Some people have strong memories of putting up posters on the wall in their primary school. A few think that in asking you to put up a poster of your own making we are treating you as primary school children. This is not so. Posters are an international method of communication. The primary schools have got it right in recognising that posters can be colourful, interesting, memorable and fun to make. Scientific posters are informative, too. Put up at meetings they let you advertise your interests to a substantial number of people. They also let you communicate in more detail to a smaller number of particularly interested people who are prepared to spend time absorbing the finer points of your message. This more detailed exchange takes place in a small group atmosphere where feedback to you, the poster maker, can flow freely. Scientific work these days is usually carried out in teams. One reason for the popularity of posters is that they allow several members of the team to contribute explicitly to the presentation, thereby reinforcing the team aspect of the work. These days, the majority of presentations at scientific meetings are poster presentations.
On making good posters
There is no set of rules you can apply that will automatically produce a good poster. Making a good poster is a creative experience. Our guidelines are based on many years of looking at posters at trade stands and reading scientific posters displayed at a wide variety of meetings, and many years spent making such posters. With some attention to the guidance we give, you should be able to do better than the average conference presentation.
Begin at the end. What is the purpose of the poster? The advanced technical conference poster aims at presenting information on a quite specific topic and coming to some conclusions. A practising scientist is likely to present work being planned, work in progress, or work just finished. Undergraduate posters are more likely to be a summary of a particular specialist area, or perhaps a biographical poster. Hence:First general guideline: decide on your conclusion and build the poster around that.
Scientific posters must have a technical content of some substance. However, you should take another leaf out of the advertisers’ book and use short, direct sentences to tell your story. Don’t make up the text as if you were delivering a learned talk on the radio. Remember to take account of the audience you’re addressing, namely people who don’t know the special jargon of the subject but can be assumed to have a general scientific education. You are the expert of the moment, not the audience. Most importantly, do tell a story. Writing a poster should be like writing a very short story, with introduction, content and, hopefully, a punchy conclusion. The poster should be self-sufficient. Anyone wanting further information can talk with you at the poster session, take a hand-out you might have (at a conference, not at your poster session, please) or follow up a reference you may give on the poster directing them to an article or, perhaps, a web page. Hence:
Second general guideline: make clarity of message top priority.
Advertisers are in the business of trying to create a single, lasting message by means of a poster. You’d really quite like to do that too. Your poster will not be very successful if the sight of the poster next door makes the on-looker completely forget about yours. The advertiser’s technique is to rely 95% on visual impact and keep the word count very short. Too many conference posters have poor visual impact. In a conference poster session there may be 200 posters competing for attention in the afternoon. If your display has little visual impact, it is likely that the participants will have forgotten about you and your work by the end of the afternoon, good and painstaking though it was. A few already in the field will have stopped to read the detail, but the rest won't. In technical meetings, where you may be trying to sell your ideas to potential sponsors or buyers, this is not what you want. Hence:
Third general guideline: make visual impact a high priority.
A ‘scientific’ poster tries to convey much more than a slogan. Nonetheless, participants at a poster session will be suffering from word overload. What are they going to read first? The title. Make sure it is bold and clear, and the authors’ names equally visible. It is common at conferences to include a photo of the authors to help identify whom it is standing beside the poster who should be asked for further information. This can be a moderate quality, scanned picture. In this day and age, specialist knowledge of the kind you are assembling on your poster is power, money and your ticket to continued employment. Your name will be the most important two or three words on the whole poster. Get used to associating your name with the provision of high quality, thoughtfully interpreted information. A poster is an advert that you have this expertise. Make sure your name is prominent. Hence:
Fourth general guideline: make the title and authors names stand out at the top of the poster
Guidance on words:
For posters that are being put together by a small team, arrange to get together with the other team members over a cup of beverage or otherwise and try to tease out what strengths you all bring to the team. Library research will be necessary. Partition out this research, if possible identifying an appropriate theme. Arrange to bring your results to a meeting at a particular time and place.
Firm up on the contents of the poster. Try to find out which members of the team are good with pictures, which with words, which with putting together a story and so on. Try to organise the team so that people do what they are best at.
Partition the job of preparing the ingredients. Give one person the overall charge of the final production (the production manager). Make sure others deliver their components in time. You can put the whole thing together in software as a single sheet (on say the large-format printer in the library). However, this is time-consuming, expensive and needs software and experience beyond anything we currently teach. It is not expected. The traditional assembly method is ‘cut-and-paste’, using real scissors and glue.
More on making it happen
Here are a few assembly hints (not rules):
Assessment - The CAS scale
The CAS marks are labels. The CAS scale is not a numerical score of the kind you get when you add up the number of multiple-choice questions that you might have got right out of 20. In the CAS scale, each broad category, like ‘first class’, has 3 labels, which you can think of as ‘lower’, ‘middle’ and ‘top’. Thus, 'first class' has labels 18, 19 and 20; 'lower second class' has labels 12, 13 and 14. When marking on CAS scale, which is ideal when there are judgements to be made against set criteria, first decide on the right broad category and then divide it more finely.
Our CAS interpretation for poster displays
First Class; Outstanding
CAS 18, 19, 20; Excellent presentation. Clear title and author list. For visual material: a striking overall appearance, coherence between different parts, excellent choice of images, graphics and text well integrated. For text: a fluent story, excellent choice of language, very good balance of technical terms and explanation, very clear explanation, where appropriate, with no obvious errors. Overall, signs of initiative and creative ability.
Upper Second Class; Very Good
CAS 15, 16, 17; Generally very good graphics; poster well made, with pleasing overall look. Clear title and author list. For text, an appropriate story, clearly told with no significant errors. Separate blocks of text clearly linked.
Lower Second; Competent
CAS 12, 13, 14; Basically sound with graphics good in parts though lacking coherence; some conflict in styles of separate parts. Workmanship moderate. For text, story with one or two of the following defects: disjointed or tending to be too long or too short, off the point or with a few inaccuracies, or not very well phrased.
Third Class; Borderline Pass
CAS 9, 10, 11; Minimum acceptable effort has gone into the poster. Worthwhile information presented but clearly with little effort being put into its presentation. Text showing two or three of the following defects: too long, too short, not well expressed, difficult to understand without input of more technical knowledge, technically inaccurate in places.
Fail ; Borderline Fail
CAS 6, 7, 8 ; Overall poor presentation giving appearance of hurried assembly, with little coherence in story, obvious omissions or inaccuracies of reasoning.
Fail; Comprehensive Fail
CAS 1, 2, 3, 4, 5; Individual levels not defined but posters with little more than a title and a few sheets of A4 showing copies of web pages will fall into this category.
CAS 0; Failed to appear or submit any work