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The Art of the Scientific Poster

A guide to designing conference posters (originally for staff and students of the School of GeoSciences, The University of Edinburgh)

Iain Woodhouse

on 13 May 2012

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Transcript of The Art of the Scientific Poster

Open your eyes to effective poster design
The title is placed some distance from the top. This is because the human eye will typically look at the area of a page 1/3 from the top, in the centre. Placing the title here means that the viewer is most likely to read it first. They are then most likely to look towards the top and work their way down the poster.
This works less well in a landscape format, but the basic principle is the same, so why put a title at the top?
Iain Woodhouse, School of GeoSciences, The University of Edinburgh
"Edinburgh" is the most important branding on your poster. We tend to assume it is the logo, but the logo is not well-recognised, unlike the name of the city.
The purpose of a poster is to effectively communicate your work to a particular audience. There are four key elements in creating an effective poster. 1) Attract interest; 2) Help your audience navigate the material; 3) Give them content worth reading; 4) Make it easy to comprehend.
Here I describe how this can be done using principles of graphic design and information graphics.
Note: This is a Prezi presentation. It is not a poster, even though the layout looks like a poster. Many of these small notes would clearly be too small for a poster and the layout may be different.
And remember: I'm taking you through the headlines first. Now we look at the block text.
This is a still from Luid Bunuel's 1929 film Un Chien Andalou. It is from Wikipedia. It is not copyright free, but I use it here under "fair use": it is a screenshot from the movie, is used for educational purposes and its use is not believed to detract from the movie.
You can buy it here: http://www.amazon.com/Chien-Andalou-Luis-Buñuel/dp/B0006IUE9I
Use bold statements or appealing images to attract interest to your poster
Text hierarchies and a consistent pattern aid navigation
Convey a clear message, simply stated, with conclusions up front
Legible text and simple statements ease comprehension
Blank spaces are not a problem. Use space to highlight and shape the main content. Used effectively, blank spaces can help the audience navigate the page.
A striking image, or a title that makes a challenging statement or question, can draw an audience in. An image of a human face is the most effective way to make someone look at your poster - humans are drawn to look at faces.

You have about 11 seconds to convince your audience to invest time in your poster. Ideally your poster will encourage them to make that investment, but even if they don't, it makes sense to make sure they leave with your key conclusions. That is why your title, or image, or the abstract at the top, should convey the key message that you wish your audience to take away.
The term "hierarchy" refers to the layers of information and the relative emphasis you place on them. Title-subtitle-text is one example of a simple text hierarchy. You can use the size, weight or tone of a font to let the audience know which is the most important (or least important) text.

Navigation is determined by the layout. Aim to achieve a layout that follows the natural movement of human attention. Keep it simple.
Reward your audience. The audience should leave your poster feeling it was a worthwhile investment of their time.

Given the fleeting nature of a poster, your audience will only remember two or three things about it. If you leave it to your audience to have to work out which things they are they won't thank you for it, and are not likely to extract the same two or three things that you would like them to remember.

It takes time and effort to compress your research into a succinct summary that conveys just one or two (but no more than three) key points. You need to invest the time to do this so that your audience doesn't have to do it for themselves.
Use an appropriate font (and keep the same one throughout)
Think carefully about how you justify your text.
Keep the number of text characters in a line between 30 and 70.
Consider the spacing between the lines.
What did you look at first? Probably this image or the title. Why? Because humans are drawn to images of human faces. In particular we extract emotional information mostly by looking at the eyes and mouth. This is also a possible reason for the "rule of thirds" whereby humans, when looking at any canvas, will first focus on the areas 1/3 from the top (eyes) and a 1/3 from the bottom (mouth).

Before reading the detailed body text, this Prezi show will take you to the key headings first. It will then take you through the text in detail, with additional notes. If you print this poster, you will have a handy reminder of the key topics you must address in creating a new poster.
Audience. Think carefully about the context in which your poster will be viewed. Will it be at a workshop in a small room with an audience composed of a small number of experts? Or is it a large international conference, where your poster has to compete for attention with a thousand other posters?

If it's the former, you can be more technical and provide details. For the latter you need the poster to be more attention-seeking and it must convey a clear message that a viewer will quickly comprehend.

A poster that will be read without you there will require special attention to its comprehension.
Layout: Some stories will be linear, with a beginning, middle and end.
Some stories will be comparative, perhaps two linear stories in parallel.
Other stories will be non-linear, like a map. These do not need to be read in a particular sequence.
Elements: It is more pleasing on the eye if poster elements (figures, blocks of text, images) have a sense of rhythm. Keep them within a narrow range of styles (size, shape and colour) and maintain similar spaces between them. Align edges or centres.
Think carefully about the way you display data. Decide on a straightforward story to tell and present the evidence concisely.
If you would like feedback on your own poster design (and give feedback to others), please join us at http://www.facebook.com/groups/critmyposter/
My blog is at
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