For giggles, I contacted approximately 100 societies with annual meetings coming up, and asked them whether they offered word count suggestions for attendees presenting posters. The majority didn’t write back (no real surprise), but of those that did the most common response was, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Some went on to provide me with the word count limit for the abstracts submitted (to get your poster accepted). Only one response had the information I was looking for: “5 pages of 16pt text” as maximum. If you fill up 5 pages with the phrase “average word”, that gives you 1750 words. Personally, I think 500 – 1000 is a good range. If you’re curious what a wordy poster looks like, I’ve attached to this post an image of text-only version of one of my templates.
In hindsight, though, it was probably a silly question. What is more important and understandable to attendees preparing their posters is the minimum acceptable font size, because even in posters with low word count, readability can be awful if all the figure text (for example) is set in 12pt instead of the size of the rest of the body text. If only the poster prize committee would police these limits, though. Whenever I stumble onto a site showing prize-winning posters, committees often seem to be awarding people who have made their font smaller than everyone else, invariably the size is smaller than meeting guidelines. It’s really puzzling. It could be that people with high-quality content have a lot to say, and so they have to shrink font size to get it all in. However, I just think people are somehow wired or trained to attribute small print to “authoritative, creative” and large print to “amateurish, insecure.” Or do judges take longer to read the small text, and thus demonstrate the “disfluency” advantage that gives strange fonts an advantage in memory retention? If there is a typographer/psychologist out there with insight into this phenomenon, please fill me in.
I know it’s never going to happen, but in an ideal world judges would carry one of those fun little plastic shape templates while they review posters. Then they could position the 3/8″ circle (or whatever) over a standard letter (“s” perhaps) to evaluate the size. If the “s” fits without touching the edges, it’s too small and the poster cannot be entered into the prize pool. Something like this would be really useful, because kids these days have no idea what font size means, especially when the final output is large.
Just a website update for those who care about scientific posters: added two Powerpoint templates with portrait-style orientation. The one on the left is for people who love columns. But I like a big space for results so that you can show off the big finding, so I prefer the one on the right. I call that big space the “Results arena.” But the disadvantage of the one on the right is that your conclusions are moved down low, and taller viewers have to bend their necks a tad to read it. But if your results stand nicely on their own, it can work well. Both versions, like all my templates, nudge you to put logos at the bottom (ideally, delete them altogether … you don’t need logos). Find the downloadable PPT files in my Designing conference posters page.
Here are a few opinions (mine, at least) 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 him/her.
1. Provide guidance on poster aesthetics, audience, word count
Conferences are announced a year or two in advance on web pages, and those pages should give presenters more than just the due date. If you say, “Try to keep your word count under 800, use graphics, and design for people 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.
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, hire a graphic designer to make one for you.
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 a logo at the top of posters also squishes the title to be smaller, and adds a visual distraction that competes with graphic elements on the rest of the poster. If you really want to brand things, give attendees t-shirts and handbags.
5. Don’t require abstract on posters
A poster is an abstract. 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 their mentors and colleagues. 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 about it.
7. Show examples of bad posters
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. Ideally, post the forms that the judges will be using (shouldn’t be a secret!). And, please, don’t give top award to the poster with smallest font: that just encourages people at future conferences to use even smaller fonts.
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
When people arrive at the meeting, have colored pens and pencils on a table and ask them to sketch their research. Making these sketches can energize the entire meeting, not just the poster session. E.g., people will proudly point to their mini-posters and explain their research. If you can list the time and place of your talk/poster, that will increase chance people will come. I’ve done poster design workshops involving these sketches for over a decade (at Swarthmore College, Sigma Xi meetings, NYAS, EPA, DOE, etc.) … and would love see to it catch on at meetings. It’s fun! If you’re curious, it’s mentioned in this article.
11. Specify horizontal posters, not vertical posters
I get it: it’s much cheaper to pack portrait-style posters into a meeting room. But here’s the issue: portrait-style posters can be really hard to read if they are large and conference attendees have different heights. Either the top of the poster is too high for short people, or the bottom is too low for tall people (see example). For example, males and females have different average heights … that alone might make the poster-viewing experience very, very different. Horizontal posters are much less of a problem for people of different stature. Plus, a horizontal poster allows the presenter to situate herself/himself in front of the poster without occluding the whole poster. In contrast, standing to the side of a portrait poster means standing in front of neighbor’s poster.
But if you can’t resist specifying everyone make vertical posters, at least suggest that attendees situate the boring sections at the bottom, as shown by this example. (See Templates for portrait-style science posters for more information.)
12. Prohibit photography of posters
Sometimes posters have research in progress, and many people would prefer that the tentative results aren’t broadcast to the world in tweets with the hashtag, #candothisbetter? (or whatever). Certainly, if the presenter is present and grants permission for a photograph to be taken, that’s all great. But the default — no pics with camera or smartphones — should put presenters at ease when they are not present.
If you want even more tips, please see my “Designing conference posters” page. I’ve been updating it since 1997 so it’s a tad long, with apologies. Feel free to send the link to your attendees if you’d like.