Back in March my graduate advisee Sharon Wang won first prize in the 2013 Penn State Graduate Research Exhibition.
Last week, my postdoc Ming Zhao won third place in the 2013 Penn State Postdoc Research Exhibition with this poster:
He credited Sharon’s winning entry with inspiring his poster design.
I asked Ming to write up the secret to poster success. Here it is (with some edits by me):
There are a lot of good materials online teaching us how to do this. I strongly recommend the following two online tutorials:
For those who do not have time to go through them, below is a short summary. It’s far from perfect, but is perhaps a good start.
- First things first, know your audience. This determines how much technical details or basic introduction your should include in your poster. A poster for general audience from many different disciplines will need a good amount of background information and should avoid the use of jargons, whereas a poster for a specialized meeting (like the ExoClimes, or Kepler Science meetings, for instance) needs very minimal amount of general introduction, and can include commonly used jargons.
- A poster is a graphical representation of your abstract. People usually only spend 3-5 minutes on a poster, unless they are particularly interested (then they will likely talk to you for more details). So the goal of a poster is to make it easy to scan over quickly and leave one or two take-away points for readers to remember, or to open up a dialogue for those who are interested. Your poster is a visual aid for your oral pitch.
- Keep it simple and clear. Include only what is absolutely necessary. Use bulleted lists whenever possible. Use fewer words (<250-300) rather than a lot of them. Less is definitely better!
- A poster usually consists of the following parts:
- A short title that clearly describe the main point/topic of the poster (Do not use all UPPER CASE type for titles).
- List of authors and affiliations.
- Introduction (What is it about? Why is it important? What are the objectives?).
- Observations/Methodology/Data Analysis (How do you do it?).
- Results (What do you find?)
- Conclusion/Summary/Future prospects
- An abstract is not necessary. I used to include abstracts to my posters. Usually, it is just a copy of the abstract I submitted to the conference. However, I now realize that since a poster is supposed to be an illustrated abstract, with the goal of making it easy to scan over quickly, it is kind of redundant to include a real abstract. It certainly has lots of text to read, which is what you want to avoid for posters.
- Use short sentences as section titles if you can — this is a tip I learned recently from Dr. Julia Kregenow’s teaching class at Penn State. A short sentence can briefly summarize the major point of the section, thus is often more descriptive and effective than simple section headings like “Introduction”, “Results”, or “Method”. This tip is also very useful for powerpoint presentations.
- Make the flow of a poster simple, intuitive, and easy to follow. Use sufficient white space around text and sections to ensure a clear layout and flow.
- Use sans serif fonts (Helvetica, Arial, Calibri, etc. are acceptable — font snobs will have better, harder to find recommendations) Use fonts big enough for people to see easily at a distance of 1 – 1.5m (40-60in).
- These font sizes are a good start:
- Title: 85-90 pt
- Authors: 56pt
- Section headings: 56 – 60pt
- Body text: 28 – 32pt
- Captions: 24 – 28pt
- Headings and other text having the same level of importance should be the same font size.
- Use bold face or italics or combinations to emphasize words and phrases.
- Used left-aligned, ragged-right text. Using fully justified text will create large gaps between some words and make it difficult to read, especially for captions or text in a narrow text box.
- Use colors to engage readers. But no more than 3-4 colors. Too many colors make it look chaotic and distractive, but having no color makes it boring and not attractive . Also remember that a lot of astronomers are red/green color blind. So choose colors carefully so that they actually help the poster presentation.
- Choose good contrast between background and text. Avoid using bright background colors and low contrast text, like blue on red, dark on blue, dark on red, etc. A general rule is to use dark type on light color background and keep the contrast high.
- Stay away from backgrounds that are too busy or too colorful, since it makes text hard to read. Often times a solid tone, or a very simple gradient is a better option. A white background seems simple but works very well too.
- A picture is worth a thousand words. Graphs and figures are a great way to convey information effectively and attractively. Make simple figures. Label them well. And use big clear fonts. Don’t make readers stand on their head to read your data.
- Use high resolution figures. PDF and EPS figures usually come out great on posters. Again, consider the color blind when possible.
- Finally, choose a good software for poster making. Adobe Illustrator is a great tool to make fancy posters. It manipulates PDF or EPS figures easily. But it may not be available everywhere and the learning curve could be a bit steep. Powerpoint is a good and widely available tool, and it is very easy to use.