I just gave a lecture in Baltimore on how to design posters for scientific conferences, and wanted to share a few opinions on how sessions might be improved by the organizers of meetings. If you know the session chair in your society, please forward this post to them.
1. Provide guidance on poster aesthetics, audience, word count
Conferences are announced a year in advance on web pages, and those pages should give presenters more than just the desired dimensions of the posters and the due date. If you say, “Try to keep your word count under 800, and design for scientists outside your field,” you might find that poster sessions are better attended and enjoyed. And about that word count suggestion — just choose something, since “keep your word count low” means “under 8,000 words” to the average poster designer. If you can provide the above guidance, make sure it is added to a stable page on your society’s main web site, not just on the temporary page associated with the upcoming meeting.
2. Provide links to poster guidelines
If your society can’t be bothered to come up with guidelines, find a web site or online PDF that pitches advice appropriate for the kind of session you are organizing. Again, house this on a permanent page. I’ve linked to a variety of online sources and PDFs here if you’d like to browse.
3. Don’t provide templates
It’s tempting to post a PowerPoint template online, but that encourages attendees to use PowerPoint, which was not designed for posters. Providing a template also encourages all the posters to look the same … and that would make for a mind-numbing session. Also keep in mind that if you post a template with lapses in aesthetics, color choice, font size … everyone at the meeting will adhere to those lapses. I find glaring mistakes in almost all conference templates I have looked at, and I’ve looked at a lot. If you must post a template, for the love of God hire a graphic designer for a few hours.
4. Don’t require logos or banners
Branding attendees’ posters doesn’t really add to the quality of the poster session. All it does is remind people that they are attending the meeting, which is silly unless people drink heavily and black out. Mandating logos at the top of all the posters also squishes titles to be smaller than they should be, and adds visual distractions that compete with good design. If you really want to brand things, give attendees t-shirts and temporary tattoos.
5. Don’t require abstract on posters
A poster is too short to need an abstract like a manuscript does. But it’s totally great to include a poster abstract in the conference booklet, to help people figure out which posters they’d like to visit.
6. Show examples of good posters
Scientists learn how to design posters from other scientists. Yes, that’s really alarming. So find a few good posters on the internet and link to them as examples. Ideally, get permission from the poster owners to display large versions of the poster directly on your conference page (links are fine, but most people won’t click on them). Give some commentary about each poster so that attendees know what is good.
Placing awful posters on your society’s web page can be a great way to communicate what not to do. You could also hang an awful poster at the poster session to generate conversation on design issues (“OMG that’s hideous!”). It could be fun, and might help improve the quality of posters at future meetings.
8. Post judging criteria, evaluation form online prior to meeting
If posters will be judged for prizes, tell attendees what criteria will be used. Something more specific than “for best poster.” Post the forms that the judges will be using. And, please, don’t give top award to the poster with smallest font and most graphs: that just encourages people at future conferences to use even smaller fonts, and include even more graphs.
9. Sponsor a fun “people’s choice” award
Even if you have official judging, set up a voting box in the poster session room for attendees to nominate posters for a “most enjoyable/creative/novel” (or whatever) award. There’s always one at a conference, and it would be nice to give them credit somehow, even if the judges didn’t give them any love.
10. Provide 4×6” poster stickers to presenters
If you can get all presenters to upload PDFs of their posters prior to the meeting, you can print them all onto small stickers that are given to the attendees when they arrive. Then people can slap those on their shirts and advertise their posters prior to the poster sessions. Doing this would energize the entire meeting, not just the poster session. E.g., people will proudly point to their mini-posters and explain their research. The cheap alternative is to give attendees blank stickers and have them draw a mini poster: just the title, and maybe a representative drawing or graph. Equally fun (I’ve actually done this at a poster workshop I gave).