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How to design a winning poster

Postdoc Mark Hutchison with his winning poster. (Photo Sylviane Blum)

With his colourful work Mark Hutchison, postdoc at the University of Bern, won the prize of the best poster presented at the PlanetS General Assembly 2018. Here, he tells us what it takes to make a good poster.

By Mark Hutchison

The first international conference I attended was a Division of Plasma Physics meeting in the US with over 2000 participants. Walking through the sea of posters, trying to find my allocated slot, I felt like my poster had just rolled out of a factory cake mould – along with the hundreds of other posters on display. While I am sure hundreds looked at my poster, read my title, and perhaps even read some of the fine print, I suspect it slipped quietly from their memory by the time the reached the end of the row.

I learned two important lessons from that meeting. First, those that made attractive looking posters always had more visitors. More importantly, even though I could not always recall the details of their study, I could recall their faces when I passed them in the crowd or saw them later at other conferences. Secondly, posters are hard to read. They are not journal articles and they should not be made to read like one. There are distractions everywhere: (i) it is noisy, crowded, and you are usually holding a drink and/or finger food; (ii) when you find a poster that looks interesting, you find yourself doing acrobatics to find a clear line of sight that lasts longer than a few seconds (perks of being short); and (iii) once you manage to worm your way to the front where you can finish reading the introduction, the person next to you starts asking the author about the conclusions and you immediately stop reading to listen.

Since then, I have changed the way that I do posters. It is an evolutionary journey that I am still taking. I am by no means an artist and I have no formal training in graphic design. Everything I have learned, I have learned following online tutorials, scouring help pages, or mucking about on my own. While, at least in my experience, there is no one-stop shop that will magically change you into a master poster maker, I have put together 10 tips that I thought would provide a jumpstart to those wanting to jazz up their next poster:
1. Give yourself time.
It takes time for good ideas to mature and even longer to figure out how to draw them on paper. I usually start brainstorming for poster concepts at least one month before the conference. After I have settled on a design, I usually dedicate 3–4 days to convert that design into something tangible. Finally, I make sure to leave myself about a week before the poster needs to be printed so that I can continue to tweak the poster as needed.
2. Look at the work of others.
This is especially important for those of us who do not consider themselves artistic. In my initial planning stages, I spend an hour or two just trolling the web for pictures that I find visually appealing (hint: I tend to find the most inspiration from non-science posters). The content is completely irrelevant. What I look for in these images is a colour scheme (because the intricacies of choosing my own colour scheme elude me) and a concept for presentation/organisation (because I have a hard time looking at a blank page). A good colour scheme consists of 5 colours or less, while a good concept, generally, is composed of simple shapes and a flat background. However, exceptions abound so use your good judgement.
3. Use vector graphics software.
At the risk of offending some readers – LaTeX makes beautiful papers, but ugly posters. Even Powerpoint and Keynote are a significant improvement because they allow you to manipulate objects and rearrange your space on the fly. They also carry the benefit that they are easy to use. However, the possibilities really start opening up when you start using vector graphics software, such as Adobe Illustrator or InDesign (I use a combination of Illustrator and Photoshop). Vector graphics are great because they are scalable to any resolution and they are easily manipulated. Some of my favourite tools are: pen, twirl, warp, image trace, stamp, magic eraser, paint bucket, symbol sprayer, patterns, masking/cutout images with arbitrary shapes, line text, area text, 3D image rendering, and mapping textures/images onto surfaces. Furthermore, you can lock/hide images while you work on others.
4. Ask for critical feedback.
Note, that this is different to asking someone, “how does it look?” People will only truly open up if they know that you are looking for critical feedback and that you will not be offended. When possible, try to find someone with a background in design because they will be able to give you practical advice on what you can do to improve your design. However, good feedback can come from anyone. In today’s society, we are bombarded with images of every kind and people do not need to know the theory behind the image to discern what is and is not appealing to the eye.
5. Reduce the amount of text.
Posters are not a substitute for a journal article. Think of them more as an advertisement for a recent/upcoming publication. Apart from a catchy title, the introduction and conclusions are the most important text on your poster (methods are secondary – this is why we publish journal articles). Short, simple sentences are best. Pictures speak louder than words on a poster. Sometimes cartoon sketches are more effective than graphs. If you do use graphs, make sure that the axes labels/numbers are legible and they coincide with your chosen colour scheme.
6. Empty space is your friend.
Use empty space to separate text/ideas rather than lines or shapes. Even decorative lines and shapes take time for the mind to process. Voids help readers to process information faster because their eyes are less likely to be distracted by adjacent material. Simply organising a hoarder’s apartment into neat stacks with rows and columns does not mean that visitors will feel less claustrophobic when they visit.
7. Use appropriate fonts.
Sans serif fonts are better for posters because the text is more legible from far and/or on complex backgrounds. Using more than two fonts on a poster is confusing. If you do use different fonts, use them to emphasis or highlight important items.
8. Use colours responsibly.
The eye naturally jumps to bright objects first and then to colours with similar hues. Use colours to naturally guide the reader through the poster rather than lines and arrows. Make sure that the text colour has a high contrast with background colours.
9. Know your printer.
Printing can alter the way colours appear on your poster. Some programs allow you choose whether your document uses RGB or CMYK colours. The general rule of thumb is that RGB should be for digital screens and CYMK for printed material. Spending a little more for better quality paper/printer (or plastic as the case may be) can really enhance how your poster looks. Never use a glossy finish or laminate your poster as this can make it difficult to read.
10. Be creative and have fun.
Posters need to be scientific, but that does not mean they need to be boring. Even if you do not adhere to all of the rules above, people appreciate and remember posters that are fun and creative. Adding subtle nuances and/or hidden pictures to your poster can make your poster stand out in someone’s memory.
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