Conference posters are in theory really simple – stick a few words and pictures about your work on a bit of paper, print it out, stick it on a wall and be done with it, but I have seen a great many terrible posters that need not have been terrible. As with the rest of this series, many, if not all, of the points raised might seem obvious, but then if so, why are there often so many awful efforts out there? This should therefore at least serve as a reminder and with luck will also provide some advice and hints to at least a few people.
First off (and this is really obvious) check how big a poster you are allowed to bring. If the poster boards are only 1 m high at the meeting and you bring a 2m poster, well either it won’t be put up at all, or will be shunted off to the side, or be moved or whatever. At the least you won’t be popular and at the worst you may not be able to display it at all. Do try and use the maximum size allowed, even if you don’t have much to say, you can use a bigger font or bigger pictures which will help.
Make sure you include the title, names of the authors, any sponsors, institute logos etc. on the poster. Again, simple and obvious, but I have seen posters with no author’s name, or no contact details so I can’t get hold of them if they are not around.
I always include a background image just to make the whole thing look nice, either a photo of a specimen or some palaeoart (with permission). This helps fill up the background and provides a contrast to the blocks of text. Aesthetics are important to a degree as you want people to stop and read your poster and just a bunch of black text on a white background will be a big put off.
On that subject, you have to get a good layout. Try to organise the poster to show off the primary theme – if it’s a new specimen, stick a big photo of it in the middle, if it’s a new tree put that in the middle, or make it a different colour etc. If necessary, or if you have the space, build the poster directly on top of or around the central image. Make sure poster can be read easily, so don’t put boxes of text at random, or in a circle or something annoying unless the progression and structure is clear. Mare sure there is a clear progression as to how they are supposed to read it. You can still make it interesting and exciting with two simple columns of information if it’s done well.
Make sure the content is balanced. Obviously you need to include a basic abstract / introduction, a methods and results section and a discussion, plus any relevant figures or graphs and tables, (and many people also include references, though I don’t usually bother) but this should not be at the expense of readability. You will see posters with two and three thousand words of text, or with 20 graphs on them and as a result everything is really small. This makes it doubly unreadable as no-one wants to try and read 12 point text when standing up, and few people can spend the fifteen or twenty minutes it takes to read several thousand words or go over all those figures. You want to produce something that can be read in five minutes and the reader can go away with the basics under their belt – if they want more information they can always ask you at the time, or contact you to discuss it later. Make sure the abstract and conclusions are especially informative as many people will only read those, but if they want to go further you need more content for them. Similarly make sure the title is in a big font and is interesting to get people to stop and read it, or actively seek it out.
I try and keep to under a thousand words and just three figures (unless they are especially simply to understand – it’s OK to include half dozen if each is of a skull say that simply conveys the size of the horns present). That means I can make the font nice and big (30 point or so) and keep the images big. This makes it easy to read and easy to follow, though of course it means you can spend hours finely editing the text so that it fits the limited space and still gets the key points across. I think this is often the real reason for pretty much all bad posters – they are done at short notice and so an existing paper is edited down to a few select and disjointed paragraphs, or the text comes out in a stream of consciousness. With no time to edit, everything in bunged in and the font reduced or the images squashed to fit it on the poster, rather than actually cutting the text down or only using the essential graphs. Try and strike a general balance, even if you have really no figures at all then at least dig up something to include, just to break up the otherwise endless text.
Of course there are endless permutations for posters depending on size, theme, content and target audience, but these should provide some general guidelines and certainly not absolutes. As with all of these guides, it is perhaps simplest to go and look at some posters and try to work out what is good and what is bad and then produce your own. It also takes time to get good at this, so practice revising documents and writing reviews or a précis of your own work. One last tip, some people take along mini-versions of their poster printed on A4 and these are immensely useful and I always take them for posters I am interested in, it’s well worth it.