Today I presented my first poster and I was eased into this particular challenge by virtue of it taking place a student-led conference in my department. I would definitely recommend taking advantage of any low-pressure opportunities your university offers. I’ll go over what happened and then we can take a look at conference poster design and what, in my opinion, makes a good one.
There were 6 of us presenting posters (a mix of first and second years) and it was completely optional. I decided to do a poster because I didn’t need to do one for my masters so I wanted to try designing and presenting one in a relatively casual environment.
In a poster presentation, you stand by your poster and answer questions or some people may ask you to talk them through it. I found this very enjoyable, which surprised me as I usually find conversation nerve-wracking, but it turns out that when it’s about research I find conversation a lot easier. I found the discussion really interesting: the questions can really make you stop and think. Although it did make me wish I had a list of all the papers I’d to direct people to! I have no idea if anyone actually does this but I might start and see how it goes. Some interesting discussion was raised about the adoption of Bayesian methods in psychology and I’ll be delving deeper into that in the next post. For now I’ll move on to talking about my poster.
In comparison to the other posters I felt mine was a little plain. Many sites stated that simplicity was best but somehow the more cluttered posters looked more like actual conferences posters (though this might just tell you about the state of the average conference poster). I am planning to stick to my guns at my next conference, unless my supervisor objects, but be aware that a simpler poster may appeal aesthetically but it can also stick out. Also I had opted to get the cheaper paper at the printer, thus saving £10, but the other glossy posters made me wish I had forked out. If you are presenting at a serious conference I would definitely opt for a nicer paper (no need to go crazy but a glossy finish can make it look a lot more professional). In terms of pricing I paid just under £20 for my A1 poster so it’s quite expensive.
Below is my poster, you can click it to get taken to a larger version:
Here are some things to keep in mind when designing a poster:
- Font size: an A0 poster should be readable if you print it out in A4. Keep in mind that actual size of the text depends on the font not just the point size.
- Font type: Serif fonts are easier to read in print and Sans Serif digitally. To keep it looking modern it is usually recommended that you pick Sans Serif for the headings and Serif for the smaller text.
- A picture speaks 1000 words: include plenty of images. If you’re lucky enough to have photographs of your work use those. If you’re largely theoretical, like me, then using diagrams is a great way to get some pictures on your poster. It’s a visual medium so don’t give people a text wall!
- Less is more: make sure you have a good amount of white space and cut what you don’t need. Lay out your images first then cut your text to fit the remaining space making slight adjustments if needed.
- Beware inbuilt colour schemes: particularly in PowerPoint the colour schemes are optimised for projection so they can look pretty garish when printed. Muted always looks better and more professional. I would recommend taking the time to create your own colour scheme to use repeatedly (I didn’t do that here but I wish I had).
- Make sure it flows: you want the eye to be directed in the correct order around your poster, unsurprisingly this is usually right and down (i.e. the direction we read in). The bottom-left is the area that draws the eye least but it can be hard to take advantage of this fact and keep the poster logical, I dumped my references here.
- Print it out at A4: here you can check the layout and, if you swing a colour print, the colour scheme in a more realistic format (i.e. on paper under electric lights, rather than a backlit screen).
A personal top tip for any kind of creative work (and I include academic writing in this) is that if you really, really love a paragraph, image, chapter, etc. but you have the niggling feeling it just doesn’t fit then you need to cut that immediately. Feel free to save it somewhere in case you change your mind (90% of the time you won’t, but it can help you feel better about cutting). It’s these small sections that can really ruin the flow of the piece. In fact the only reason we keep them in is self-indulgence because we love that bit as an individual piece of work, but if we could see the objective whole we would be throwing it out post-haste.
In terms of self-critique I believe I should have made this poster portrait as my title is so short there’s a lot of wasted space at the top. I would have been able to better space the text with a little more room. In particular, I don’t like that my references look really squashed in the corner, I would have preferred to make them the same size as the caption in the top-right (I personally don’t like to have so many different font sizes). I would have liked to include the university logo, as that will be necessary in general, but I didn’t have access to the official image file at the time. A desaturated background image may have added interest but in my line of work, very theoretical, those sorts of images are difficult to come across. All in all I am quite happy with it and attendees seemed to like it.
A lot of my “Golden Rules” came from reading the Better Posters blog. It has a mix of critiques and more general posts. I find it helpful to look at the poster being critiqued and trying and think about what I would change before I read the post. I also owe a lot to my best friend who is in the third year of his PhD and had tons of helpful poster tips for me.
What Software to Use?
I used Publisher to make this which provides grids and other layout tools. Many people use PowerPoint, I can only assume it’s because you can make a poster with it and people are generally more familiar with it than Publisher. My argument for Publisher is that firstly it is most certainly what Microsoft wants you to use to design work for print (and who am I to argue?) and most universities in the UK will offer the Office suite for free to students so it’s a good option if you don’t want to fork out for more expensive software. Publisher also offers font pairings of Serif headers with Sans Serif text, which is useful and I believe it’s colour schemes are more print friendly.You can insert equations as an object (this is a little hard to find, you need to look under “insert –> object”, it’s in the “text” box of the “insert” tab) which was very handy. I also like the image placeholders as you can start to create your layoout even if your graphics aren’t perfect yet.
On a side note, my friend tried using LaTeX (the typesetting language used by most maths heavy PhD’s) for poster design and his advice is “don’t”. In my opinion, when it comes to posters you want to interact directly with the visual object where LaTeX puts a code barrier between you and your poster. I believe that if you had a pre-programmed layout and you just wanted to slot text and images into it then LateX could work well but otherwise something more intuitive seems appropriate.
I created the graphics in Inkscape (free) and I took care to match the colours across the images. Inkscape creates vector graphics which means they can be resized without losing quality. I make the images individually, export them as .png files for use in publisher then I copy the original drawings into one Inkscape file (you can just copy paste between Inkscape documents) for saving which saves on file space. The graph I made in R is based on a research paper I cite in the poster. The actual paper didn’t have a graph of this information so don’t be afraid to use published data to generate your own visual summary of the results.
I learned a lot from making this poster and I hope my next one will be even more successful. Come back next week for some musings on the discussions raised at the conference.