., Arial for axis labels and title)
  • use italics instead of underlining
  • use colors to highlight, but not too many (2-3)
  • prefer a light and homogeneous background
  • the progression of your poster should be obvious, and background colours can be used to guide the participant through your poster

2) Use brief and simple language, better to avoid text altogether

  • a poster is a visual (!) presentation of your work
  • graphs say more than words
  • text must be legible and succinct

Insight from OSP winner Ingo Heidbüchel:

“No text blocks! Some people say that a poster should explain itself if you are not there to walk people through. However, if you are there to explain the content of the poster, people will not read the text blocks but listen to your story. You will not win the poster competition anyways if the judge walks past your poster and you are not there. That means text blocks are mostly obsolete for the poster competition. Short bullet points are enough. Use the space for nice clean figures and structure the progression of your research clearly.”

Insight from OSP winner Michael Stölzle:

“The most important aspects of an awesome poster are good visualizations (4-7), enough space and empty space around the story.”

3) Present your (one!) message in a clear and logical way

  • focus on a central message
  • tell a story
  • make your hypothesis clear
  • let the story flow from left to right and from top to bottom

4) Have a unique feature to attract the audience

  • think of an eye catcher
  • be creative
  • bring a tablet if you would like to show animations

Insight from OSP winner Michael Stölzle:

“Think about a strategy that makes people stop at your poster!”

Insight from OSP winner Ingo Heidbüchel:

“When I won, I actually had a laptop with me where I showed a small animated clip of my modeling results. Physical objects (like measuring devices or aquifer/landscape models) are also cool.”

Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 09.38.51

Poster from Ingo Heidbüchel

5) Choose a catchy but conceptual title

  • keep it brief – not more than two lines
  • title should highlight core content
  • use keywords
  • do not use parentheses and acronyms!

6) Start preparing early

  • use appropriate software (e.g. Adobe Illustrator, PPT, LaTeX)
  • think of the target audience
  • practice presenting your poster
  • prepare different runs for different audience – an elevator pitch and a five minute speech
  • give a test run for colleagues to get feedback

Insight from OSP winner Skuyler Herzog:

“I think of the overall poster presentation primarily as a normal conversation, with the poster as a prop or reference rather than the focal point. Failure to develop the conversation (think elevator pitch) can turn the poster into a crutch instead of an asset.”

7) Get rid of unnecessary details

  • include only the things you want to explain
  • delete anything that is not important

Insight from OSP winner Skuyler Herzog:

“I also reflect on the poster afterward: were there any figures or results that I never pointed to? Cut them out. Did I repeatedly wish I had included a different diagram? Add it in. No presentation is perfect the first time, so be sure to reflect and iterate.”

Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 09.40.46.png

Poster from Skuyler Herzog

8) Check everything before printing

  • proofread and check spelling
  • print A3 test version

9) Presenting at the conference

  • start with general remarks about your work, then gradually get more detailed once you see your audience demands it
  • ask colleagues to show up at your poster – having some audience leads to more audience
  • if new audience arrives while you are still explaining to others, try to finish your speech first
  • try to open up the circle of people standing around your poster to include as many as possible

Insight from OSP winner Michael Stölzle:

“To win an OSPA you have to give a good!!! 2-minute-presentation for the judges!!!

Insight from OSP winner Ingo Heidbüchel:

“[…] Smiling and eye contact is always recommendable and also leaving room for questions from the audience.”

10) Use your poster to help yourself

  • appreciate constructive feedback
  • make a note of challenging questions from your audience which usually show weak points of your presentation or research
  • lively discussions can help you to get new ideas, build new collaboration and even solve problems (probably saving you from weeks of unnecessary work)

Insight from OSP winner Skuyler Herzog:

“It’s important to frame your presentation around the audience and your own goals. You might highlight different results in a primarily academic vs. industry conference. […] I gave my poster at a time when I was struggling to upscale lab techniques to a field site, so I included a prominent section on my poster specifically seeking help in this area. This was a bit unusual, but I got a lot of great advice for my research.”

Last tip: have a good look at the posters that have won the outstanding poster award of EGU and AGU.

Citation: Popp, A. (2017), 10 guidelines for an awesome poster, Streams of Thought (Young Hydrologic Society), Published March 2017, Updated April 2017.

About the author:  Andrea Popp is a PhD candidate at ETH Zürich and Eawag in Switzerland.

Acknowledgements Thanks to Skuyler Herzog, Ingo Heidbüchel and Michael Stölzle for sharing their insights. Further thanks go to Mikhail Smilovic and Jendrik Seipp for helpful comments. Wouter Berghuijs and Tim van Emmerik are thanked for suggesting to write this blog post and fruitful discussions.

References:

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