Four years of research poster design

Science conferences are ubiquitous components in research. What are you working on? What are you interested in? What do you want to tell us? Maybe you are allowed to read slides at us for twelve minutes (plus three for questions). Maybe you’ll bring twenty seven eight-by-ten color glossy pictures with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one is. More likely, however, you’ll have a dozen square feet of real estate on a tack-board. That is enough room for thirteen or so eight-by-ten color glossy photos with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one is, but the more commonly employed medium is that of the research poster.

The form and function of presentations and posters have their respective merits and drawbacks, and you can find ruminations extolling both of these somewhere else. I am a no preference kind of guy. To wit, I have one of each to present at this year’s Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) in March. The LPSC is the main conference our entire research group attends every year. I have had at least one poster at each of the previous three LPSCs, plus two posters at other conferences. With three years under my belt, it should be easy to make a poster, right? Heck, you might say, after three years you should have a Masters of Poster Science! Well…no, it is not that simple.

substance without style is truth without beauty

Communicating science is hard, and only more difficult if conveyed boringly. Whenever it’s time to start making a new poster, my search history fills up with terms like “poster design”, “award science poster”, and “awesome research poster” (see here and here to start). The essence of a research story doesn’t change; My substance is the scientific method. But substance without style is truth without beauty. And with 700 other posters to choose from, would you stop to check this out?:

2009: Fear my wall of text! Size: 42″x34″; Title: Times New Roman 72pt; Body: Times New Roman 30pt

Nope. The color scheme is all right, but there is no hierarchy. What is important here? Graphs are all about the same size, there is no central point of focus, and look at all that text! This was made after 6 months of grad school, so I vowed to focus more on results the next time around, resulting in…

2010: Color explosion! Size: 44″x44″; Title: Times New Roman 72pt; Body: Times New Roman 28pt (Intro/Methods) to 40pt (Conc/Future Work)

I tried to make it a bit more obvious what was important. Methods were squished up top – still far to text-rich – and the analyses and observations were spread out between different basalt types in the middle. Unfortunately, this time I went too far in the opposite direction and didn’t include enough text in the “discussion” area. Without me by the poster it would be difficult to understand what the story was, and why those images were important. And good heavens, the arrows!

Later that year, I had a (terrestrial) side project to present at the Goldschmidt conference…

2010 Goldschmidt award winner! Size: 48″x36″; Title: Futura 72pt; Headers: Futura 60pt; Body: Adobe Caslon Pro 36pt

This poster won best student presentation in my poster section! I am still not entirely sure why it did so, but some observations and comparisons to the previous posters:

  • Different sections are denoted better with color
  • Instead of walls of text, the results section is only figure and table captions
  • This study was also essentially complete (except for one analysis issue later resolved)
  • Sans serif body font makes for cleaner text

I thought I had it all figured out, and vowed to improve my LPSC posters, but then disaster:

2011; Size: 44″x36″; Title: Futura 78pt; Headers: Futura 60pt; Body: Adobe Caslon Pro 36pt; Tables: Gill Sans MT 28pt

The week before the conference, my computer temporarily died and I had to resort to PowerPoint to make this poster (I prefer Adobe InDesign). The large poster dimensions and graphic-heavy design ended up bogging down PowerPoint. In addition, the PDF file size made for printing was so large that Kinko’s had issues during printing and had to resort to lowering the print resolution. I think the poster itself is well-organized, but still lacks something and as always is too text-heavy. It’s also just so bubbly and colorful; It does not seem terribly professional to me.

A few months later, we attended a lunar-specific conference (the Lunar Science Forum). The resulting poster is my current favorite:

2011; Size: 36″x48″; Title: Futura 100pt; Header: Futura 60pt; Body: Helvetica 30pt

I spent significantly more time thinking about the design for this one. The Methods section is the smallest ever, and the overall results (Petrogenesis section) are right below the Overview. Observations/measurements/calculations are divided among each basalt sample by color. Perhaps the section headers could be a bit more distinct, but overall it flows pretty well, in my opinion.

Hopefully this post will be useful as a real-world example of suggestions you might find elsewhere. So, are you a master poster designer, or, like me, do you still struggle to concisely convey your message? I like to see other poster designs, so let me know if you have any current favorites!

EDIT March 27, 2012:
Another LPSC, another poster (and a talk this time again as well). I fell back into old habits and this poster ended up feeling rushed.

2012 LPSC Poster
2012; Size: 4″x44″; Title: Gotham 100pt; Header: Gotham 60pt; Body: Adobe Caslon Pro 36pt (intro), 30pt (body), 24pt (refs)

The larger body text did make it one of my more easily-readable posters. And until just now, I did not realize the “Whole Rock” (a.k.a. introduction) section was 36pt while the rest was only 30pt font. Not sure why I did that…

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