The week of the Absent Poster

Posters can be a really useful way of communicating your science to peers and the wider community. They can help you promote a recent publication or get feedback on a new project. They also force you to put some structure to your research, which can be really benificial for finding gaps or shaping ideas.

Although I know all of this, I have to confess that I am very fickle when it comes to poster sessions at conferences. I’m not proud of it, but it’s true. If a poster font is too small, or if there are too many colours, I’m out. If the title is too long, I’m out. Actually, if I can’t understand a poster after looking at it for about 10 seconds, then I generally just move on towards the poster session snack table, even if the snacks are only Arrowroot biscuits.

Walking on by is even easier to do if the author of the poster is not there to catch your eye, or look a bit lonely, guilting you in to stopping and asking about the research. So what do you do if you have to make a poster that you will not present yourself? How do you make sure your research is understood, and ensure that feckless fireflies like me don’t dismiss you based on font choice?

As a crash landing welcome back to the working world, I have spent this week preparing a poster for the upcoming European Meteorological Society conference in Bulgaria. Yes, that’s right, my fledgling results and their associated graphs will be winging their way to Sofia, for a week of schmoozing and science. I, however, will not be joining them, and my colleagues will chaperone instead.

To help me design this rouge poster, I turned to my first port of call for most Technical Science Communication Questions, Eloquent Science. Professor David Schultz from the University of Manchester has written a 412-page bible on communicating for atmospheric scientists, with lots of examples, practical tips and quotes from others in the field.

He covers everything from how to edit articles written by non-native English speakers to the best font type to use for presentations. Although the language in the book can be a bit scientific at times, this is a perfect gateway tool for atmospheric researchers to move into the world of quality scientific communication.

Eloquent Science has a whole chapter dedicated to poster presentations, and Schultz describes two types of poster: the ‘self-explanatory’ poster and the ‘interactive’ (or ‘walk me through it’) poster. As I will not be there to do any walking, I focussed mainly on the first option as I frantically put together 10,000 square cms of information. Here’s what I did:

  1. Used a san serif font.  If you are printing text, it is normally better to use serif fonts, like Times New Roman, that have the little lines on the bottom and top of letters. BUT, if you’re printing large text, Schultz recommends san serif fonts like Arial. I went with Liberation Sans.
  2. Made the text BIG. Like, real big. The heading is 62-point, the section headers are 56-point and the body text is 38-point. I also tried to draw my plots with large font sizes. This is not always easy, particularly with complex maps and things. To be honest, it could all have been a bit bigger.
  3. Defined the research question early, and used the rest of the poster to give short answers. The example in Eloquent Science did exactly this. At the top of the poster, they asked a real question, and then used the headings of the section below to answer that question. This makes it easy for people to follow the story of your research.
  4. Numbered the answers so readers knew the order in which to read the poster. Numbers are neater than arrows, and easier to follow than just printing your manuscript and sticking it together on the poster board (I’ve seen it done).
  5. Included my details clearly at the top. My email address and Twitter handle. Twitter is becoming a bigger part of scientific conferences every year, and hopefully people will ask me questions and I can answer quickly (thank you Internet and a conference in the same hemisphere!)
  6. Prepared some handouts those who were really interested. Normally I like to include additional references in my handouts as well, but because this work is in very early stages, I did not have any useful references to add.

Other things I did:

  1. Used a publishing program, rather than Powerpoint. I cannot tell you how much I love Adobe InDesign, and how much I enjoyed using it to prepare my thesis. (If that is something that you are thinking about, I can recommend these online tutorials). As I don’t have the Adobe Creative Suite on my work computer, I am now learning the open source alternative Scribus, which is proving to be pretty good so far. Not perfect, but you can easily make and move text boxes, create and edit font styles, and add pictures without an Office poltergeist rearranging things.
  2. Used Colour Brewer to select the colours that I used in my figures and background. This handy tool helps you find pretty colour scales and combinations that are colour-blind friendly. There’s even an R library for it!
  3. Provided some additional notes for my co-author who is presenting the poster on my behalf. These are just little tips that might be helpful for answering questions, that my colleague might not be aware of or may have forgotten because he does not work on the project every day.

So here is the finished product!

A JPEG of my EMS poster. The printed version is of much high resolution, I promise!

Does it make sense to you?

What would you change?

Please, let me know in the comments below. And if you are accompanying your research to EMS this week, head to Sofia 1, board P70 and check out the live version…

5 thoughts on “The week of the Absent Poster

  1. I am not an expert on poster-design, and my own posters are rather … bad, but nevertheless some thoughts:

    I think the poster is rather “uneasy”. The asymmetric borders confuse the reader a bit, the additional boxes draw the attention to the answers 1 and 2 and downgrade the Introduction and answer 3. This is also enhanced by the different background colors. The different font-colors (the question vs. everything else) also contribute.

    Let’s put it differently, I think this good poster could still be improved by
    1. removing the additional boxes (I guess that alone would give a smoother impression)
    2. remove the step in the visual presentation of the intro. Not quite sure how best to achieve this without making the Figure less readable.
    3. Put the question what you have learned visually at the top of the answers-section and not at the bottom of the intro, then, the different colors probably are even a positive thing and not slightly distracting.

    If I recall correctly there is a recommendation to use a uniform background-color. And recommendations are made to be ignored when they don’t work In this case, I think it helps to separate the intro and the answers by different background colors. Using the greenish color again for 3 reduces the helpful effect. However, if one removes the different background, one needs some separation for the answers. I guess a good solution needs more time.

    I am not quite sure what the box and the arrow on the lower left are highlighting. My impression is, writing the information would be enough.

    Further, I am not sure whether you really need the Figure-captions or whether you can combine the Figures and the main-text without additional captions.

    On a side-note, the icons for error-types are great and I think a poster that uses these to tell a similar story could be great – a supersized info-graphics.


  2. Thanks Oliver, I really appreciate the feedback! I definitely hear what you are saying about the additional boxes around points 1 and 2, and the box-arrow highlight in Figure 3. I can see that mixing up the different green colours is also distracting (I think I just got excited by the Color Brewer scale!). You are so right that designing a really good poster takes time — I have already thought of several other ways I would present this information for next time, and some information that needs to be added or removed. Thanks again 🙂


  3. Looking good! Big text and big figures is the main thing I’ve always been told, and the very large subheadings mean that casual browsers can very quickly see the main points and decide if they’ll stay (I’m the same as you, super fussy when viewing posters).

    I agree about using a more uniform background colour, and am a fan of having a border around every box instead if just two of them. But then, that’s how I design my posters, and therefore I am obviously biased.


  4. Thank Acacia! Hehe, so good to know I’m not the only fussy one. A border around every box is a good idea, or maybe just the last one, highlighting the conclusions? The ‘author in attendance’ session for the poster is on today at EMS, so we’ll see if my colleague receives any more feedback. Hope all is going well!


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