Having reviewed posters for awards several times at conferences and university competitions, here is my hit list of where many posters win and fail in content and design.
- The key message and findings are hard to find.
- The novel aspects of the research are not obvious.
- The poster is of highly specialist interest and thus uninteresting to most people.
- Too much text, sideways text, varieties of text, or not easily readable from 2 m away.
- Too much jargon or abbreviations, or all capitals words (harder to read than sentence style).
- Too much clutter*.
I’m sure you notice the trend. Most posters have too much in them. It a great skill to be able to communicate with the minimum words and graphics possible. It takes time and practice.
- Not enough space around text, images, figures and/or tables.
- Too many colours and/or bad colour combinations.
- Dark black backgrounds rarely work well, white is best.
To make it better
Posters are a unique form of communication and need their own style. Too many posters follow the format of a scientific paper, with Introduction on top and Conclusions at the bottom. However, it is hard to read the bottom of a poster. At a conference, readers will be walking around and several metres away. Often the only part of the poster they can see is the top.
So flip it. Give the key message and findings, with novelty clear or explicitly stated, at the top. Leave details at the bottom.
- The title should indicate the key message.
- Details of the key findings and conclusions should be on top of the poster (not the bottom).
- Identify one key figure, image, or diagram that conveys the main message of the poster. Give it most space and place it near top of poster.
- Know and respect your audience – will they all know all the terminology and methods you mention? If not you need to figure out how to explain your work to a wider audience.
- Do you need to explain the details of methods and previous studies? Can you say what you found and how so the methods and what they mean are obvious?
- Do you need sentences and paragraphs? Can you use simple short statements to communicate?
If the text is large enough then if you print your poster out on an A4 page it is easily readable. Such printouts can be popular handouts to help readers remember your work.
Several tips for how to present slides can also apply to how to present posters. Images are better than text, graphs better than tables.
Alternatively, pack as much as possible into the poster, overlaid on your favourite photograph of a field site or laboratory, and use as much highfalutin jargon and abbreviations as possible to show how knowledgeable you are. Then wait for the crowds to gather with their magnifying glasses and dictionaries.
Further reading and watching this video